In early February, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that he would not be making any changes to Canada’s electoral rules. This might be a non-story, if Trudeau and his supporters hadn’t pledged 1,813 times to reform the system, according to an opposition party’s count.
1) What were the voting options?
During Canada’s 2015 federal election, trailing in third place, Trudeau promised voters this “election will be the last federal election using first-past-the-post.” Canadians vote like Americans vote for Congress: Whoever gets the most votes in a riding (or district) wins the seat in the House of Commons. In Canada, the party with the most seats in the House forms government, and its leader becomes prime minister.
Trudeau didn’t commit to any specific reform but favored a ranked ballot system where voters would list their choices first, second, third, and so on. To win, a candidate would need a majority of the votes. Absent a majority of first-place votes, a candidate would win the seat if she won a majority of the first- and second-place votes. If no candidate could claim a majority of first- and second-place votes, then election officials would tally third-place votes, and so on. Ireland and Australia use variants of this system.
In practical terms, this system would favor Trudeau’s Liberal Party, which sits in the center of the Canadian political spectrum. Voters who don’t rank a Liberal candidate as their first choice would likely vote Liberal for their second choice on the ballot, so a ranked ballot system would be in the Liberals’ self-interest.
The New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s social democratic party, proposed shifting to proportional representation, where a party’s share of the House’s 338 seats would be proportional to its share of the popular vote.
Much of Western Europe votes this way. The NDP argued that proportional representation would make every Canadian vote count equally. This system would also favor a party like the NDP, which, due to its current distribution of votes across the country, has a higher share of the popular vote than seats in the House.
The largest opposition party, the Conservatives, preferred to stick to the first-past-the-post system, which has produced stable majority governments. The current system also tends to produce the largest number of Conservative MPs. Interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose demanded that the government hold a referendum to get the public’s consent before changing the system.
2) How did this play out?
Trudeau formed an all-party committee to examine the issue. After crisscrossing the country to canvass expert witnesses and everyday Canadians, the committee reported back in December. It did not endorse one system over another, although it did say the outcome of an election should be proportional to the votes cast, and suggested a referendum should be held before changes are made.
Trudeau isn’t keen on holding a referendum, however — he told Italy’s former prime minister Matteo Renzi that these types of popular votes “give people a chance to lash out at institutions — and they might.”
Canada has no agreed-upon rules for how to hold this type of referendum, in any case. What would the question be — would there be a specific alternative to the current voting system? Would changing the system need a simple majority of 50 percent or another number? Would the measure need to pass in each province? What would happen if the English-speaking provinces voted in favor but francophone Quebec voted against?
3) What happens now?
Trudeau reversed course and announced early this month that Canada will keep the first-past-the-post system. “I have long preferred a preferential [i.e., ranked] ballot. The members opposite [in the NDP] wanted proportional representation. The [Conservatives] wanted a referendum,” he told the House of Commons. “There is no consensus. There is no clear path forward. It would be irresponsible to do something that harms Canada’s stability.”
Given the Tories’ desire to stick with first-past-the-post, they have not tried to make political hay out of the reversal. The NDP and Canada’s fourth party, the Greens, stood to benefit most from electoral reform — and they have been harshly critical. NDP democratic reform critic Nathan Cullen called the move “perhaps the most cynical display of self-serving politics,” while Green Party leader Elizabeth May said she felt “more deeply shocked and betrayed by my government today than on any day of my adult life.”
4) Where does this leave Canada’s next elections, in 2019?
As in the previous election, there will be a four-way races in English Canada and five-way races in Quebec, with the breakdown of the vote between ridings playing a large role in determining the outcome.
Trudeau’s winning smile and his promise of sunny, open and honest government were key to his surprise win in the last election. With Trudeau now mired in a cash-for-access scandal, involving meeting with people seeking government favors at fundraisers, the electoral reform controversy is another blow to his image. It makes Trudeau look both incompetent at reforming government and cynical in abandoning the promise of reform.
If both the present polls and the first-past-the-post system hold, Trudeau is likely to win another majority government in the 2019 election. But to repeat that victory, he’ll need to spend the next two years strengthening his image to prevent the dismay from his electoral reform flip-flop from metastasizing into a drop in electoral support.
Tyler Kustra is a doctoral candidate in politics at New York University. Before starting his PhD, he was an economic adviser to the Canadian Senate and House of Commons.