The Liberal Party government of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has abandoned its campaign pledge to reform the electoral system.
This is both a surprise and no surprise at all. On the one hand, it looked like a firm commitment: “We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” On the other hand, since when do parties that can win parliamentary majorities on less than half the votes opt for systems that would make it harder for them to do so in the future?
In parliamentary questions the day the commitment was dropped, Trudeau again indicated his support for a “preferential ballot”. While that could mean STV, a form of proportional representation, it has been clear for a while that he means the Alternative Vote when he uses this expression. The third largest party, the center-left NDP, has no incentive to support this option, and prefers Mixed-Member Proportional (see p. 56 of their platform [PDF]). The Conservatives want a referendum on any proposal, presumably because they are confident the status quo would prevail. These conflicting positions led Trudeau to declare there is “no consensus” on how to move forward.
Were the government actually committed to moving forward, of course, it could have forged a consensus. The parliamentary committee that studied the matter produced a report that could provide the basis for crafting some form of proportional proposal, even with a referendum on it, were the government willing to go that way. It is true it did not propose a specific new model–that was not its mandate!
In remarks I made at a workshop at UBC last summer, I said that from the standpoint of my work on where electoral reform processes emerge, Canada was a surprise. The usual preconditions were not present, at least recently, at the federal level: there have been no plurality reversals and no opposition wipeouts. (Manufactured–or “false” majorities and occasional minority governments are not preconditions, according to my research. The former is expected under FPTP and the latter tends to be short-term and only partially disrupts the normal pattern of adversarial inter-party politics that is the hallmark of the Westminster model.)
In that sense, then, my surprise that Canada had an official process that might have led to a proposal for a new system is vindicated. It “should not” have gotten this far, and it won’t go any farther–at least if the Liberals have their way.
On the other hand, once a reform process is underway–and appointing a parliamentary committee to study electoral system options means it was underway if anything does–a government can lose control of it. That was the case in New Zealand, where a Royal Commission recommendation (for, it is worth making clear, a specific system model) eventually was put to a referendum despite the rather obvious reluctance of each major party in turn.
When the Canadian Liberals were forced by political pressure to relinquish their majority on the parliamentary committee on electoral reform, that seemed like a good sign for reform. Suddenly they could not just have the committee either bury the idea or else slant it towards their preferred variant. This looked like a classic “act contingency”–not wanting electoral reform for the gains a new system would offer the party (which would be “outcome contingency”), but wanting the votes that could come from appearing to be generally committed to “better” governance. On the other hand, the removal of the Liberal majority on the committee also made it easier in the end to claim “no consensus” (as I suggested in November might be the case).
So is electoral reform dead in Canada? I will let others who are closer to the situation tell us. However, I would say, not necessarily. The testimony and committee report are there. The issue has been studied now many times at both federal level and in several provinces. It will not just go away. Even this government could yet be forced to reconsider if the public pressure is there, or if the breaking of a promise looks likely to hurt them at the next election. However, the government presumably would not have taken this step had it not been reasonably confident that it could get away with it, politically.