Of course the Liberals broke their electoral reform promise

It turns out that the federal election of 2015 will not, in fact, be the last vote to take place under the first-past-the-post electoral system. The Liberal campaign promise of electoral reform is officially dead.

It turns out that the federal election of 2015 will not, in fact, be the last vote to take place under the first-past-the-post electoral system. The Liberal campaign promise of electoral reform is officially dead.

I’m not surprised. The Liberal promise was problematic from the word go. As is so often the case in politics, the desire to maintain power won out over more idealistic considerations like fixing our democratic deficit and bringing election seat counts more in line with the popular vote.

The Liberals always knew what they wanted reform to look like. They wanted some sort of ranked ballot system where voters get a chance to pick a second choice in case their first choice wasn’t going to win.

The problem was that it was so blatantly self-interested.

Ranked ballots are favourable to compromise parties of the centre. Political views typically fall on a spectrum and few Conservatives and NDP voters name one another as their second choice. If they don’t get their first choice they will usually (reluctantly) settle for an alternative that is closer to their beliefs — the next best thing, in essence — and for voters of both main Opposition parties, that tends to be the Liberals.

The problem for the Liberals was how to bestow upon their handpicked choice the legitimacy it needed to be widely accepted.

The Liberals knew that they couldn’t just legislate it. Tinkering with the electoral process in such a self-interested and unilateral manner would have been perceived as illegitimate and lead to an ugly court battle. Imposing a ranked ballot would have been seen as a profoundly cynical way to solidify the party’s electoral advantage.

They could have agreed to hold a referendum and let the people weigh in. But, for whatever reason, the Liberals rejected that idea. This refusal may have torpedoed whatever chances electoral reform might have had.

Next, the government tried to get the legitimacy of a referendum by creating a multi-party committee that removed some of the Liberals’ control.

It would not have been a bad idea if they were genuinely committed to reform. I’m not sure that it was a meaningful substitute for a referendum but if you don’t want to put the matter to a vote, the least you can do is give your opponents a meaningful say on that matter. That way it doesn’t look like your consolidating your grip on power like some strongman dictator.

But the problem with that should have been patently obvious: the other parties don’t want a ranked ballot.

The NDP and Greens each have their own ideas for electoral reform. They have long been in favour of a move towards some sort of system of proportional representation. And the Conservative Party, on the other hand, thinks that first-past-the-post is just peachy and doesn’t see any reason to fix what isn’t broken.

To be fair, neither of these positions is any less cynical than the Liberal preference for a ranked ballot. A move away from first-past-the-post would the Conservatives out of power for a generation, and the status quo works very poorly for parties of the left with their thinly-spread political base. Politics is politics, and people tend to support those things that increase their power and oppose those that decrease it. This phenomenon is hardly confined to the Liberals.

After winning the battle for control of the committee studying the issue, the Opposition parties played their cards brilliantly. They voted together to propose a referendum pitting proportional representation against first past the post in a head to head battle.

All could find something to be happy about in the compromise. The NDP and Greens at least got a shot at transforming the electoral system into something more favourable to their interests (or values, whatever). They didn’t like the idea of a referendum; Canadians tend to vote no in referenda. But it was the best they could hope for in the circumstances.

Likewise, the Conservatives probably felt pretty good about their odds of keeping the status quo, despite the roll of the dice that a referendum would mean.

Even better, the referendum proposal placed the Liberals between that famous rock and a hard place.

Politically self-interested Liberals, like their Conservative colleagues, will prefer first-past-the-post. Save for brief interludes of minority governments, the two parties have been either in complete control or wholly shut out of power for as long as we have existed as a country. Very little power sharing has been necessary.

It really burns the left wing of the Liberal Party to see Conservatives in power even when most Canadians don’t support the Tories, but all told, the status quo hasn’t worked too badly for the Liberals. They have no interest in having to find a junior partner party to form a coalition government.

Breaking a high stakes promise will no doubt carry consequences for the Liberals. But that’s better for them than risking their ability to monopolize power in the future.

And so here we are. Electoral reform isn’t happening. It isn’t because there is no appetite for change.

It is because this is politics and power was at stake. Let us not, even for a moment, pretend that it was anything else.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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