Every successful political leader, when elected, comes to regret some of the promises he or she made while campaigning. Changes that seemed so compelling, so popular – and maybe so easy – while campaigning take on a different complexion once the election is over. Promised changes suddenly seem less compelling, not quite so popular – and even downright difficult to achieve.
Brian Mulroney discovered this with his promise to secure Quebec’s signature on the Constitution; political reality intruded and it didn’t happen. Jean Chrétien discovered it with his campaign promise to scrap the goods and services tax. Financial reality – the government could not afford to forgo the revenue – caused him to beat a hasty retreat.
Justin Trudeau, having made promises by the bushel in the 2015 election – probably has more causes for regret than most new prime ministers. One regret may well be his promise to scrap the country’s first-past-the-post electoral system in time for the next federal election in 2019.
Public opinion researchers tell us that most Canadians believe the FPTP system is unfair. It favours the big parties at the expense of the small. It enables a big party (Conservative in 2011, Liberal in 2015) to win more than half of the seats in the House of Commons with just 40 per cent (or a shade less) of the national popular vote. By and large, Canadians believe the distribution of seats should reflect the popular vote.
It’s hard to argue against that principle, and Trudeau embraced it in the election. In office, he moved to honour his promise. The government set up a special Commons committee on electoral reform and gave the opposition parties seven of the 12 seats on it. The committee has travelled the country, holding town hall meetings from Whitehorse to Waterloo and beyond.
According to the lobby group Fair Vote Canada, more than 150 experts have testified, with 89 supporting some system of proportional representation and five expressing support for an alternative voting system based on ranked ballots.
Electoral reform has become something of a cottage industry in academic circles. For most academics, the issue is not whether to reform but which brand of PR to implement. If the committee hearings were intended to bring clarity to the public on that point, they have not succeeded. Nor has the case for retaining the status quo – the FPTP sysem, which has served Canada for 150 years – been adequately presented and advocated.
According to an online poll of 1,622 Canadians by EKOS Research, 59 per cent of respondents believe Trudeau should keep his election promise and 47 per cent think electoral reform is too important to be delayed – yet 57 per cent say the reform is too important to be rushed; they want the process slowed down to allow for greater public consultation.
The public is confused. It still thinks electoral reform is important, but it doesn’t know what reform might mean, and it doesn’t want to be rushed into a decision.
Trudeau has some “wiggle room,” says EKOS president Frank Graves.”You’ve got a mandate. If you want to go ahead and do it, you can. But if you don’t want to, I don’t think people are going to be out in the streets … I could see it becoming an issue, but I don’t think it would be a ballot booth issue that would define the next election if they didn’t do it.”
André Blais, who holds the research chair in electoral studies at the University of Montreal, acknowledges the desire for a fairer system. But would Canadians, he asks, be happier under a more proportional system? Research shows that PR produces more minority or coalition governments than FPTP.
“People are less satisfied with the way democracy works when there is a coalition government, Blais says. “So more proportional systems make people happier because they are fairer but they also produce coalition governments, which tend to make people slightly less satisfied.”
Food for thought