Yukon Liberal MP Larry Bagnell says his party shouldn’t have made a “categorical” commitment to change the voting system if it wasn’t sure it would follow through.
Bagnell spoke to the News from Ottawa on Valentine’s Day, after about 40 people gathered outside his office in downtown Whitehorse to protest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent about-face on electoral reform, carrying signs shaped like broken hearts.
Trudeau promised throughout his election campaign that the 2015 election would be Canada’s last under the first-past-the-post voting system.
But on Feb. 1, his mandate letter to newly appointed Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould made it clear that’s no longer a priority.
“Changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate,” the prime minister wrote.
Bagnell said the rally was a good way to vent frustration and send a message to Trudeau.
“I can totally understand how there’s a group that feel very passionate that there needs to be a change,” he said.
Still, Bagnell was reluctant to give his own views on electoral reform. Asked if he agreed with his government’s decision to scrap its campaign promise, he paused for several seconds.
“I was surprised we made the promise so categorical in the first place,” he said. “I don’t think we should have made a categorical promise if there was a possibility that we wouldn’t proceed.”
Bagnell said it’s still possible that Canada’s voting system could change. If there were a minority government, he said, the opposition parties could demand electoral reform in exchange for supporting the governing party.
But he refused to speculate on the reasons for Trudeau’s change of heart. “I know as much as everyone else,” he said. “I don’t make a judgment on his decisions.”
At the Whitehorse rally on Feb. 14, organizer Jason LaChappelle was more direct.
“Obviously, he’s chosen the interests of his party over the interests of governance and democracy in Canada,” he told the News.
Around him, protesters signed a large, heart-shaped Valentine’s Day card addressed to Bagnell and Trudeau that read, “You’re breaking your promise … and you’re breaking our hearts.”
“Hey, hey, Trudeau, first past the post has got to go!” they chanted.
Tuesday’s event was heavy with NDP and Green Party supporters. Both parties fared poorly in the 2015 federal election, which saw the Liberals win a majority government with 39.5 per cent of the vote.
Gerald Haase, riding president of the Yukon Federal Green Party, said it’s unfair that Liberal MPs like Bagnell were elected with a few thousand votes — Bagnell won just under 11,000 votes in 2015 — while the 600,000 votes cast for the Green Party across Canada elected only one MP, leader Elizabeth May.
“Prime Minister Trudeau would like to change the topic. Naturally the governing party will gamble on short memories,” he told the crowd. “It will be up to citizens like us and like-minded folk to remind our government that we can do better.”
Francois Picard, with the Yukon federal NDP, said it’s important not to let disappointment turn to cynicism. “We can’t afford that. We have to keep hope,” he told the protesters.
Waiting to sign the Valentine’s Day card, Heather Johnson told the News she attended the rally because she’s “really pissed off that the Liberals promised electoral reform and have not followed through with that promise.”
“They’re not even taking any step forward to improve the electoral system,” she said.
Still, those gathered seemed to retain some hope that the voting system could still change.
“They can always change their mind. It’s still two years away from the next election,” LaChappelle said, suggesting the Liberals may realize that those who voted strategically for them in 2015 are less likely to do it again if they don’t make good on their promises.
“It’s not over yet.”
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