Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary and a former campaign manager for conservative parties.
So. Farewell then, electoral reform. We hardly knew ye, but you won't be missed (except by the Greens and NDP).
How do we make sense of this? Was it just another campaign promise conveniently abandoned? We could file it next to the $10-billion budget deficit, quickly replaced by $30-billion. And the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted one day and the next day said to be incompatible with the Constitution of Canada. And the promise of no more sole-source defence contracts. And the ethics guidelines for cabinet ministers.
Some of these abandoned promises won't have much in the way of political repercussions, but this one might. The promise of electoral reform was part of the Liberals' calculated seduction of left-wing voters, and it was these voters who gave the Liberals a majority in the 2015 election. If they lose these voters, good-bye majority.
When the Liberals said electoral reform, NDP and Green voters heard proportional representation, which would amplify their representation in the House of Commons and make majority government a thing of the past. It seemed almost too good to be true, the Liberals promising an era of permanent coalition government, with the NDP and Greens finally admitted to the cabinet table.
Indeed, it was too good to be true. The Liberal idea of reform was the alternative vote, which would increase the size of their majority, leaving nothing for the parties of the left. When it became obvious to the Liberals that they couldn't get the alternative vote without overriding the objections of all other parties, they shut it down. In our long-running version of political Peanuts, the Liberals once again played the role of Lucy, pulling the football away at the last minute from Charlie Brown.
But as Barack Obama used to say, this is a "teachable moment." This fiasco should permanently disbar parties from making definite-sounding campaign promises that are devoid of content, to wit: "We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system." Other parties should not let their rivals get away with it, nor should the media let it pass.
Promising to repeal legislation if you think that no replacement is needed is fine, but that hardly applies to the Canada Elections Act. A functioning democracy needs to have legislation so that elections can take place. It is the height of irresponsibility to promise to repeal the status quo without giving any idea of what will replace it, particularly when it is obvious that there is no broad agreement on an alternative.
The legislative process, developed over centuries of representative government, shows the right way to proceed. A bill is introduced, amendments are voted upon, and the assembly finally votes yea or nay to the bill as amended. If the bill is defeated, the status quo prevails. Parliamentary procedure sets up a final showdown between a reform idea and the status quo so that voters know what they will get if they vote for change. It's one of those brilliant products of historical evolution that we take for granted.
In Parliament, you can't start by eliminating the status quo from the choice set, and then ask, "What do we do now?" Yet that is what the Liberals tried to do in their campaign – to get voters to agree that the status quo needed to be replaced without saying what should replace it. It was a triumph of stagecraft over statecraft – rhetorically successful in a campaign, but a failure in terms of getting anything done.
Ordinary voters, who have many other things on their minds, may not always see through such sleight of hand, but political rivals and media observers should call out such deception.