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An Elections Canada ballot box is shown on federal election day in Montreal, Monday, May 2, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
An Elections Canada ballot box is shown on federal election day in Montreal, Monday, May 2, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes (Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

CAMPBELL CLARK

Trudeau promised electoral reform, but failed to say what kind Add to ...

It’s hard to list all the reasons why Liberal MPs on the Commons electoral-reform committee decided that their leader’s election promise was a lousy idea.

There just isn’t enough time. Few people are paying attention. It’s complicated. People might have had very different ideas of what the promise meant. And it’s hard to know if the folks who turned up at the public hearings the Liberal government proposed really represented the public.

Monsef takes heat for reaction to electoral committee report (CP Video)

Matt De Courcey, the Liberal MP from Fredericton, said going ahead with reform in the timeline promised by Justin Trudeau would be “irresponsible.”

Related: Liberals urge Trudeau to break promise on electoral reform

Globe editorial: Electoral reform if necessary, but not necessarily electoral reform

Explainer: Everything you wanted to know about electoral reform

It left the impression that whoever promised the 2019 election would be the last held under the first-past-the-post system must be a loose cannon. What was this Trudeau guy thinking?

Those Liberal MPs, of course, never blamed the Prime Minister, or the government. Part of the problem, they hinted, is the opposition insists on a referendum, which takes time. Part of the problem is that people aren’t engaged (despite government promises to engage them). And part of the problem, they said, is that the kind of reform the opposition parties would like to put to a referendum, proportional representation, is “radical.”

It was Liberal MP Francis Scarpaleggia, the committee’s chair, who really put his finger on it. Yes, people elected Mr. Trudeau after he promised electoral reform by 2019, but some of them might have thought he was talking about ranked ballots, not PR, and that would have been easier.

That’s really the fundamental problem. Mr. Trudeau promised electoral reform, but he never said what it was.

If Mr. Trudeau wanted an instant-runoff system where voters indicate their second and third choices, then he should have proposed it and taken it to a vote. That would have focused public attention and made it easier to decide if Canadians want it. It would have gone faster. He still hasn’t proposed anything.

But his party knows what they don’t want.

It’s easy to blame the Liberals for shamelessly torpedoing their own election promise when it turned against their narrow self-interest – very easy, because that’s what they’re doing.

But let’s also blame opposition parties for failing to propose a specific reform of their own.

Instead, the electoral-reform committee, controlled by the opposition, recommended a referendum on a “proportional electoral system that achieves a Gallagher Index score of 5 or less.” What is that? It’s some kind of proportional-representation system – but the committee suggested the Liberal government, which doesn’t like PR, figure out exactly what kind. Quickly.

For proportional-representation advocates in the NDP and Green Party, that’s a failure. Their goal was to force the Liberals into a choice where there is only one option for reform – theirs.

The Conservatives didn’t want electoral reform; they wanted a referendum that they hope will prevent it. So the NDP and Green Leader Elizabeth May reluctantly supported a recommendation for a referendum, in return for agreement that it be a referendum pitting first-past-the-post against a proportional-representation system. But then the NDP and the Greens shot themselves in the foot by failing to say which PR system.

It’s the NDP and Greens who say a PR system can be put in place for the 2019 election, but they couldn’t settle on what kind. That just makes it easier for the Liberals to say there’s not enough time, that it’s complicated and nobody is paying attention. Where is the public outcry for five on the Gallagher Index?

In the Commons, Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef outraged opposition parties by asserting the committee didn’t finish its work because it didn’t suggest a specific reform. That was disingenuous and self-serving. But in a way, she is right: if the opposition wanted to push the government into a reform, they should have proposed one. Just one.

Now there’ll be more consultation, and Internet surveys where Canadians are asked about the “values” they think are important in voting systems. The government still hasn’t figured out what electoral reform is, but they’re finding a lot of reasons not to do it.

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Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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