Why we broke our electoral reform promise. Signed, a Liberal MP.

An earnest open letter unintentionally exposes the government’s weak position

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in Quebec City, October 19, 2015. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

(Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

When I saw that Liberal MP Jonathan Wilkinson had published an open letter to his constituents about his party breaking its promise to bring about landmark electoral reform, I was eager to read it.

For any government backbencher to invite scrutiny by staking out a personal position on this glaring failure to follow through on a clear election pledge would be interesting. Coming from this star 2015 recruit—the rookie from Vancouver North is a former Rhodes Scholar, constitutional negotiator and clean-tech business executive—I expected something with heft.

I was wrong. The letter doesn’t pack any punch. I’m taking a look at it here anyway, not to pick on Wilkinson, but because the points he tries to make are being put out there, with variations, by all sorts of Liberals, including in some respects the Prime Minister.

Wilkinson sets out by declaring that while he was all for ditching the old first-past-the-post election system, he was also “very clear” during the 2015 campaign and after that he didn’t think the Liberals should try to impose any alternative without the support of other parties.

Sensible. Unfortunately, Justin Trudeau didn’t make his promise conditional on securing agreement across party lines. So I’m not sure how a lone MP declaring his own more prudent view is all that relevant now, unless it’s to hint that the original platform pledge should have come with caveats attached.

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Wilkinson goes on to observe that, during discussion since the election about changing how Canadians vote, including at a town hall in his own riding, he detected no public consensus emerging on what sort of new system would be best.

No doubt that’s true. How could it be otherwise? The Liberal government never risked proposing any model around which that consensus might have gathered. Having conspicuously shirked the essential work of trying to pitch a policy, Trudeau can hardly complain now about the failure of one to spontaneously materialize.

On a closely related point, Wilkinson puts special emphasis on the fact that “only a very, very small fraction” of Canadians took part in consultations held on electoral reform. This shows, he suggests, that the country doesn’t care all that much about this issue, compared with more urgent concerns like jobs and climate change.

I wonder if he’s looked at what fraction of Canadians ever participate in, say, pre-budget consultations on jobs, or what slice of the population was directly engaged by Environment Canada’s outreach on climate change? If he did, maybe Wilkinson would be forced to conclude that most Canadians aren’t bothered much about anything.

And finally, in what he appears to imagine is his clincher, Wilkinson argues that for the Liberal government to try to pursue electoral reform on its own terms would plunge Canada into a needless national squabble. “Is debating the Canadian electoral system and fighting over this issue really what Canadians want to be focused on and want their political leaders to be focused on over the next 12-18 months?” he asks.

Well, no, I wouldn’t think so. Why did Trudeau ever promise to take on this daunting task then? Why did he commit to fulfilling it within a mere 18 months of being elected? It was obvious from the outset that overhauling the way Canadians mark a ballot, jettisoning the only way of picking their MPs that they have ever known, would never happen without a prolonged and political capital-intensive battle.

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At no point did anyone who reflected seriously on electoral reform imagine it could be accomplished easily, or that popular opinion would readily fasten upon this goal as a top priority. Yet Wilkinson writes: “Governments should be accountable for the platforms on which they campaign. It is however essential that as circumstances change, as views are clarified and as new issues and realities emerge, governments must also be flexible.”

That’s a plausible sketch of the difference between drafting a platform and running a government. And flexibility sounds like a governing virtue, or at least a useful trait. But how does his plea for pliability apply in this particular case? After all, no directly relevant circumstances changed, no new realities emerged, to provide plausible cover for such a notable display of limberness on the government’s part.

Or, rather, there’s been one big change that looks germane. The Liberals went from making this promise when they were an opposition party that regarded the electoral system as favouring the Conservatives, to abandoning it as a governing party that has come to see the status quo as just fine.

I wouldn’t expect a backbench Liberal MP to frankly address that calculation. Wilkinson probably should have held his fire, though, rather than issuing such a weak salvo in defence of breaking this promise—and in the process highlighting, unintentionally, of course, what a rash pledge it was to make in the first place.

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