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'Real change' will ring empty without electoral reform

Remember how Stephen Harper's 2011 majority victory was so frequently derided by progressives as illegitimate, because he received less than 40 per cent of the popular vote?

Remember how Stephen Harper’s 2011 majority victory was so frequently derided by progressives as illegitimate, because he received less than 40 per cent of the popular vote? Funny how these same voices now seem silent, although Justin Trudeau now finds himself in precisely the same position.

In any case, such wonky outcomes could become a thing of the past if the Liberals make good on one of their big campaign commitments, to ensure that Monday’s vote will be Canada’s last “first-past-the-post” federal election.

That is, of course, a considerable “if.” Electoral reform, has been said, is for losers: it invariably sounds attractive to those hurt by our electoral system’s quirks, but far less so once you become a beneficiary of the status quo.

Yet the Liberals have been awfully specific with this commitment, in a way that would make it difficult for them to later fudge or foot-drag over. “We are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system,” the Liberal platform states.

It goes on to say that a parliamentary committee would soon be struck to study options -“such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting and online voting” - to prepare legislation within 18 months.

If the Liberals had simply won a minority government, they could be excused for not meeting this target. But, having won a majority, they will have no good excuse if they don’t deliver on this. It would be a broken promise.

Trudeau has indicated he personally prefers switching over to a ranked ballot. This would be worthwhile, if not for the simple reason that it would end all the handwringing over strategic voting once and for all.

Such a scheme would see voters rank candidates by preference. If no single candidate won a majority upon first counting, the lowest-ranking candidate would be eliminated and his or her votes would be redistributed to those ballots’ second picks, and so on until a majority is reached.

Here in the Yukon, that would have allowed left-leaning voters who preferred the NDP’s Melissa Atkinson to support her, while making the Liberals’ Larry Bagnell their second pick, without worries that voting by their heart would result inadvertently benefit the Conservatives.

Of course, that still offers no guarantee that each party ends up with a share of MPs in line with their popular vote. Parties with thinly spread support, such as the Greens, would continue to remain particularly disadvantaged. That’s why both the NDP and the Greens support switching to some form of proportional representation.

But the fairness promised under such systems comes at a cost. Some methods involve topping up the number of MPs held by under-represented parties, usually by allowing these parties to appoint additional members. This puts more power in the hands of party operatives and creates a class of MPs that are not directly accountable to constituents. And, to avoid flooding Parliament with too many MPs, proportional representation would probably involve bigger, amalgamated ridings. Obviously, merging northern Canada’s riding together would be a non-starter with residents here.

Proportional representation would also nearly ensure minority governments. You could view this as a good thing, in that it would force our parties to be more cooperative with each other. But some worry it could also lead to political gridlock. Countries with proportional representation also sometimes end up in situations in which fringe parties end up wielding disproportionate clout as kingmakers to a functional coalition.

Boosters of electoral reform note that most of the world’s democracies use some method other than first-past-the-post. But sweeping change may be a tough sell to many Canadians - when electoral reform was put to a referendum in Ontario in 2007 and British Columbia in 2009, voters in both cases said no.

The Liberals’ promise to fiddle with Canada’s electoral system is part of a broader reform package. It includes a vow to allow government MPs to cast more free votes. Trudeau has also promised to reverse the accumulation of power within the Prime Minister’s Office that began under his father’s reign and reached its pinnacle with the control-freak tendencies of Stephen Harper.

Of course, these are also promises that are far easier to make before power is within your grasp. Trudeau has already shown a certain, shall we say, flexibility when it comes to living up to his promises of empowering individual MPs. During the run-up to the election he meddled with party nominations in some ridings, despite vowing to not do so.

It will also be interesting to see whether the new Liberal caucus decides to hand itself some new independence, by opting into provisions provided by the recently passed Reform Act. As a first order of business, Liberal MPs will be expected to vote on whether to let caucus as a whole, rather than the party leader, decide such things as whether to turf unruly members.

Our Liberal MP, Larry Bagnell, should remember that his 2011 electoral loss had much to do with both vote splitting and the party discipline that required him to prop up the long-gun registry. He touted his party’s reform commitments during the election, so there will be an expectation among voters that he exerts pressure that these promises are fulfilled.

Bagnell has also said that he supports the Reform Act. Time for him to show that’s true by encouraging his caucus members to pick the path of greater independence.