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Will Trudeau end up regretting his decision to walk away from electoral reform?

The House of Commons will vote next week on Motion 86. Sponsored by NDP MP Lisa Marie Barron, the motion calls on the federal government to establish a citizens assembly to “determine if electoral reform is recommended for Canada, and, if so, recommend specific measures that would foster a healthier democracy.”

If anything distinguishes this proposal, it’s the cross-party support it enjoys. So far, the motion has been jointly seconded by 20 MPs, including 10 Liberals, the two Greens and Conservative MP Ben Lobb. During debate in the House last fall, the Bloc Quebecois indicated it also will vote in favour of the motion.

But Barron’s motion will still have a hard time winning the House’s endorsement unless the Liberal government decides to support it. Lobb aside, the Conservatives have shown little interest in electoral reform.

Even if it goes down to defeat, it might at least reveal how many Liberal MPs still carry a torch for electoral reform. In its own small way, it revives memories of the calamitous reform adventure that marked the early years of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s time in office.

But it also puts electoral reform back on the agenda ahead of a federal election that may raise new questions about the wisdom of Trudeau’s decision to walk away from reform.

A woman in a cobalt blue suit speaks into a microphone
New Democrat MP Lisa Marie Barron is sponsoring a motion calling for a citizens assembly on electoral reform. (CBC)

It’s impossible to predict with any real certainty what the result of the next federal election will be. But for now, consider a hypothetical result based on recent polling.

In the most recent survey results published by Abacus Data, the Conservatives were polling at 40 per cent, the Liberals at 25 per cent and the NDP at 20 per cent. The Writ’s Eric Grenier currently projects that the Conservatives would win 194 of 338 seats if an election happened tomorrow, followed by the Liberals with 76 seats.

It’s impossible to know exactly how things would shake out under a different system. Both the make-up and positioning of parties and voter behaviour likely would change. But for the sake of argument, you can imagine what the same polling numbers would produce in a system of proportional representation — the sort of system preferred by most of electoral reform’s most passionate supporters, including New Democrats.

In that alternate reality, where the distribution of seats matches each party’s share of the national vote, the next election would result in a House with 135 Conservatives, 85 Liberals and 68 New Democrats.

The key takeaway is that, under proportional representation, the Conservatives would fall well short of a majority and, theoretically, would then have to work with other parties to pass legislation.

Trudeau walked away from electoral reform, in part, because of his misgivings about proportional representation. He said he feared that such a system would empower fringe parties. He maintains a preference for a ranked ballot, in which voters rank local candidates according to preference.

But if the Conservatives win a majority in the next election with something less than 50 per cent of the popular vote, there undoubtedly will be voices — progressive voices, in particular — who argue the flaw in Trudeau’s position, and in Canada’s electoral system writ large, has been freshly exposed.

Arguments for and against reform

There are two ways to judge an existing or proposed electoral system.

First, there’s the basic issue of fairness — whether the system produces a result that is broadly representative and fair to voters. Second, there are the downstream effects — the sorts of politics and governments that would tend to result from the system.

But the debate about electoral reform in Canada isn’t just about picking the best system. It’s also a debate about how that decision should be made.

A citizens assembly might stand the best chance of fostering public consensus. But it wouldn’t necessarily prevent a fierce partisan debate about change. And a government still might be compelled to hold a national referendum before proceeding — an exercise that very easily could become divisive enough to leave lasting scars on the country.

That doesn’t necessarily mean reform is a Pandora’s box that must never be opened. It does mean the potential impact of doing so has to be part of the calculation.

Elections Canada workers place signage at the Halifax Convention Centre as they prepare for the polls to open in the federal election in Halifax on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021.
Elections Canada workers place signage at the Halifax Convention Centre as they prepare for federal election polls to open in Halifax on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Supporters of proportional representation argue that first-past-the-post is fundamentally unfair because the distribution of seats in the legislature does not perfectly match the national vote — and that moving to proportional representation could compel more cross-party cooperation and coalition governments.

But proportional representation also makes it easier for smaller parties — potentially more extreme ones — to gain seats. With seats in Parliament, an extremist party would then have a greater platform to promote their ideas and could end up in a position where other parties have to cater to their views to pass legislation.

Beyond the risk of extremist parties, there’s the risk that proportional representation would fracture the Canadian party system in other unproductive ways, leading to the creation of a dozen niche or regional parties — a splintering that might be alarming in a country as large and regionally diverse as Canada.

The flip side of that is what first-past-the-post can produce — a party that only has the support of 40 per cent of Canadians wielding a great amount of power to dictate national public policy. The Liberals were one such party after winning just 39 per cent of the vote in 2015.

What Trudeau feared then vs. what might happen now

In theory, first-past-the-post should push parties toward the centre because they have to have fairly broad appeal to win enough seats to hold power. But while in 2017 Trudeau was fretting about the “fringe” views of Kellie Leitch, the former Conservative leadership candidate, Liberals now say they’re worried that Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is bringing “far-right, American-style” politics to Canada — and Poilievre has a very real chance of winning a majority government.

Whatever might be said about Poilievre’s “style,” it’s fair to say a Conservative government led by him could be very different in substance from the current Liberal government. Consider climate policy — Poilievre has promised that, at the very least, he would repeal the federal carbon tax and clean fuel regulations, while making it easier to develop oil and gas.

A man in a dark blazer and blue turtleneck sweater stand behind a podium and in front of two red semi-truck trailer cabs.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre campaigns against the carbon tax in Winnipeg. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Without a majority, a Conservative government might have a hard time getting Parliament to approve such changes. But if current polling holds up, the Conservatives could soon be in a position to significantly rewrite Canada’s climate agenda, even if those changes aren’t favoured by a majority of Canadians.

Liberal MP Patrick Weiler, who supports M-86, might have had something like that in mind when he told the House last fall that first-past-the-post has “contributed to dramatic policy shifts that we see in our country, which cause vast uncertainty and impede progress on some critical things, like on climate change.”

If a significant retrenchment of Canadian climate policy comes to pass, a legion of progressive critics will accuse Trudeau not just of botching the electoral reform file but of endangering the fight against climate change in the process.

That argument would have to be balanced against everything else that might be said for or against a move to proportional representation. But there’s also probably a risk to judging an electoral system on the basis of a single election.

The choice to keep or replace an electoral system ideally would be made not only with the next election in mind, but with an eye on the next 20 elections. Electoral reform isn’t a short-term play. Its consequences are long-term.

In that sense, it might be a while before it’s possible to judge Trudeau’s decision.

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