Justin Trudeau and the progress of democratic reform

Photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-NC-ND

A few days ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said something true about electoral reform and people freaked out. 

Ok, most people didn't freak out and the ones who did are primarily opposition partisans who want electoral reform because they believe it will improve their party's chances in the next election. They are also, primarily, people who never liked Trudeau in the first place and have been looking for things to criticise him for.

However, the critics have become so loud and are getting so carried away that I felt the need to burst their bubble a bit.

It is true that Justin Trudeau ran on electoral reform. It is also true that he said in an interview:

"Under Mr. Harper, there were so many people dissatisfied with the government and its approach that they were saying, 'We need an electoral reform so that we can no longer have a government we don't like. However, under the current system, they now have a government they are more satisfied with. And the motivation to want to change the electoral system is less urgent." So, his critics definitely have some ammo. But this might be one of those cases where people should be careful what they wish for. Trudeau was right that most Canadians do not feel any sense of urgency about electoral reform."

As of September 1, the majority of people were unaware that consultations on the issue had even begun.

As excited as you personally may be about electoral reform, most Canadians are not right there with you. Trudeau also said today that he is still committed to reform, however, it can't be an easy place for him.

Every week since the election, there has been at least one "Is Trudeau's honeymoon over?" article published somewhere. So far, a year after the election, the answer is a resounding no but electoral reform could be the issue that changes that. People won't be angry if he doesn't act, but they will very likely be angry if he does.

Currently public opinion on the issue looks like this:

  • Over 40 town hall meetings have been held across Canada to give citizens and opportunity to weigh in on electoral reform.
  • Trudeau has been accused of dragging his heels but those consultations only recently finished and, no official report on those consultations has been submitted yet
  • There is a consensus among Canadians that the Senate needs reform but no strong consensus in favour of electoral reform and certainly no consensus on what that reform should look like. 
  • Canadians are divided on whether or not reforms should be put to a public vote. 
  • The strongest support for a referendum is among the NDP and the Conservatives 
  • Any referendum is unlikely to pass because electoral reform referendums rarely do and because there is no consensus on how or if the system needs to change. 
Whatever he does or doesn't do, the Prime Minister is likely to upset half the country or more.

His safest bet is to do nothing at all. He could suddenly become decisive, while both of the largest opposition parties are in the midst of leadership contests to ram through a proposal that largely benefits the Liberals, without a referendum. This would make many people very angry, but most of them would be NDP and Conservative partisans, unlikely to vote for the Liberals anyway. By the time the next election rolled around, most non-partisans (which means most-Canadians) would have other things on their mind.

To date though, the Liberals have shown no sign that they intend to be entirely self-serving when it comes to electoral reform. Instead they are being cautious and opening the discussion to as many Canadians as possible, regardless of region or party.

What we are talking about is, or would be, the biggest change to Canadian democracy in its 150 year history. People who truly believe that change is necessary and people who simply believe in good, representative government should be glad that the new government is approaching it with such seriousness and caution.

In any case it is important to remember that whatever your position is on democratic reform, the majority of Canadians disagree. It seems disingenuous to suggest that first past the post is a bad way to elect a member of parliament but a fine way to permanently change our system of government.

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