While Canadians grapple with the meaning of the Trump presidency and its potential impact on Canada’s economy and, more generally, on global geopolitics, an important series of events are unfolding in Ottawa. The announcement by Prime Minister Trudeau in late January that he would not proceed with his often-touted plans to reform Canada’s electoral system has been reverberating throughout the country and creating uncertainty about his sincerity and astuteness at a time when political leadership is being closely scrutinized in Canada.
While there is little evidence the general public had a strong interest in electoral reform, it did appeal to young voters, who had not voted in earlier elections, and to traditional NDP voters who were looking for a proportional representation option that would favour third parties in subsequent elections. During the last election campaign, the prime minister was unequivocal about his commitment that the 2015 election would be the last under a first-past-the-post voting system. In fact, the PM was so emphatic about his desire for change that he is reported to have made the promise 1,813 times during the marathon election.
It became apparent during the later months of 2016 that the government could not control the outcome of the electoral reform process. The issue became unmanageable when the all-party parliamentary committee issued a majority report (without Liberal MPs signing it) calling for a referendum on an unspecified proportional voting system. Trudeau called the report “rushed” and “too radical” and then shuffled the minister out of her job after she timidly apologized in December for belittling the committee’s work.
In the end, Trudeau concluded that he could see “no clear path forward.” Searching for a rationale to explain his decision, he went on to say that “it would be irresponsible for us to do something that harms Canada’s stability.” Looking for a more principled response he went on to argue that “I’m not going to do something that is wrong for Canadians just to tick off a box on an electoral platform.”
Recognizing that the issue was now spiraling out of control, the PM then replaced the embarrassed Minister of Democratic Institutions with an equally inexperienced MP in an effort to reset the issue. Accordingly, the newly minted Minister, Karina Gould, was dispatched by the PM on February 1st to explain the decision to change her mandate from that of her predecessor and to abandon the electoral reform promises.
In an effort to get in front of the issue, Minister Gould disclosed the content of her mandate letter from the PM which stated: “changing the electoral system will not be in your mandate.” In fact, the Minister’s mandate letter moves dramatically away from reform to protecting the electoral process by mandating her to defend Canada’s voting system from cyberattacks, to analyze the risk to Canada’s political and electoral activities from hackers, and to reform fundraising practices by making them “more open and transparent.”
The Trudeau government has shown much courage and steadfastness in the face of strong opposition on many earlier policy decisions. In this instance, however, it has opted to do a complete about face and abandon its longstanding promises. Given that this policy change is uncharacteristic of this government, it provides important insights into the management style of the PM.
First, it revealed Trudeau to be a consummate politician in balancing political costs against potential gains. Clearly, the PM lost his ardour for electoral change and took the tough decision to cut his losses three years before the next election because he realized how difficult it would be to change the current electoral system, that the public would not punish the Liberals in a future election, and any real change in the voting system would ultimately disadvantage the Liberal Party in future elections—a price he was not prepared to pay.
Second, the government he has not been able to establish a good working relationship with the opposition parties in the House of Commons. In this particular instance, it chose to disregard the heavily criticized public engagement exercise that framed the reform efforts and the work of the all-party parliamentary committee. At this point, there is still too much animosity on the floor of the Commons undermining the traditional trade-offs that usually take place among political parties.
Finally, the government has learned that electoral commitments need to have more specificity than an oft-stated promise to electors to solve “the” problem. While it might have election curb appeal, political leaders should have a clear view of their intentions before making wide open pronouncements. In the end, you can’t expect the public and the opposition parties to provide you with the policy answers.
This recent action reveals how the prime minister is evolving as a manager and political leader. He has learned the important lesson that, despite his best intentions, consensus is difficult to find in a parliamentary system which values confrontation and opposition more than compromise and consensus. The NDP wanted proportional representation and Conservatives wanted a referendum and they were not prepared to see it any other way. His challenge now is to find a way to join his preference for public consultations and consensus with the hard edge of parliamentary traditions.
David Zussman is a Senior Fellow in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, Adjunct Professor at the University of Victoria, and Research Advisor to the Public-Sector Practice of Deloitte. firstname.lastname@example.org