Skip to main content
globe editorial

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau addresses the Canadian Building Trades Union Policy Conference in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred ChartrandFRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

Carefully read this response by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to a question this week from the Leader of the Opposition. Mr. Trudeau was defending his government's refusal to hold a referendum, or do anything beyond the most perfunctory public consultation, on its plan to end the first-past-the-post voting system that has shaped our democracy since Confederation.

"Please forgive me, Mr. Speaker, if I find it a bit rich coming from the party that brought in the 'unfair elections act' without any consultation to try and stack the deck in their favour. Canadians chose to support us with a majority and are expecting us to deliver on the promises that we gave. … And it wasn't the compellingness of our arguments that convinced Canadians. It was what the last government did with their majority that convinced Canadians that this must be the last election under first-past-the-post."

Let's see if we have this right. The Harper government used its parliamentary majority to push its agenda, which included the flawed and rightly criticized Fair Elections Act, but that majority was illegitimate because the Conservatives only received 39.6 per cent of the popular vote in the 2011 election.

Angered by the somewhat radical agenda of an unpopular government that represented, mathematically speaking, a minority of Canadians, voters reacted by giving the Liberals a "majority" so that the new government would end the system that allowed the Conservatives to act in a way that many, Mr. Trudeau included, found undemocratic.

But Mr. Trudeau's "majority" is no more of a majority than that of his predecessor. In fact, it is even less of one, according to the Prime Minister's analysis, since the Liberals only won 39.5 per cent of the popular vote last October.

Yet the Trudeau government is now going to use a majority that is, by its own admission, tainted to ram through a fundamental change to Canadian democracy. Please forgive us, Mr. Trudeau, if we find it a bit rich.

This is but one of the weaknesses in the government's plan to live up to its dramatic campaign vow that the 2015 election would be the last first-past-the-post vote ever held at the federal level.

Another major flaw is that the government has never convincingly explained just what it finds unacceptable about a system that gave it the huge parliamentary majority that Mr. Trudeau likes to boast of as a clear mandate for change.

Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Democratic Institutions, says FPTP "distorts the will of the electorate" and "pits neighbour against neighbour." Given that her government is using the distorted will of the electorate to radically alter Canada, it can't be that much of a concern. As for pitting neighbour against neighbour, yes, politics does that. Is the end of FPTP the end of legitimate, human disagreements about who should govern, and how? The end of politics? What is she talking about?

Let's be honest: In spite of the FPTP system, Canada is one of the most successful democracies in the world. Furthermore, the election of the Liberals is proof our voting system works. Canadians were exasperated by the policies of the Harper government, so they threw them out. The Liberals have since been using their majority to push through bills and policy changes that are unravelling the Harper agenda like an old sweater. Neither the party's supporters nor its opponents have questioned the legitimacy of this.

This is not to say that there can't be improvements to our voting system. Many countries have abandoned FPTP and replaced it with one form of proportional representation or another, or with ranked ballots. A lot of those countries are healthy democracies and have progressive, if somewhat unwieldy, governments.

But it is not enough for the Trudeau government to say that a new system should be imposed on Canada just because it works somewhere else, or is needed just because a previous government used the existing system to pass an unpopular set of laws.

Furthermore, voters in Ontario and British Columbia considered and then rejected alternatives to FPTP in three referendums. Canadians are cautious; they are loath to fix what isn't obviously broken. For a government that says it bases its decisions on facts, it is odd that the Liberals are unconvinced by the Ontario and B.C. experiments.

As it now stands, the Liberal government is using its (illegitimate?) majority to stack a committee that will consult Canadians on an issue about which it has already made up its mind. The committee has been told to deliver legislation by December. Consultation will be cursory, at best.

If the Liberals want to demonstrate a real respect for the electorate, they should follow the B.C. and Ontario models, and hold lengthy, bipartisan consultations followed by a referendum. Anything else will be the kind of distortion Mr. Trudeau finds so unacceptable, at least when committed by other parties.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct