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Trudeau Blames Opposition For Not Reading His Mind On Electoral Reform

The prime minister could have been honest with Canadians.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa on June 27, 2017.
Matthew Usherwood/Canadian Press
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa on June 27, 2017.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looked reporters in the eyes Tuesday morning and told them he had "no path" to keep his campaign promise on electoral reform because none of the other parties wanted his preferred option: a ranked ballot.

Trudeau, however, never campaigned on bringing in a ranked ballot. (That's a system also known as a preferential ballot or an alternative vote, in which voters rank their first, second and third choices, and votes from the last-place candidate get redistributed until someone emerges with 50 per cent of the vote. The Conservative Party of Canada recently used a modified version of a ranked ballot to elect its new leader.)

Trudeau had ample opportunity during the campaign to make his case — there were five electoral debates. But he never mentioned ranked or preferential ballots.

The Liberal platform simply stated that the 2015 election would be the last held under the current first-past-the-post system. The NDP says Trudeau made that pledge publicly more than 2,000 times.

In the platform, Trudeau didn't specify a preferred voting system. He promised only to "make every vote count" and pledged that an all-party committee would review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting and online voting, and deliver recommendations.

'I have been consistent and crystal clear'

On Tuesday, the prime minister blamed the opposition parties for not reading his mind.

"I have been consistent and crystal clear from the beginning of my political career. You can look at the speeches I made here in Ottawa at the convention in 2012, or the debates I had on stage, particularly in Halifax during the Liberal leadership, where I think proportional representation would be bad for our country," he told reporters.

"I think it would weaken one of the great things about Canada, which is that we come together in our diversity to work together on big things. And I think creating fragmentation among political parties, as opposed to having larger political parties that include Canada's diversity within them would weaken our country."

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May told me she knew Trudeau's preference for a ranked ballot, but she believed his pledge that he would keep an open mind.

"He personally was only willing to consider one system, and I wish they had told me that before we had 60 committee hearings between early July and mid-October, and travelled 31,000 kilometres and wrote an extremely thoughtful, detailed, well-researched report," said May, who was part of the all-party committee studying electoral reform.

If Trudeau had been open about his preference during the campaign, May said, she believes he could have enacted electoral change in favour of that system.

She noted, however, that none of the Liberals on the special committee favoured the idea. Their minority report makes no mention of a preference for ranked ballot. The committee's text, unanimously agreed upon, instead notes several experts testifying against a preferential system, arguing, for example, that it could actually increase distortions such that "a party could receive 40 per cent of all the first-choice votes and not win a single seat."

Green Leader Elizabeth May is seen at a news conference on Nov. 19, 2015 in Ottawa.
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Green Leader Elizabeth May is seen at a news conference on Nov. 19, 2015 in Ottawa.

The NDP was also aware of Trudeau's preference for a ranked ballot and voiced its concern that the prime minister would plough ahead with a ranked ballot — a system some observers believe would favour the Liberal party and other big-tent parties — regardless of what the all-party committee recommended, but the NDP was also told the government was keeping an open mind.

Last July, NDP MP David Christopherson and then democratic institutions minister Maryam Monsef shared this exchange during her first appearance at the Special Committee on Electoral Reform:

"Can you help me and provide some clarity on what you really are open to, because there is always this issue that it looks like what you want out of this is the alternative ranked ballot system. If that's so, say so, but commit to it. But, no, the government's saying 'we're wide open,'" Christopherson asked.

"We haven't arrived at a final conclusion," Monsef responded. "We haven't made up our mind about any given system. I've come to this with an open mind and would like to recognize what a unique opportunity this is.

"What the prime minister has tasked me with is the establishment of this committee so together we may go and hear from Canadians. This isn't about us. This isn't about our parties. This is Canadians' system. This is their electoral system. We know the harder way is to have an open mind on this particular matter, but the right thing to do is to hear from Canadians and make sure their values align with whatever reform we enact as a House. That's what I have been tasked to do along with the support of all of you, and I hope we all take full advantage of this opportunity."

Five months later, at a HuffPost Canada town hall Monsef acknowledged that the prime minister had a preference and that she too was coming to a preference for a new voting system, but she refused to say what that was.

"I was asked to enter this with an open mind, and I did," she said, adding she was "not going to pre-judge the outcome."

Monsef insisted the Liberal government was not engaging in the process in bad faith.

"No, we are not cooking anything up. No, we are not trying to improve things for ourselves — we are doing OK. We are doing this for Canadians. And they asked us to, so we are out there listening," she said.

But Trudeau's explanation Tuesday for his broken promise remained the opposition's unwillingness to compromise.

It had nothing to do with fact that the experts didn't recommend a preferential ballot or that Canadians weren't clamouring for it. It was the Conservatives' and the NDP's fault:

"I think there were ways to improve our electoral system in this country, and that's why I made the promise to change our electoral system.

I was hopeful that in discussion with all people, with all parties in the House, we were going to be able to move forward on a way to do that that would improve our democracy, that would improve the outcomes of future elections for everyone, mostly for Canadians.

Unfortunately, it became very clear that we had a preference to give people a ranked ballot so that they could actually reduce the aspects of strategic voting and put their second choice, third choice, down on the ballot and therefore have every MP be actually the choice of 50 per cent of their riding. We thought that was a right concrete way forward.

Nobody else agreed.

The NDP were anchored in proportional representation as being the only way forward.... The Conservatives wanted the status quo no matter what. And the only way to break that logjam would have been to do a national referendum on electoral reform, which I definitely don't think was in the best interest of Canadians.

So it was a very difficult decision, to make the determination that, even given my own hopes that we would be able to move forward on reforming the electoral system, there was no path to do that. There was no openness to compromise in the other parties, and I wasn't going to use my majority to bring in a system just to tick off a box on an election platform."

Except, there was a path. Trudeau could have told the truth.

The prime minister could have been honest with MPs and with Canadians and said during the campaign that he wanted a preferential ballot. He could have saved taxpayers millions of dollars — in committee travel costs, ministers' travel costs and for a $2-million "" survey — for public consultations that he didn't intend to pay attention to.

Instead, he chose to make a political ploy of letting Canadians — many of them NDP and Green party voters — believe he was open to a proportional voting system that would give their parties a stronger voice in the House of Commons.

The promise was clear. It did not say there is only one system we will consider after the election.Elizabeth May

"The promise was clear," May said. "It did not say there is only one system we will consider after the election," May said.

"Ranked ballot does not make every vote count," she contended. "Quite the contrary, it distorts it even more.

"I don't want to use the words cynical because it could be naive, it could have been ill-considered, it could have been thoughtless, it could have been hasty, it could have been many things other than cynical, but the reality is, it did not tell Canadians the truth about what the prime minister was willing to bring in."

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