Trudeau reaffirms ‘deep’ commitment to electoral reform

Prime Minister reaffirms commitment one day after appearing to set groundwork for reneging on his promise

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives to deliver a statement before the start of a Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 1, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives to deliver a statement before the start of a Liberal caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, June 1, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

BRAMPTON, Ont. — Justin Trudeau says he remains “deeply committed” to reforming the voting system.

The prime minister reaffirmed his commitment Thursday, one day after he appeared to be preparing to renege on his promise that the 2015 federal election would be the last conducted under the first-past-the-post process.

“I think it’s important that a country as forward thinking and constantly improving and evolving as Canada is alert to opportunities to improve our systems of governance and the way we pick our governments,” Trudeau said after taking part in the official opening of Amazon Canada’s new warehouse and distribution centre in Brampton, Ont.

“That’s a commitment we made in our election that I continue to be deeply committed to.”

Trudeau’s reassurance was in contrast to an interview published Wednesday in Montreal’s Le Devoir newspaper, in which the prime minister said that any major reform to the voting system will require “substantial” support.

At the same time, he suggested that the public clamour for reform had subsided since the Liberals defeated Stephen Harper’s Conservatives one year ago.

“Under the current system, (Canadians) now have a government they’re more satisfied with and the motivation to change the electoral system is less compelling,” he told Le Devoir.

The interview touched off accusations that Trudeau is preparing to abandon his campaign promise to scrap first-past-the-post, an oft-criticized voting system that resulted in Trudeau’s Liberals winning 54 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons despite capturing less than 40 per cent of the popular vote.

NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen told the Commons that the prime minister seems to think “that because he won the last election the system must now be perfect.”

“Canadians are tired of self-serving politicians making promises just to get elected,” he added.

In Brampton, Trudeau noted that the government created a special all-party committee to explore alternative voting systems and sort through the wide range of different perspectives and proposals for reform. That committee is to report back with its recommendations by Dec. 1.

“I’m not going to preclude the arguments that they will be making and conclusions they will be drawing, but I will simply say I look forward to hearing those perspectives and looking at how Canadians wish to move forward on changing our electoral system,” he said.

However, with each party looking out for its own partisan interests, committee members may well find it impossible to reach a broad, cross-party consensus, which chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand has said should be a prerequisite for any major change to election laws.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef reiterated Thursday that the government “will not move forward on any reforms without the broad support of Canadians.” And she urged opposition committee members “to work together and provide us with one report outlining the areas where they’ve been able to find common ground.”

That seems unlikely. The Conservatives have vowed to oppose any reform until it is first put to a national referendum, a route the government is reluctant to take and which killed electoral reform initiatives in three provinces in the past.

New Democrats and Greens support a proportional voting system, in which a party’s share of seats reflects its share of the popular vote.

The Liberals profess to be open-minded. But in the past, Trudeau has expressed a preference for a system of ranked balloting, which would be much simpler to implement but which opposition parties claim would work to the advantage of the Liberals.

In the Le Devoir interview, Trudeau said less dramatic changes to the voting system would require less public support _ possibly in an attempt to persuade the NDP and Greens to accept that a ranked ballot system would be better than no reform at all.

However, Kelly Carmichael, executive director of Fair Vote Canada, told the all-party committee Thursday that proportional representation is “the only legitimate choice.”

Of the 99 experts who’ve testified during the committee’s hearings, she said more than 90 favoured some form of PR; only five favoured a ranked ballot, which would not result in a distribution of seats proportional to votes cast.

With files from Liam Casey in Brampton, Ont.

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