Add François Legault’s name to the list of Canadian politicians who have promised electoral reform in opposition only to have, um, a change of heart once in power.
Mr. Legault’s minister responsible for electoral reform, Sonia LeBel, this week announced that her Coalition Avenir Québec government was abandoning a promise to hold a referendum on the adoption of a mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting system at the same time as the 2022 provincial election. She insisted the CAQ has not given up on electoral reform. But the move provided a clear signal that changing the way Quebeckers vote is no longer a priority for Mr. Legault – if it ever was.
Not that this should come as much of a surprise to anyone who has followed the fate of past promises to change the electoral system in Canada.
Who can forget Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Olympics-worthy flip-flop after vowing that the 2015 federal election would be the last held under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system Canada had used since Confederation? Remember how he promised emphatically to “make every vote count?”
In office, the Liberals claimed a lack of consensus among Canadians about which alternative system they preferred – one based on pure proportional representation, on partial PR or on ranked ballots – prevented them from proceeding with any changes. The real reason was that Mr. Trudeau’s first choice – a ranked ballot system – was rejected by a majority of Canadians in town halls and online surveys and by both main opposition parties in Ottawa. So, Mr. Trudeau dropped the reform idea altogether rather than risk ending up with a voting system that would put Liberal seats in jeopardy.
Mr. Legault similarly campaigned on a promise of electoral reform in 2018. The CAQ signed an agreement with two other opposition parties, the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire, to push through electoral reform. Mr. Legault insisted then that the 2018 election would “effectively” be the last held under FPTP, and that a new system would be in place by 2022.
Together, the CAQ, PQ and QS won three-quarters of Quebec’s 125 National Assembly seats in 2018. But instead of adopting electoral reform outright as promised, the Legault government announced in 2019 that it would instead submit its plan for an MMP-based system to a referendum in 2022.
Proponents of electoral reform smelled a rat. Seat projections based on the 2018 election results – in which the CAQ won 59 per cent of the legislature’s seats with less than 38 per cent of the popular vote – showed Mr. Legault would have lost his majority under MMP. Under such a system, Quebeckers would vote to elect local MNAs in 80 ridings (instead of the current 125) while 45 MNAs would be selected from regional candidate lists based on the proportion of the vote won by each party.
Quelle surprise. Last fall, Mr. Legault hinted he might not be able to keep his promise to hold a referendum in 2022, saying he had “underestimated the scope and complexity of electoral reform.” On Wednesday, Ms. LeBel made it official, saying delays caused by the pandemic meant legislation needed to put in place a referendum could not be passed by the June deadline imposed by Quebec’s chief electoral officer. No one bought that excuse.
While the FPTP system worked against the CAQ in the 2012 and 2014 provincial elections, when it ran as a third-party upstart against the long-governing Quebec Liberal Party and the PQ, the opposite was true in 2018. Since then, the CAQ has emerged as the province’s dominant political party, especially in seat-rich rural Quebec. The CAQ MNAs who represent many existing ridings are not exactly keen on giving up their seats to make way for MMP. Nor is Mr. Legault, who has acquired an evident taste for power, about to willingly put his majority at risk.
It is unlikely that voters will punish Mr. Legault for abandoning his promise. The biggest supporters of electoral reform tend to be on the left, and vote for QS or the PQ. Most Quebeckers appear to be of a mixed mind on the issue. Political scientist Christian Dufour, a widely respected commentator, has argued that a PR system would weaken Quebec’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the rest of Canada by producing unstable minority governments. His argument appears to have gained traction since the 2018 election.
Still, after swearing he would “not do like Justin Trudeau did” by finding an excuse to ditch electoral reform, Mr. Legault appears to have done just that. The once-maverick CAQ is starting to act to like an establishment party that cares more about holding on to power than anything else. This week’s flip-flop on electoral reform may be just a sign of things to come.
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