BLOGS: This broken promise feels personal

Julie Maclellan

When the first words I thought of typing were “Dude, you suck,” I realized that I seem to be taking this whole electoral reform issue rather personally.

I so want to be proud of my prime minister right now. I want to be proud of my country. And I am, on some fronts; Justin Trudeau’s willingness to speak out for fairness, diversity and inclusion on all levels still warms my heart. I have faith – mixed with a little cockeyed Canadian optimism - that our prime minister can rise to become the kind of “anti-Trump” that the world is in desperate need of.

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But right now I am so disappointed in him that it’s kind of hurting my heart.

It’s silly, really, that I’m taking this whole thing personally. And by “this whole thing,” I mean Trudeau’s decision to back down from a campaign promise. Newsflash: Politicians break promises. This has got me all cut up why, exactly?

In part it’s because, as promises go, it was pretty damn clear-cut.


We will make every vote count.

We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.

We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting.

This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.


I didn’t have to dig hard to find that wording, by the way; it’s from the Liberal Party of Canada’s own website

Silly me for believing it.

I’m sure Andrew Coyne was right, in his rather scathing National Post column yesterday, that it was ridiculous to actually expect that promise to mean anything. (Read it here, or take this as a summary: “It is not their fault for lying to you. It is your fault for believing them.”)

I get that. I do. But my own naïveté aside, I’m still crushed by the news that this, of all promises, is one Trudeau is backing down on – with the lame excuse that no “consensus” emerged as to which system was best. Which is ridiculous on many levels. For one thing, that promise above made no mention of “consensus” being required. If the promise had been to look at changing the system, or to consider changing the system, or to start discussions about changing the system, then fine, you could play a semantic game about “consensus” and refuse to move forward.

But that promise didn’t leave any wiggle room. And to back out now is entirely unfair on many fronts.

If the process didn’t come up with an entirely satisfactory result, then Trudeau doesn’t have to look far to figure out why: give a committee a too-short timeline and a too-vague mandate, and you’re bound to get exactly the result you deserve.

In part, I’m mad because Trudeau is being, shall we say, somewhat disingenuous at best. Even with the flaws in the system he set up to examine the whole issue, surely it can’t have escaped his notice that a “consensus” did in fact emerge. The consensus was, we want change. We want a fairer system. How that happens is still up for negotiation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fundamentally agree that first-past-the-post has gotta go.

I suspect many Canadians, like me, aren’t wedded to the idea of alternative vote versus mixed-member proportional versus single transferable vote. Although I personally incline towards a mixed-member proportional idea, I would happily consider one of the other alternatives. I’m only wedded to the idea of not first-past-the-post.

I’m wedded to the idea of a voting system that better reflects Canadians’ actual wishes. I want a system that makes room for more than two major parties to play back-and-forth power games while the rest of Canada is consigned to the fringes. I want a system that gives Canadians a legitimate chance to vote their conscience rather than rolling the dice with “strategic voting” to keep candidates or parties out of office. I want a system that convinces people that their vote matters, rather than one that so often seems to produce predetermined outcomes that people stay home because they figure it won't make a difference anyway.

I want a system that doesn’t let a government get absolute power – i.e. a majority government – with less than half the ballots cast. (Not to mention all those who don’t even bother to cast ballots, making any mandate to govern even less convincing.)

I want a system that doesn’t give Justin Trudeau the ability to run roughshod over Canadians' opinions with 39.5% of the popular vote – as Stephen Harper did before him, with just about the same percentage of the vote.

While we’re arguing numbers, I must point out that, in 2015, 62.6% of Canadians voted for either the Liberals, the NDP or the Greens – all three of the major parties who included electoral reform promises in their platforms. So really, if a majority mandate were needed to implement electoral reform, you could argue that Canadians have already given it one.

I know, I know. We’ll never know how many of those voters cast their ballots based on this issue, so the last federal election wasn’t really a fair “referendum” on electoral reform.

But if you have no intention of changing the system, then here’s a simple idea: Don’t make the damn promise in the first place. Say you think the system works fine (and really, if you’ve just cruised to a majority government with a minority of the popular vote, I’m thinking the system looks pretty good), argue that it produces good governments and has been doing so since 1867 and there’s no reason to change it now, then move on.

Just don’t pretend you care about change and then use some half-baked excuse as a reason to back down. And don’t pretend this doesn’t matter to Canadians – you know, the people who put you in power.

This, I think, is why I’m taking this broken promise personally. And why it’s disappointing me more than your average broken promise from your average politician.

There are people out there who voted for Trudeau and his MPs because of this promise. The Liberals gained support from some who might otherwise have gone NDP or Green, because they saw the party as a real alternative for the future. In backing down on this promise, Trudeau has let those people – and all of the rest of us – down.

Not only that, but he’s managed to do it at the worst possible time.

With insanity running rampant south of the border, people’s skepticism about politicians and the democratic process has never been higher. (I mean, if “democracy” can produce President Donald Trump, what else can it get wrong?) The last thing we need right now is more proof that politicians lie and that democracy sucks.

Here’s the thing, Mr. Trudeau: You failed. And/or you just plain lied.

Either way, I’m profoundly disappointed in you. I was holding you to a higher standard because the world, right now, is so desperately in need of leaders who will take the high road. Leaders who won’t just bluster but who’ll follow through with thoughtful decisions. Leaders who won’t take wishy-washy stances on issues that matter but who’ll be prepared to step up and lead.

I’m disappointed because I believed - or at least, hoped really really really hard - there was more to you than style. Because I thought that, behind the carefully cultivated image and the masterfully crafted “brand,” there was a politician who was actually ready to step up and do things right.

Maybe there is. Maybe all is not lost. Maybe you can convince me – and the rest of Canada – that you’re prepared to do more than talk a good game. Lord knows there are enough national and international issues demanding attention right now that you’re going to have plenty of chances to prove your mettle.

But I’ve been ranting about electoral reform for such a long time that to have someone promise it and bring us so tantalizingly close, only to yank it away – well, to say it’s damaged my trust in you is an understatement.

So get back to work. Prove that you are capable of more leadership than you’ve shown on this issue. Stand up and show Canadians, and the world, what you're made of. What Canada is made of.

Then, and only then, can you earn back the trust you've lost.

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