Rob Mason is a third-year student at the Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau renounced his promise to make 2015 the last unfair, first-past-the-post election, arguing that a "clear preference … let alone a consensus, has not emerged." Few would argue that politicians should rigidly keep their promises regardless of changed circumstances, but when voters begin to suspect that promises were made to be broken, government accountability and legitimacy are jeopardized.
Wednesday's announcement is not just another broken Liberal promise; it's a uniquely dangerous devaluation of Canadian democracy. Never before has a prime minister publicly disparaged the very source of his legitimacy, as Mr. Trudeau did when he called the 2015 election unfair. To now suggest that unfairness at the heart of our democracy and at the foundation of his authority can only be fixed by spontaneous public consensus is absurd.
Why would he make this promise if it was not within his power to keep?
In theory, Mr. Trudeau's party may have a mandate to impose electoral reform unilaterally. However, Liberals received only 39 per cent of the popular vote in the past election, and according to one survey of over 10,000 Canadians, more than 25 per cent of Liberal voters would have preferred a minority Liberal government.
It is therefore reasonable to conclude that under these circumstances, the will of a parliamentary majority alone is not enough to impose a new electoral system. Something more is required.
Apparently a "clear preference" for change has not been established by the fact that the vast majority of experts and ordinary citizens who engaged in the government-initiated consultation process recommended a more proportional system. Nor is it sufficient that four out of five parties agreed to a referendum on proportional representation. After all, the one party arguing against this consensus was the Liberals. In short, Mr. Trudeau and his party are the primary obstacle to the fulfilment of their own promise.
The Prime Minister says that there are two requirements before a referendum can occur; that there be "a clear preference" and "a clear question." This is putting the cart before the horse.
If a clear preference could be demonstrated without a referendum, why would we go to the trouble of having one? As for drafting a clear question, surely that is a task for the government, and a rather simple one at that. Mr. Trudeau seems to be arguing that clear questions either spontaneously emerge from on high or that his government is too incompetent to draft one. Based on their experiences with the mydemocracy.ca survey, Canadians may be forgiven for concluding that incompetence is indeed Mr. Trudeau's strongest argument.
With the rise of Trumpism in the United States and copycat extremism emerging in Canada, the vulnerability of our democracy is increasingly apparent. Electoral systems that hand complete power to a minority voting bloc are dangerous. Tweets and selfies alone will not protect us from authoritarianism.