Electoral reform needs 'substantial' support, clamour for change subsiding: PM
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OTTAWA — Is Justin Trudeau laying the groundwork for reneging on his promise to make the 2015 federal election the last to be conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system?
Or is the prime minister trying to drive a hard bargain with the NDP and Greens to abandon their own ambitious preference for a proportional voting system and settle for a more modest change to a ranked ballot system?
Those questions were touched off Wednesday by an interview Trudeau gave to Montreal's Le Devoir newspaper.
In it, Trudeau said major electoral reforms would require "substantial" support. But he simultaneously argued that the public clamour for change seems to have diminished 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 said.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair took that as clear evidence that Trudeau is preparing to break his promise on electoral reform.
"I do believe that Mr. Trudeau is showing the type of cynicism that he used to always decry when he was in opposition," Mulcair said.
"What could be more cynical that to say, 'You know what? This is a totally unfair system because it allowed Stephen Harper to get a massive majority with only 39 per cent of the vote,' and then, exactly one year later, say, "Oh, but by the way, it's a darn good system because it allowed Justin Trudeau to get a massive majority with just 39 per cent of the vote.'"
But the prime minister also told Le Devoir that the same high level of support wouldn't be necessary for less dramatic changes to the voting system — which could arguably apply to ranked balloting, a system Trudeau at one time openly preferred.
"Less support and a small change could be acceptable. A bigger change would take greater support," he said, adding that what constitutes a big or small change is a matter that requires reflection after "rigorous and intelligent conversations" with Canadians.
Unlike complicated proportional voting systems favoured by the NDP and Green party, a ranked ballot system would be relatively simple to introduce, requiring no change to riding boundaries or the number of MPs. It would not, however, ensure a more proportional distribution of seats.
The only change would be that voters would rank their first, second and subsequent choices on the ballot. The candidate with the fewest votes would be dropped and his or her supporters' second choices would be counted and so on until one candidate emerged with more than 50 per cent.
Opposition parties fear a ranked ballot would favour the centrist Liberals. But some electoral reform experts say that's not necessarily the case; it would end the need for strategic voting and thus actually benefit small parties like the NDP and Greens.
An all-party committee that has been studying alternatives to first-past-the-post wrapped up its cross-country hearings last week. It has until Dec. 1 to report back to Parliament with its recommendations but, with each party looking out for its own partisan interests, it may be impossible to find a consensus.
Trudeau's comments may simply reflect that reality. Or he may be hoping to persuade New Democrats and Greens to accept ranked balloting as better than nothing.
The Conservatives have vowed to oppose any change that is not first put to a vote in a national referendum — a costly and potentially divisive route the government is reluctant to take and which has killed past attempts in three provinces to reform the electoral system.
Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose said Wednesday that 90 per cent of Canadians consulted by her MPs want a referendum on any change to the voting system.
"Mr. Trudeau is on the wrong side of this issue. So maybe he's backing down," she said of his Le Devoir interview.
Under prodding from Mulcair in the Commons, Trudeau declined to repeat his pledge that last fall's election will be the last run under first-past-the-post. And he ridiculed the NDP leader for demanding that the government support a proportional voting system.
"In the spring, the member opposite (Mulcair) was tremendously worried that we would use our majority to ram through changes to our electoral system and we worked with them to demonstrate the hard work that a committee could do, hearing all perspectives," Trudeau said.
"Now, he's changed his mind and he wants us to use our majority to ram through electoral change."