OTTAWA – Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made an unequivocal promise to change the way Canadians vote in federal elections. Then, after winning one, he abandoned it.
That was the narrative his political rivals were building Wednesday after Trudeau officially walked away from his oft-repeated commitment to get rid of the first-past-the-post voting system in time for the 2019 election.
Critics like the NDP’s Nathan Cullen characterized the about-face it as a cynical betrayal of trust, even if political observers had seen a climbdown coming from miles away in a portfolio that’s long been a sore spot for the Liberals.
Trudeau argued that making the right decision was better than sticking with what he has since been convinced was a bad one.
“The fact of the matter is I am not going to do something that is wrong for Canadians just to tick off a box on an electoral platform,” Trudeau said Wednesday during question period in the House of Commons.
“That is not the kind of prime minister I will be.”
In a mandate letter for newly appointed Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, Trudeau argued that consultations across the country have shown that Canadians are not clamouring for change in the way they choose their federal government.
“A clear preference for a new electoral system, let alone a consensus, has not emerged,” Trudeau writes in the letter released Wednesday, where he also rules out the possibility of a national referendum.
The reaction from the NDP, who accuse the Liberals of catering to their own supporters, only to back off when they realized there was no appetite for their preferred ranked-ballot option, was swift and savage.
Cullen, the NDP’s democratic reform critic, called Trudeau a “liar” and “the most cynical variety of politician, saying whatever it takes to get elected; then, once elected, seeking any excuse, however weak, however absent, to justify that lie to Canadians.”
Green party Leader Elizabeth May said many members of her party had urged people to vote strategically for the Liberals in hopes of seeing electoral reform come to pass.
“I feel more deeply shocked and betrayed by my government today than on any day of my adult life,” May said.
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.
Said interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose: “Canadians should think twice about believing what Justin Trudeau says.”
In his letter, Trudeau said he did not believe those consultations have produced their desired — albeit never quantified — level of support for electoral reform, let alone any clarity on a preferred replacement.
That message has evolved over time.
At one point, the Liberals argued that their election win, as well as the votes cast for other parties that included electoral reform in their campaign platforms, should be considered sufficient grounds to proceed without a referendum.
“Over 60 per cent of Canadians ended up voting for parties that clearly stated their commitment to implementing a different way of voting,” Monsef said last July when she appeared before the electoral reform committee.
Last October, Trudeau suggested in an interview with the Quebec newspaper Le Devoir that Canadians might be less keen on electoral reform now that the Liberals had replaced the Conservatives.
Later, however, he doubled down on the original promise.
“I’ve heard loudly and clearly that Canadians want a better system of governance, a better system of choosing our governments, and I’m working very hard so that 2015 is indeed the last election under first-past-the-post,” Trudeau told the editorial board of the Toronto Star on Dec. 2.
There are also some big new items in the 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.
That will include asking the Communications Security Establishment (CSE) to assess the current risk and publish their results.
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.
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