by Devon Rowcliffe

Incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau faces the opportunity to achieve one of the greatest democratic reforms in Canadian history.  Rather tantalizingly, this objective could be achieved within just two years—a mere fraction of the time it took former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien to enact his boldest democratic reforms.

Trudeau’s Liberals have promised that the 2015 federal election will be the last such contest that utilizes the first-past-the-post voting system. Their pledge is to “convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots [and] proportional representation,” and that electoral reform legislation will be introduced within 18 months of forming government.

This timeframe is startlingly rapid compared to the reign of Chrétien—he didn’t unveil his most brazen democratic reforms until the final year of his decade-plus mandate. The highlight of his delayed feat was a ban against corporate and union donations to political parties, meant to address concerns that “big money” had an insidious effect upon Canadian politics.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the 2015 federal election campaign.   (Photo by Day Donaldson; some rights reserved)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during the 2015 federal election campaign. (Photo by Day Donaldson; some rights reserved)

If Trudeau has the tenacity, his achievements in democratic reform could easily overshadow those of Chrétien. Were Canada to adopt an electoral system that results in proportional representation, such a monumental change would mean the end of false-majority governments and strategic voting, as well as the dawn of a parliament that reflects the true, aggregate will of the country’s electorate. Enacting proportional representation would also usher in a new era of consensus politics in which political parties would be compelled to cooperate with each other to pass legislation, curtailing the venomous parliamentary debates that achieve little other than vacuous, defamatory theatre.

A less courageous option for Trudeau would instead be to adopt ranked ballots, also known as “instant-runoff voting” or “alternative vote.” This is a relatively obscure electoral system, currently used by Australia’s lower house, and previously utilized provincially in Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia between the 1920s and 1950s.

Many political cynics, myself included, expect that the Liberals will choose ranked ballots instead of proportional representation, because doing so would be in their self-interest for two reasons. First, ranked ballots tend to favour centrist parties, and would likely produce favourable election results for the Liberals.

Justin Trudeau campaigning during the spring of 2014.   (Photo by Alex Guibord; some rights reserved)

Justin Trudeau campaigning during the spring of 2014. (Photo by Alex Guibord; some rights reserved)

Second, ranked ballots would mean relatively little change from the status quo. Roughly only one in ten ridings would find different results if ranked ballots were adopted. Ranked ballots produce winner-takes-all results that aren’t proportional: they maintain false-majority governments, strategic voting would persist, and the two largest political parties would continue to benefit at the expense of smaller parties. If our current voting system is to be discarded, both the Liberals and Conservatives are likely to favour ranked ballots as the alternative, as it would result in the smallest possible change from the first-past-the-post system that has kept them in power for so long.

Will Trudeau have the fortitude to adopt proportional representation, despite that ranked voting would be more advantageous for the Liberals? Looking back to Chrétien’s 2004 ban against political contributions from corporations and unions, his act could be perceived as stouthearted, given that the Liberals had previously benefitted the most from such donations. Chrétien was committed to use the ban to strengthen Canadian democracy, even though he knew it would hinder his political party in subsequent elections. Some view this historical act as a noble sacrifice—putting the interests of the country before that of one’s own political party.

Will Justin Trudeau have the courage to prioritize democratic reinvigoration over the political advantage of false-majority governments and inflated seat numbers that the Liberals (and Conservatives) have benefitted so much from over the decades? Does Trudeau, like Chrétien before him, have the audacity to make improvements to his country’s democracy that would simultaneously hinder his party’s ability to acquire solitary power again in the future?

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien.   (Photo by Jason Paris; some rights reserved)

Former prime minister Jean Chrétien. (Photo by Jason Paris; some rights reserved)

Unlike Chrétien, however, Trudeau need not wait until the twilight of his time as prime minister to cement a legacy of meaningful democratic reform. He could accomplish it well before the end of his initial four-year term in power—and by doing so, Trudeau would appear more determined to reinforce Canadian democracy than Chrétien had been.

During the recent federal election campaign, the Liberals brandished “real change now” as their slogan. The “now” aspect seems likely, given Trudeau’s promise of introducing legislation within 18 months. But just how “real” of a change is our national voting system about to undergo?

Which is the greater priority for Justin Trudeau: the health of Canada’s democracy, or the Liberal Party’s quest for future power? Whether Trudeau ultimately becomes known as a generational change agent or as a force of inertia who insulates the Big Red Machine will be partly determined by this momentous decision.

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