Electoral reform in Canada might be on hold until the next federal election in 2019, but voters aren't likely to let the issue go, experts say.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Wednesday that the government wouldn't follow through on its promise to change the first-past-the-post electoral system before the 2019 election. The decision was made public in a mandate letter published for the new Minister for Democratic Institutions, Karina Gould.
That letter includes six priorities for the minister, but electoral reform is not among them.
"There’s nothing in that six-shooter that says (electoral reform) is going to come back,” said Jean-Pierre Kingsley, an outspoken advocate for electoral reform who served as Canada's chief electoral officer 1990-2007. But it's far from a dead issue, he added in an interview.
“A lot of Canadians are going to be bitterly disappointed by this decision,” he said. “It’ll come back eventually, because we’ve not had the conversation as Canadians that we should have had on this very important topic.”
He noted that more than 60 per cent of Canadians who voted in the last election supported parties with electoral reform platforms – including the Liberals, who made it a central campaign promise. For many voters, dropping that promise will be something that “sticks in the back of their minds,” he said.
Kingsley said he was “taken aback” by Trudeau's decision. “This went beyond a promise during an election… it became an element of the speech from the throne, that this is a commitment by the government that we will act on this.”
"Clearly, Trudeau's heart wasn't in it"
Max Cameron, director of the University of British Columbia's Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions and a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said there were "a lot of signs over the course of the last year that the government seemed to be struggling to keep the momentum on this issue.”
Two days after the 2015 election, Cameron predicted in an interview with the CBC that the Liberals wouldn't keep their promise. At the time, he said that a party which had just formed a majority government under the first-past-the-post system probably wouldn't be in a hurry to switch to a proportional system that might make it harder for them to win another majority.
He told National Observer that after the election, he submitted briefs to the federal government's electoral reform committee anyway, wanting to give the Liberals the benefit of the doubt. But now?
“I am totally cynical. I have nothing but cynicism in my view of this process,” he said. “You cannot look back and not say that clearly, Trudeau’s heart wasn’t in it. What they put together in terms of process was a disaster from the word 'go.'”
The process included an all-party House of Commons committee to study the issue, cross-country town-hall-style meetings for citizen input and a much-ridiculed online survey which Cameron called “mind-boggling."
In Gould's mandate letter, Trudeau said the lack of a “clear preference” or consensus on a replacement for the first-past-the-post voting system had led to the decision to scrap the promise.
But the idea that a consensus would exist without having a clear alternative to consider is “utterly fanciful,” Cameron said. “Electoral systems, as everybody acknowledges, are a complex and technical but important question about which most people don't spend a lot of time thinking about.”
The best way to reach a consensus, he suggested, would have been to table a proposal for a new system and then discuss its merits. Although the Commons committee on electoral reform made recommendations for what a new system should look like, the federal government never proposed a concrete proposal.
The electoral reform promise connected with many voters, he said. "Part of the appeal of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party in the last election was that in a remarkably clear way they picked up on all of the objections to the way that Canadian democracy is functioning.”
In his view, the Liberals' decision to renege will push some voters to other parties in the next election, especially progressive voters who chose to support Liberal candidates in the hopes of blocking another Conservative government.
“Breaking this promise could be one of a number of things that could push the Liberals back into a minority government situation,” Cameron said.