Electoral reform: Can the Liberals get it right?

Trudeau Report Card: The Liberals are in a bind on sweeping electoral change. But subtle fixes are in the works.

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A year after a stunning majority win, Maclean’s adds up the stumbles and successes of Justin Trudeau’s government in our Trudeau Report Card. The hard work of delivering on more than 200 campaign promises—and breaking some along the way—has only just begun. Read our analysis of how the Liberals are handling security, immigration, the economy and more in our full Report Card coverage here.

President of the Treasury Board is about as glamorous a job as the title suggests. Not only is this the cabinet minister in charge of administrative management of the federal bureaucracy, including putting regulations into effect, the role also oversees something called “comptrollership.” So if Scott Brison, Justin Trudeau’s Treasury Board president, didn’t exactly dazzle the public eye during the Liberal government’s first year in power, perhaps that was to be expected.

But Brison’s profile is about to rise, at least among Canadians who worry about openness in government. His post also makes him responsible for accountability and ethics. In last fall’s election campaign, the Trudeau Liberals promised a raft of reforms under that heading, and Brison plans to move soon on the party’s pledge to overhaul the law on access to information. “It’s badly out of date,” he said recently, “and out of touch with Canadians’ expectations today.”

The bill Brison is slated to table late this year or early in 2017 has the potential to open up federal data and documents to scrutiny more than any reform since the landmark Access to Information Act was passed in 1983. For starters, he proposes to give information commissioner Suzanne Legault, a fiercely independent watchdog, new power to order the release of government information. He vows to broaden the law’s scope to cover at least some information from the offices of the prime minister and cabinet ministers. Up to now, those core political operations have been exempt.

Even more sweepingly, the Liberals promise something called “open by default” government. “Instead of the onus being on citizens to make the case for why they deserve the information,” Brison says, “the onus will now increasingly be on the government to explain why it can’t release information.”

Treasury Board President Scott Brison speaks about changes to government advertising rules during a news conference in Ottawa, Thursday, May 12, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Treasury Board President Scott Brison’s profile in government is about to rise. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

Critics of government secrecy are anxious to see the details. Duff Conacher, a founder of the group Democracy Watch, says timelines matter. He warns that Brison might phase in the changes so that the most significant don’t bite until late in Trudeau’s mandate, or even after the 2019 election. “They promise openness by default, but they don’t say when,” Conacher says. “They don’t want this now—more scandals will be exposed.”

A jaded skepticism about the willingness of any government to truly push toward openness is deeply ingrained around Ottawa. The Conservatives also came to power, back in 2006, pledging to let light and air into Ottawa’s darker, danker corners. It didn’t end up feeling that way. “Stephen Harper rode into town promising to slay dragons,” Trudeau said before last year’s election, “and 10 years later, he’s walled up in his office, cynically controlling his message and his caucus.”

But will Trudeau really end up seeming all that much more easygoing? According to Green Leader Elizabeth May, who knows her way around the federal corridors of power after decades of work on environmental issues, the change is already palpable. Political aides in Harper’s Prime Minister’s Office micro-managed almost any politically sensitive file. May says non-partisan public servants tell her Trudeau’s PMO staffers are far less prone to that sort of aggressive meddling. “Justin Trudeau is actually dismantling the concentration of power of the PMO,” she says.

At least when it comes to traditional appointment powers, Trudeau has given up direct clout. He quickly acted on Liberal campaign promises to create new, non-partisan processes for appointing both new senators and filling vacancies on the Supreme Court of Canada. Senators are grappling with how to function with growing blocks of independents in their ranks—new senators who arrive under no obligation to conform to Liberal or Tory party discipline, which has always been the Senate’s organizing principle.

Fundamentally changing the nature of the upper chamber is dramatic enough. But if Trudeau presses ahead with his promised overhaul of the way Canadians elect MPs, then the House will change in ways likely to make Senate reform seem almost inconsequential. In what might rank as the most under-discussed promise of last fall’s campaign, Trudeau vowed that the 2015 election would be the last waged under the old, familiar rules—under which the candidate in each riding with the most votes becomes MP and the rest win nothing.

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Trouble is, that’s all the platform said on the matter. On what new way of electing MPs Trudeau favours, it was silent. The opposition parties strongly suspect Trudeau wants preferential voting—a system that tends to boost centrist parties like the Liberals. Voters would rank candidates on the ballot from most to least preferred. If no candidate received more than 50 per cent of the top picks, the candidate with the fewest would be eliminated. When a voter’s first choice was knocked off, their vote would automatically transfer to their next-highest choice. This would be repeated until one candidate scored a majority.

The NDP has long favoured proportional representation. Its key selling point is that smaller parties, which often can’t win many seats, would finally see their vote share converted into sitting MPs. For their part, the Tories haven’t lined up behind a reform option, but insist any fundamental change in how Canadians vote must be put to a referendum—a proposal Trudeau greets with skepticism.

But that leaves the Liberals in a bind. The Tories won’t support any reform that hasn’t won popular approval in a referendum. The NDP is unlikely to bend on its decades-old preference for proportional representation, an option that runs counter to Liberal electoral interests. And Marc Mayrand, the outgoing chief electoral officer—arguably the most authoritative voice in the field—warns against Trudeau trying to ram through reform on his own. Mayrand recently said no majority government “should be able to unilaterally change the rules of election,” and must proceed only after achieving “the broadest possible” consensus.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/AP)
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef. (Adrian Wyld/AP)

It’s hard to detect any sign of that consensus taking shape. Still, the chance of a breakthrough remains. A special House committee has been touring the country holding hearings on the subject. Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef has been on a consultative tour of her own, although the focus was deflected by the revelation last month that she was born not in Afghanistan as she had previously said, but in Iran—an odd change in the bio of a minister whose refugee roots have been a mainstay of Trudeau’s narrative about bringing change to Ottawa.

If Monsef fails to pull off the difficult, potentially history-making feat of changing the way Canadians vote, Trudeau’s strategists will try to direct attention to a range of lesser electoral reforms. Online balloting and even mandatory voting are under consideration. The Liberals ran on a pledge to establish an independent commission to organize leaders’ debates, bringing to an end what Trudeau calls “partisan gamesmanship” in the ad hoc way debates have been set up in past campaigns.

And even if the House is to remain filled by MPs elected the old-fashioned, first-past-the-post way, highly visible changes to the chamber are in the works. Liberal officials say House Leader Bardish Chagger is working on how to fulfill the Liberal platform promise to create a prime minister’s question period, modelled on the British tradition of the PM facing a barrage of questions once a week. Far less visible to the public, but potentially highly significant on the Hill, is Trudeau’s vow to open up the notoriously secretive Board of Internal Economy—the body that deals with MPs spending—for the first time to public scrutiny.

Trudeau promised not just to change Canada’s economy and society, but also to “restore trust in democracy.” To accomplish that lofty aim, two avenues seem to be open to him. The first, and most politically fraught, is to change the way Canadians elect MPs, and thus how their federal governments are formed.

If that way is blocked, though, another route might allow him to run in 2019 boasting that he’d accomplished substantial reform. That is to move on a series of policies that all contribute to an atmosphere of far greater transparency. Real access-to-information reform would impress experts on accountability. Exposing himself once a week to a QP-long session of opposition questions would go a long way to telling ordinary Canadians that Trudeau’s Ottawa really is a changed place.

In sum

In the bag: By creating a non-partisan advisory board to recommend Senate appointments, Trudeau ended Ottawa’s most disreputable patronage tradition.

In progress: A sweeping overhaul of access-to-information rules is still to be announced. Not top of mind for most Canadians, but huge in official Ottawa.

In jeopardy: It’s hard to see multi-party support for any way to end “first past the post” voting, as Trudeau promised. Will he claim he did his best and back off?

Maclean’s complete Trudeau Report Card:

OVERVIEW: A bumpy road ahead

ECONOMY: A sluggish start to delivering on promises

ELECTORAL REFORM: A long way from a breakthrough

CLIMATE CHANGE: After flexing muscle, year two will tell

SECURITY AND MILITARY: Lowering expectations

INDIGENOUS PEOPLE: A relationship sours

TOUGHEST TASKS: Immigration, marijuana, home care

LEADERS: The six change influencers to watch in year two