A recent newsletter from Fair Vote Canada reminded us that the Liberals have been promising proportional representation (PR) for 100 years. And not delivering. In 2021 we celebrate, if that’s the word, the centennial of broken promises.
The Liberals 1921 campaign promise followed the party’s endorsement of single transferable vote, a PR system that employs multiple-member constituencies with each voter ranking the candidates on his/her ballot. Mackenzie King won his first election as Liberal leader and set up an all-party committee to study the issue. The committee rejected PR, nicely relieving the Liberals of their promise and setting a precedent for future party leaders. This, even though King was a member of the Proportional Representation Society.
The Liberals under King formed a second all-party committee in 1937 to study PR and other electoral reforms. They stuck with the status quo.
In 1979, the Task Force on Canadian Unity, co-chaired by former federal Liberal minister Jean-Luc Pepin and former Conservative Premier of Ontario John Robarts, recommended “a mixed electoral system with an element of proportional representation to ensure a broader regional representation in federal political parties.” Ultimately the task force had little influence.
Also in 1979, Pierre Trudeau stated he was convinced Canada needed PR if the federal government was to identify with the whole country. Earlier that year, his Liberals had been defeated by Joe Clark’s Conservatives even though they got more votes. After the Liberals won a majority government in 1980, Trudeau’s passion for PR greatly diminished.
Following a three-year study on electoral reform, in 2004 the Law Commission of Canada recommended adopting mixed-member PR, the system used in New Zealand and Germany. The House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs then recommended a special Committee on electoral reform and a “citizens consultation group” to make recommendations about modernizing the electoral system. The Liberal government did nothing before the 2006 election when it was replaced by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
In 2015, the government was back in Liberal hands with a promise to never hold another election under our corrupt first-past-the-post system. Prime Minister Trudeau promised to introduce legislation for electoral reform within 18 months into the next Parliament. We all know how that promise turned out. He set up an all-party electoral reform committee (shades of 1921) which did a mountain of research and listened to a multitude of experts and ordinary Canadians.
The committee duly recommended that, “ The Government hold a referendum, in which the current system is on the ballot” and “That the referendum propose a proportional electoral system that achieves a Gallagher Index score of 5 or less.” A Gallagher score under five is highly proportional. The government was charged with designing the proportional system that was to be on the ballot.
Trudeau’s preferred system, alternative vote, received scant interest from either experts or citizens. As a result the prime minister, revealing his cynicism toward the whole exercise, trashed the recommendations.
So, Mr. Trudeau, your party has been teasing us for 100 years about PR. Isn’t it about time you consummated your promise?