Duff Conacher is co-founder of Democracy Watch and a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa
"Last a while, you'll have a chance to, I think, change a bit in politics, some good laws." – Pierre Trudeau on the day he became Prime Minister
You wouldn't know it from the headlines, but the federal Liberals just received the lowest percentage of votes to win the largest percentage of seats since 1867 – 54.4 per cent of the seats with just 39.5 per cent voter support. As a result, the Liberals should act like they are fully aware their minority miracle majority is very unlikely to happen again.
Yes, they have a 14-seat majority, but with 15 seats won by a margin of less than 2.6 per cent of total votes cast, and another 18 seats won by 2.6 per cent to 5 per cent, the Liberals should walk on eggshells over the next four years.
Even a small percentage of NDP supporters who may have voted Liberal to stop the Conservatives switching back to the NDP, or Conservative voters who may have stayed home voting again, will change the results of the next election significantly.
The Liberals can take comfort in knowing they came second in 13 of the 22 closest races (all of which won by 1.5 per cent or fewer of votes cast), but a counterpoint is that the Conservatives came second in six, and the NDP in three, of those 22 ridings.
Of the 70 races won by 5 per cent or less of votes cast, the Liberals won 33 and came second in 31. They would be bold to a fault to assume they will definitely offset losses in those 33 ridings in the next election with gains in those other 31 ridings.
So what should the Liberals do? First, act like they have a minority government – as happened with the Conservatives since 2011, nothing will motivate supporters of other parties more in the next election than being ignored by the Liberals for the next four years.
Second, democratize and clean up federal politics – nothing will turn off Liberal MPs and supporters more than being ignored by the Prime Minister's Office, and nothing will hurt the Liberals more than a series of ethics, secrecy and waste scandals.
The Liberals have promised 75 changes in 32 areas in the "Open, Honest Government" section of their platform, including changes to: decrease voter ID requirements; strengthen access to information; ensure merit-based Cabinet appointments including to the Supreme Court and Senate; free and empower MPs and committees in a few ways; restrict government advertising and party spending in between elections; reform Parliament in a few ways, and; ensure gender-based analysis of the effects of government policies.
Those promises, some of which lack key details, will make the federal government more open and democratic, but not more honest and ethical. The Liberals made no promises in the areas in the key areas of honesty-in-politics, ethics and lobbying disclosure and restrictions, whistleblower protection or strengthening enforcement by watchdogs (such as the Ethics Commissioner and Lobbying Commissioner) or strengthening citizen group watching of government and big businesses. And there is only a vague promise to close political financing loopholes.
The Liberal platform quotes the old saying that "sunlight is the world's best disinfectant." However, the Liberals' promised open government changes are also vague and, even if kept or strengthened, will likely not let enough light in to prevent major ethics or waste scandals.
What is currently legal is not considered by the public to be at all ethical – and trying to explain away future scandals won't work as shown by the Liberals' initial unsuccessful claim that it was just fine for their election campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier to send an e-mail to TransCanada about how to position itself to lobby on pipelines after the election.
Only strong honesty, ethics and lobbying disclosure requirements and restrictions, that many surveys over the past 15 years have shown a large majority of voters want, will prevent this unethical virus that ruined the Conservatives from infecting the Liberals early and often.
Finally, the Liberals should keep one of their strongest and most significant democratic reform promises by changing the voting system – and ensure the committee that consults on the change is evenly split between Liberals and opposition party members to avoid the charge that they are trying to rig the system in their favour.
The Liberals might as well change the system now while they can control what will replace our current first-past-the-post system. The past 10 years of election results show the current system could easily return the Conservatives to power or leave the Liberals with a minority of seats and the NDP only agreeing to support them if the voting system is changed in a way that helps the NDP.
Changing to a ranked ballot system, which Justin Trudeau said he favoured during the Liberal leadership race, likely favours the Liberals too much and could cause a strong reaction from supporters of other parties. As a result, including some form of proportional representation in a new system would likely help Liberals, and the system overall.
If they act like they have a comfortable majority or dash the hopes they fostered and encouraged for real change, especially change in how politics is done, the Liberals will likely quickly lose the support they have finally won back after 10 years.