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Trudeau’s Use and Abandonment of Electoral Reform: Will the Zombie Walk Again?

June 01, 2017

Yesterday in the House of Commons a vote was held on a motion to support voter reform.  It was defeated: of 305 votes, 146 were in favour, while 159 were against.  (Those against were all Liberals; however, it is interesting to note that two Liberals broke ranks with the Trudeau government and voted to keep electoral reform alive.)

But is electoral reform really dead?  Could it be Undead?  Perhaps it is a zombie political idea?

It seems, at least to me, to be a Trudeau-zombie idea.

That Trudeau broke his promise to reform how we elect our federal government is well-known and well-documented.  The arguments as to why it was an immoral act have also been well-documented.  I have even written on this as well.

But this is not the only time that Trudeau promised voter reform as part of a campaign for power and then scuttled it.

In December of 2013, shortly after becoming the Liberal leader, Trudeau stated that the Liberal party needed a “total reboot”.

He was very clear about what a total reboot meant. Let us consider Trudeau’s words.

“That means that every candidate for the Liberal Party in 338 ridings in 2015, or whenever the election does come, will have been chosen in a free vote by the Liberal members of that riding.”

In other words, if you are a Liberal party member, then you and the other Liberal members of your riding will choose who runs as a Liberal in your riding.

That was a bold and admirable promise to democratize the Liberal candidate selection process, breaking with many years of Liberal history.  Trudeau’s predecessors, especially Jean Chretien, often decided who got to run as a Liberal.  Traditionally, Liberal candidate selection was often top-down.

No question many Liberal candidates in the 2015 election were freely chosen by their riding association members.  But it is interesting to note that several were not—or at least have their nomination surrounded by controversy.

It is more interesting to note that quite often those Liberal candidates who were arguably not chosen by riding members and were instead parachuted in by Trudeau, became important members of the government, such as International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland , Heritage Minister Melanie Joly and Defence Minister Harjitt Sajjan, as well as government whip Andrew Leslie.

Trudeau is fully within his rights as Liberal leader to ultimately decide who runs as a Liberal.  That is not the point.

The point is that he promised to open up the selection process, to democratize it, but then did not.

But promising democracy, promising power to the people is an excellent selling point.  It has, I would maintain, worked very well for the Prime Minister: twice. 

It certainly helped him energize a lethargic Liberal party to raise hopes for people who wanted to run as Liberals and to inspire many of the general Canadian electorate to vote for a large-scale electoral reform.

However, this promise of true power to an electorate, but not fully delivering it, reminds me of the views that people of privilege often have, namely, that the average person simply cannot be trusted with full power. 

I hate to admit it, but this is, in many ways, an old Platonic argument. 

And it is no secret that Plato disliked democracy—a lot.

Traditionally, democrats who were against full democracies, afraid and unwilling to give full power to the people, always managed to insert a layer between full power and the electorate.  The electoral college system in the US is a great example of this safety layer.

Trudeau was very honest about how he ultimately does not trust the Canadian electorate with full democratic power when he rejected proportional representation.  He worried that just anyone could start a party and receive votes and possibly affect the decisions and directions of the country.  

That is to worry about what would happen if people in general really held the reins of power.

It is entirely possible that we should worry about handing over full power to the people, that things would go wrong if we did. 

That is not my point here.

My point, once again, is the questionable practice of promising this power but then breaking that promise.

We will see if Trudeau’s democratization zombie goes for a third walk in 2019.




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