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Politics Liberals must not be arrogant about changing the nation’s elections

Bruce Anderson is chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, and partner with i2 Ideas & Issues Advertising. Over his career, he has provided counsel and polling for Liberal and Progressive Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. Different members of his family have worked for Conservative, Reform and Liberal politicians, and one of his daughters currently works for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He spent four years as a member of CBC's At Issue panel.

I've been feeling guilty lately. I feel I should get more worked up about the plan to change Canada's election system.

I know people who care deeply about it, really deeply. Some have been working to make change happen for literally decades.

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Personally, I don't think our system is great, but I don't think it's miserable either. We have free and fair elections. Naturally, every outcome disappoints some people, but we work our way through it, always.

I didn't believe that the Conservatives should have been able to tinker unilaterally with our system, and criticized their Fair Elections Act.

While I didn't like aspects of that law that seemed designed to dissuade some voters from participating, what troubled me most was the idea that any party could on its own change our system of voting.

There's too much risk of abuse.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau included a commitment to electoral reform in his platform last fall. In general, leaders should not walk away from commitments because they become controversial. Leadership is doing what you believe is right, and accepting that you might lose some political support to get important things done.

But last October's election was about many other things, not just electoral reform. Based on our Abacus polling, it's impossible to arrive at the conclusion that citizens absorbed and green-lit the idea that our system had to change before the next election.

Government advocates are not wrong to say they campaigned on it and a victory constitutes a mandate to move forward. But critics are also fair when they point out that change of this nature is no mere detail, and that many voters probably didn't feel that they were marking an X for a new type of ballot in 2019.

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I'd rather the government not use their majority to force a change without either a referendum or multiparty support. But if they do, it will test our democracy, not break it. Change might well work out for the better, and is unlikely to be a disaster.

For the government, making the case for unilateral reform is fraught with peril. It would be easy to come off as arrogant and presumptuous. It's essential to use the most artful arguments possible.

Arguing against a referendum because not everyone votes in them is not a great argument. Not everyone votes in elections either, but we still have them.

Ironically, the best approach would be to borrow from lessons learned about how to win a Yes case in any referendum. That means soft-selling, understating the dramatic consequences of a change. Reassuring people that change will be manageable, the product of careful thought, and reflect a balanced perspective.

When people are told that a proposed change will be transformative and sweeping in its implications, they grow more cautious, not more enthusiastic. Voters start to feel the status quo is not so bad after all.

As of now, in our latest polling, 40 per cent want to see the system changed, 23 per cent don't, and the rest say "I don't care either way." Even among Liberal Party voters, the level of enthusiasm is modest, with 43 per cent saying they want change, 22 per cent saying they don't, and 34 per cent indifferent.

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What's keeping this issue from being a problem for the Liberals so far, is the broad perception that they are pursuing this in the broader interest, not for partisan advantage.

Fully 64 per cent say the government is "trying to improve the system so voters feel it better reflects their view" compared to 36 per cent who say "the government is trying to give itself an advantage over other parties."

Minister Maryam Monsef, the rookie cabinet minister in charge of this area is an interesting politician in charge of a very delicate file. Successfully managing this to the conclusion the Prime Minister has tasked her with will increase her stature and prospects in political life. But a successful outcome isn't just passing a bill, it's doing it in a way that avoids scar tissue to her party.

The arguments she makes, the tone she employs, the respect she shows to those with different views, all of these will matter more in terms of carrying public opinion. If the government seems to revel in having a whip hand, this agenda will struggle. If more people start to believe that the motive is partisan gain, the modest level of enthusiasm will shrink.

This initiative, with its combination of tepid public appeal, and some risk of appearing arrogant, is one of the more important challenges the Trudeau government will face this year.

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