A messy Liberal response

Both federal and provincial parties bungle democratic renewal issue

Wayne Young comments@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on December 31, 2016

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef responds to a question in the House of Commons in this Wednesday, Dec 14, 2016 file photo.


Messy may be an apt word to describe the way Premier Wade MacLauchlan and his federal counterpart, Justin Trudeau, have so far handled electoral reform.

In his year-end review with The Guardian, the Island premier said renewal on a number of issues including democratic renewal was a big challenge in 2016 and that, sometimes, it can be “messy.”


After consulting with Islanders across the province last spring, an all-party committee of MLAs recommended a plebiscite with five options on the ballot. That vote went ahead in November and more than 50 per cent of Islanders who turned out voted to scrap first past the post, a system that gives the candidate with the most votes in each riding the seat and frequently lead to lopsided governments. They voted to replace it with Mixed Member Proportional, a hybrid system that would ensure the number of seats each party gets would be equal to that party’s share of the popular vote.

To that point, the process was straightforward and hardly messy. But the government’s response certainly was.

They questioned if it was actually a clear majority and cited the low voter turnout (36.5 per cent) as reasons the result was “debatable.” The plebiscite became a springboard to a full-fledged referendum in conjunction with the 2019 election rather than a vote for immediate change. The choice will be between MMP and a second option as yet to be determined. So even if MMP is the preferred choice, Islanders won’t be able to vote under the new system until at least 2023.

Federally, the prospect of first past the post being retired anytime soon seems even more remote. When the Liberals were mired in Third Party status before the last federal election Justin Trudeau promised, if elected, that 2015 would be the last election using first past the post. It was clear, unambiguous and repeated more than once during the 2015 campaign.

Canadians rewarded Trudeau with a majority government but barely a year into his first mandate, he told a Quebec newspaper the urgency for that kind of change had passed. He reasoned, incredibly, that people unhappy with former Prime Minister Stephen Harper wanted electoral reform to get rid of him. But that same system gave them a government they are more satisfied with (his) “and the motivation to want to change the electoral system is less compelling,” the PM said.

Soon afterwards, Trudeau’s minister in charge of Democratic Renewal, Maryam Monsef, panned the report of an all-party committee on electoral reform after it recommended a new proportional voting system along with a national referendum to gauge public support for it. Trudeau seems to be putting more stock in a minority report from Liberal members of the committee who said it would be “irresponsible” to go ahead with a referendum before the next election.

So while Islanders settle for another vote on electoral reform in three years time, it’s becoming clear that voters at the federal level likely won’t even get that opportunity.

As 2016 draws to a close, many who dared hope for a swift change in the way they elect their politicians are deeply disappointed.

Provincially, the can has been kicked down the road for at least seven years and federally, it seems the can is being punted right out of the park.

Messy, indeed.



- Wayne Young is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.