OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is backtracking on his promise to change the electoral system, his opponents charged Wednesday.
After campaigning last year on assurances that “2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system,” Trudeau appears to backpedal in an interview with Quebec newspaper Le Devoir.
“If we are going to change the electoral system, people must be open to it,” Trudeau is quoted telling the newspaper in an interview to mark the one-year anniversary of his Liberal party’s election victory.
The prime minister said he plans to look at how consultations have unfolded, then gauge the public's reactions.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said Canadians would need be open to electoral reform before any changes would be made. (Photo: Getty)
“We are not going to prejudge what would be necessary [to change the electoral system]. But when we say, [we want] substantial support, that means something,” he said.
Trudeau goes on to suggest that now that the Conservatives are no longer in power, there is less need for electoral change.
“Under Mr. [Stephen] Harper, there were so many people who were upset with the government and his approach that people were saying ‘it takes electoral reform to no longer have a government we dislike,’” Trudeau is quoted saying. “But under the current system, they now have a government with which they are more satisfied. And the motivation to want to change the system is less compelling.”
“We are not going to prejudge what would be necessary."
— Prime Minister Trudeau
In Parliament, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair accused the prime minister of breaking his electoral pledge.
“It's quite obvious that Mr. Trudeau no longer believes that the 2015 election should be the last election under the unfair first-past-the-post system,” Mulcair said.
“Canadians do want change…Mr. Trudeau even got a little bit less percentage of vote than Mr. Harper did, so the unfair system is still there.
“The only thing that's changed is that Mr. Trudeau believes that he's such a good choice that the system doesn't have to be changed anymore,” Mulcair said.
Under the current first-past-the-post electoral system, the Liberals last year won 184 seats — 54 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons — with only 39.5 per cent of the votes.
Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose said Trudeau’s comments represent “a real shift” in his viewpoint.
“You know, much before any election was held, the prime minister was so clear that there needed to be electoral reform.” But now, Ambrose, whose party doesn’t support a change, said: “I think what Mr. Trudeau is doing is listening to Canadians.”
Ninety per cent of the people the Tories consulted across the country said they want a referendum before any reforms, she said. “Mr. Trudeau is on the wrong side of this issue, so maybe he’s backing down.”
“The only thing that's changed is that Mr. Trudeau believes that he's such a good choice that the system doesn't have to be changed anymore."
— NDP Leader Tom Mulcair
Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, a man who has been championing electoral reform for more than five decades, expressed his extreme disappointment with the prime minister.
“It’s a complete betrayal of what many Canadians believed was a genuine promise, to get rid of what he and his minister have described as an ‘antiquated’ electoral system,” Broadbent told The Huffington Post Canada.
“I deeply regret it, because he is the first leader in my lifetime of another party that has promised electoral reform.This is just very cynical betrayal that a lot of people thought would happen,” Broadbent added.
“It’s perhaps the most significant backing down of any promise he has made since he got elected — ironically on his own anniversary of his election.”
Liberals need 'broad support': Monsef
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef has said the Liberals are seeking the “broad support of Canadians” to change the electoral system but she hasn’t defined what that means.
The Liberal government hasn’t ruled out holding a referendum — something the Tories have repeatedly demanded — but Trudeau told students at the University of Ottawa in April that referendums are a good way of ensuring that nothing changes.
“Many of the people … who propose that absolutely we need a referendum, well, they know that the fact is that referendums are a pretty good way of not getting any electoral reform,” he said.
In recent weeks, the NDP has emerged from their consultations saying that Canadians want some form of proportional representation, that a party’s seat count in the Commons should reflect the percentage of votes obtained.
Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand has also said the broadest possible consensus is needed before any changes are made to the way MPs are elected.
“Not a single government, whatever the majority is, should be able to unilaterally change the rules of election," he told reporters last month.
Trudeau is quoted telling Le Devoir that there are “different levels” of changes.
Smaller changes may require a lower level of support, and larger changes may need broader approval, the prime minister suggested.
“What’s a big change? What’s a small change? All those reflections, that is why we need to have rigorous and intelligent conversations with Canadians.”
Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand. (Photo: Sean Kilpatrick/CP)
This spring, the government convened an all-party parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, including online voting. The committee, which recently returned from cross-country consultations, has until Dec. 1 to issue a report. Monsef, who has also concluded her own consultations, is expected to table legislation next spring.
Trudeau told Le Devoir he won’t commit to abiding by the committee’s recommendations, saying only that it will be a useful tool to frame the government’s decision-making.
“Unfortunately, whether you want to or not, the great preoccupation for political parties is their immediate survival and their capacity to finance themselves,” Trudeau told the newspaper. “So, yes, I’m going to listen attentively to their concerns. I’m going to keep them in mind, absolutely. It is important work [that the committee] is trying to do. But it is not the only work that is being done in this larger reflection.”
'Clear desire' for change: Trudeau in April
Last April, when speaking to the university students, Trudeau took a much firmer stance. He said there was a “fairly clear desire out there to improve our electoral system.”
While the current first-past-the-post electoral system worked “pretty good for me this time,” and it would be tempting to claim it is too complicated to change it now, the prime minister said it still remains “a priority to me.”
“Quite frankly, political parties shouldn’t be able to appeal to narrow constituencies and suddenly wield enough power to run the entire country,” he added.
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