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Globe and Mail columnist Adam Radwanski.The Globe and Mail

When Justin Trudeau promised before last year's election to introduce a new voting system before the next one, members of his inner circle claimed it was not just a campaign tactic, but a reflection of the Liberal Leader's personal enthusiasm for the subject.

Sometimes with a degree of consternation, because many political veterans view electoral reform as too removed from voters' day-to-day concerns to merit the hassle that comes with it, they insisted the issue spoke to Mr. Trudeau's wonkish interest in the mechanics of political campaigns and how to engage more Canadians in them.

If that was true then, let alone if it remains true now, there is some sad irony to the way Mr. Trudeau has mangled this file from the first moment that he laid his hands on it. Beyond just failing to move it along himself, he may be in the process of ensuring nobody else wants to touch it for a good long time.

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As his government's botch of the issue culminates in a complete meltdown – his Democratic Institutions Minister becoming a laughingstock as she attacks a parliamentary committee of her creation and invests her faith in a ludicrous online survey – it's worth considering the many ways her boss set her (and the issue) up to fail.

There is, for starters, the ambitious and unrealistic time frame that he arbitrarily assigned, when he announced in June, 2015, that he intended to make the election in October the final one contested under first past the post.

Replacing in a four-year span the only voting system Canada has known might have been realistic if Mr. Trudeau asked for a mandate to introduce a specific reform and his government got to work on it immediately after the election; when he left it until after the election to figure out what the system would actually be, the deadline was a recipe for chaos.

There is also the fact that he actually did signal which system he wanted – repeatedly voicing support for ranked ballots, which count voters' second or third choices until a candidate has achieved a majority of votes, before insisting he was totally open-minded.

In other words, he gave opponents a heads-up on where he hoped the process would go, then backed away from trying to make the case for that outcome.

And if Mr. Trudeau was going to set about a monumental change to the country's governance, it might have been a good idea to lay some groundwork persuading Canadians of the need for it. Instead, he mostly just preached to the small choir already convinced our current system is insufficiently democratic, while ignoring that most people haven't spent much time thinking about electoral reform one way or another.

And as would become evident once the Liberals were in power, he didn't even make sure his own caucus members and candidates were on board.

All this, before the Liberals were elected, made much of what happened after they took office inevitable.

Both opposition parties, certain that ranked ballots would benefit Mr. Trudeau's centrist party, immediately began sounding alarm bells about a scheme to tighten the Liberal hold on power. The Liberals were ill-prepared to counter that narrative – partly because they still didn't feel they could make the case for ranked ballots, for fear of confirming that was always their plan, and partly because many of their own MPs were questioning changing a system that had just handed them majority government. And if not ranked ballots, those MPs really didn't want proportional representation – the other big possible change, favoured by the NDP.

As he launched the election-reform process anyway, unwilling to yet back away from his promise, Mr. Trudeau compounded earlier mistakes.

For reasons unclear, he threw to the wolves Maryam Monsef, a promising but very green young MP, by making her the minister responsible.

And at every step of the way, the scramble to stick with the arbitrary time frame made for hurried and unhelpful roll outs. Those included the formation of a parliamentary committee on which opposition MPs were clumsily handed control – and, when that committee came back last week with recommendations the Liberals didn't like (a referendum on proportional representation, essentially), the launch a few days later of a slapped-together online survey that barely seemed to have been proofread.

To some eyes, this latest exercise – with a confusing array of questions that don't seem geared toward clear directions on the matters at hand – sets the stage for the Liberals to pronounce that there is no electoral-reform consensus, and punt it (at least) past the next election.

If so, it might be a blessing for those who still hold out hope for a system that produces results more reflective of voters' wishes, or forces politicians to speak to wider swaths of the electorate. The more the Liberals blunder on trying to prove they're still committed to Mr. Trudeau's ill-conceived promise – culminating, potentially, in putting to voters a referendum question they want to see defeated – the further into the ground they'll drive the prospect of this issue being revived in the foreseeable future.

But then, that assumes the Liberals are doing anything other than flying by the seat of their pants, which is a leap of faith based on what we've seen from them on this so far.

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