Interview: Trudeau on fixing the way Canadians pick MPs

‘There’s a real question about how we are valuing our votes,’ Liberal leader tells Ottawa bureau chief John Geddes

Adrian Wyld/CP

Adrian Wyld/CP

There were so many proposals jammed into Justin Trudeau’s speech yesterday on democratic reform that his pledge to end the only system Canadians have ever known for electing members of Parliament could almost be lost in the mix.

Almost, but not quite. Trudeau’s promises about, say, improving access to federal information, or and making question period more relevant, or having equal numbers of men and women in cabinet, are all rich fodder for debate. Getting rid of the “first past the post” system—in which the candidate with the most votes gets to become MP and the losers get zilch—would fundamentally change the most important way Canadians express their democratic will.

In an interview late yesterday, Trudeau shed some light on his pledge to end first past the post within a year and a half of forming a government. For starters, I asked him how he could be so sure the time is ripe for some dramatically different way of electing MPs when similar reform ideas were rejected in referendums in British Columbia in 2009, Ontario in 2007 and Prince Edward Island in 2005. In other words, voters in all those provinces, given a choice, decided to stick with the tradition he now vows to jettison.

Trudeau started out by citing his own party’s votes at policy conferences in 2012 in Ottawa and again last year in Montréal in favour of exploring alternative ways of electing MPs. Beyond what Liberals want, however, he pointed to broader signs of voter disengagement—and what he portrays as widespread dissatisfaction with how Stephen Harper won his 2011 Conservative majority.

“I think as we look at declining voter turnout, as we look at the fact that people are increasingly aware that a majority government was given to a party that 60 per cent of Canadians not only didn’t vote for but actively tend to dislike, there’s a real question about how we are valuing our votes,” he said.

Yet Trudeau was far from precise about what system he thinks should replace first past the post. Quite complicated ideas have been floated in the recent past. There are various kinds of proportional representation, in which any party’s share of seats in the House would be closer to the proportion of votes it attracted. There are ranked ballot ideas, such as the system Ontario is now introducing as an option for municipal elections, in which voters rank candidates instead of picking just one.

“We want to make sure there is all-party, open debate, discussion drawing on experts, looking at international models, making sure that we’re actually digging into what’s the best for Canada, in terms of moving forward,” he said, “and not what’s best for a particular party that happens to wield power at this particular moment.”

So Trudeau is pitching a process to find the right reform, rather than a proposal for what that reform might look like. That could be hard to sell on the campaign trail, when voters tend to respond to clarity.

And his proposal for an exploratory process contrasts with the NDP, which clearly favours what’s called mixed-member proportional representation, a combination of direct election of local MPs and additional representation in the House based on a party’s percentage of the overall popular vote.

Trudeau voted against an NDP motion late last year calling for a mix-member proportional system (as did the Conservative caucus, ensuring the motion’s defeat in the House). “[The NDP] said, ‘This is the best solution, this is what the country should do.’ And we’ve said, ‘Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but there needs to be a responsible, open debate’,” he said.

Still, the fact that the NDP has long called for the end of first past the post and the adoption of proportional representation might suggest that Trudeau is only now catching up to Thomas Mulcair. The Liberal leader, not surprisingly, doesn’t see it that way. He said the NDP’s policy, like that of the Green party, has been tainted by the appearance that they are seeking partisan advantage. “I think one of the suspicions that people have of electoral reform is the sense that parties put forward positions that are in their own self-interest,” he said.

If he wins the Oct. 19 election, Trudeau pledges to replace first past the post with something new within 18 months of forming a government. Unlike the provinces that have gone down this path—in fact, largely because of what happened in B.C., Ontario and P.E.I—he sounds flatly skeptical about the notion of a national referendum on the subject.

He said “it hasn’t gone unnoticed by people that electoral reform has had a lot of trouble getting through plebiscites,” promising only “responsible, open consultations” that stop short of asking Canadians to vote on how they’ll vote in future elections.

[We’ll have more from my interview with Justin Trudeau, including a chance to listen to him on this week’s Maclean’s on the Hill podcast, which will be available on this website on Friday evening.]

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