Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is abandoning his long-held promise to change the way Canadians vote in federal elections.
In a mandate letter for newly appointed Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, Trudeau makes it clear that electoral reform — once top of mind for the Liberal government — is no longer on the agenda.
"Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate," the prime minister writes in the letter, released Wednesday.
A variety of consultations across the country have shown that Canadians are not clamouring for a change in the way they choose their federal government, the letter continues. It also rules out the possibility of a national referendum.
"A clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged," Trudeau writes. "Furthermore, without a clear preference or a clear question, a referendum would not be in Canada's interest."
Passionate response from political rivals
Trudeau repeatedly promised — both as a campaigning Liberal leader and as prime minister in a speech from the throne — to get rid of the current first-past-the-post voting system in time for the 2019 federal election. The Liberals have since given themselves some wiggle room, saying they would not go ahead without the widespread support of Canadians.
Canadians made their views known through the House of Commons special committee on electoral reform, town halls held by MPs from all parties, the travels of former minister Maryam Monsef and a much-maligned online survey called MyDemocracy.ca. The mandate letter shows that Trudeau and do not believe those consultations have produced their desired — albeit undefined — level of support for electoral reform, let alone any clarity on a preferred replacement.
The about-face is sure to provoke a passionate response from their political rivals.
The New Democrats, who have long called for a system of proportional representation, went into a meeting with Gould on Tuesday hoping to hear the new minister repeat Trudeau's original, unequivocal promise: that the 2015 vote would be Canada's last under first-past-the-post.
"That is why that ministry exists," MP Nathan Cullen, the NDP's democratic reform critic, said Tuesday. "That's why she sits in cabinet, in large part — it's to fulfill that promise."
The Conservatives, who had pushed for a referendum, are likely to be pleased with the status quo, but will no doubt excoriate the government for breaking such a prominent campaign commitment.
May urges Trudeau to reconsider
Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who was a member of the all-party committee on electoral reform, was heartbroken.
"I feel more deeply betrayed by my government today than on any other day than my adult life," May told reporters. "When I was asked to serve on the committee, I asked many people in senior Liberal offices — don't waste my time, tell me now if you're not serious. Thousands and thousands of Canadians — hundreds of thousands, and certainly young people — believed this promise."
She further accused Trudeau, Canada's "feminist" prime minister, of throwing two female cabinet ministers (Monsef and Gould) "under the bus" by breaking his promise. She urged Trudeau to reconsider.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the promise remained on the Liberal Party's platform website:
Social media explodes
Thousands of Canadians took to social media on Wednesday after to express their profound disappointment with the announcement.
"Depending on who leads the conservative party, Trudeau won't be able to count on my vote next election because of his backtrack on #ERRE," tweeted @dchauvers from Toronto.
"Abandoning #ERRE Sacrificing long-term improvement to Cdn democracy for short-term political interests," wrote Miriam Anderson, an assistant professor at the Unviersity of Toronto's Department of Politics and Public Administration.
On Facebook, Ottawa resident Ryan Alexander Acheson, posted: "I had to say this may have been the last straw for my support of the liberals. Electoral reform was a big issue for me and this has only solidified my support for the NDP."
The Broadbent Institute, a progressive independent advocacy organization that started a petition encouraging Trudeau to keep his electoral reform promise, accused the prime minister of having "failed utterly" to keep his commitments to Canadians.
"Today’s announcement that Justin Trudeau and the Liberals are abandoning their clear promise, for no good reason, is the height of cynicism," wrote founder Ed Broadbent in a public statement. "It is manifestly not in the best interest of the country and is the result of precisely the sort of backroom calculations that turn Canadians off of politics. Mr. Trudeau pledged to do politics differently. Today he has failed utterly to live up to that commitment.
Citizens for Public Justice said in a press release: “Our electoral system must address the needs of the most vulnerable in Canadian society and ensure that everyone can contribute to our democratic system. A system of proportional representation would do a better job of making the voices of Canadians heard.”
Some Canadians expressed support on social media for Wednesday's decision, as the government had indicated the reform was not supported by a clear majority of voters.
New additions to the Gould's portfolio
There are also some big new items in Gould's new mandate letter.
Trudeau wants Gould, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale to come up with ways to defend the Canadian political system against cyberthreats and hackers — a possible consequence of the "voter fraud" and hacked email controversies emanating from the raucous U.S. election.
"This should include asking the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) to analyze risks to Canada's political and electoral activities from hackers, and to release this assessment publicly," he writes.
Trudeau also wants the three ministers to ask the CSE to "offer advice" to Elections Canada and political parties — including opposition parties — on "best practices" regarding cybersecurity.
The letter also asks Gould to take the lead on developing legislation to bring stricter rules — and greater transparency — to political fundraising, a response to months of negative headlines about so-called cash-for-access Liberal fundraisers.
The promised legislation would require cabinet ministers, party leaders and leadership candidates to publicly advertise their fundraisers in advance, and release a report after the fact with details of the event.
The proposed new law, if passed, would also require events to take place in publicly available spaces, a move designed to address concerns about well-heeled donors bending the ears of cabinet ministers in private homes.
"Other measures may follow after discussion with the other political parties," Trudeau writes.
The letter also repeats earlier commitments, such as repealing some elements of the previous Conservative government's Fair Elections Act and exploring the idea of an independent commissioner to organize leaders' debates during federal elections.
It also includes reviewing campaign spending limits and working with Treasury Board President Scott Brison and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to increase the openness of government, including reviewing the Access to Information Act.
Editor's Note: This story was updated at 2:30 p.m. on Wed. Feb. 1, 2017 to include statements from Elizabeth May, social media users, and the Broadbent Institute