Liberals own no mandate to change Canada’s electoral system without a referendum

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Appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, November 29, 2016

As a candidate, Justin Trudeau promised that the 2015 election would be the last under our first-past-the-post electoral system. On Dec. 1, a parliamentary committee released a report on electoral reform, recommending the government hold a referendum on the issue.

The Liberals are on record opposing a referendum. And some have argued that the Liberal election victory last year, and the fact that electoral reform was part of the platform, gives the government the legitimacy required to unilaterally change the electoral system. But while the election platform promised to end the current first-past-the-post system, it failed to provide any specifics regarding the type of reform the Liberals would enact. So it’s hard to see how such an ambiguous commitment to change the system legitimates a claim for fundamental democratic reform, the postcard campaign notwithstanding.

Had the 2015 election been fought explicitly over the issue of electoral reform, the argument to change the system without a referendum would stand on firmer ground. In other words, if the recent election was a single-issue election such as 1988 on free trade, or at the least that the issue of electoral reform dominated the campaign, then advocates for change could claim a clearer mandate.

But this was not the case. The issue of electoral reform received very little attention during the 2015 campaign. Indeed, it’s arguable whether or not Canadians even knew electoral reform was on the table.

Consider media coverage. From when the writ dropped to election day, “electoral reform” was mentioned 851 times in print and online media. This may seem like a lot, but during the same period “health care” was mentioned 31,979 times. That means there were more than 35 news stories on health care for every one story that mentioned electoral reform. With such scant media attention, it would be hard for Canadians to know it was even an issue.

And what about the debates? Were they dedicated to the issue of electoral reform, providing Canadians with information needed to choose which party aligns with their views on whether the electoral system should be reformed? The answer is no, during the debates electoral reform received little attention.

For example, of the three English language debates, only one—the Maclean’s debate—included any discussion of electoral reform. And even though that debate had two segments on democracy, electoral reform was only a minor part. Of the more than 20,000 words uttered during the debate, only about 600 words–or roughly three per cent of the debate total—touched on electoral reform. Much more time was spent debating other issues such as Quebec separatism, the Fair Elections Act and senate reform.

While the federal government certainly could unilaterally impose a new electoral system with its majority in government, that doesn’t mean that it should. Given the lack of attention electoral reform received during the campaign, the government should not interpret its election victory as a mandate to fundamentally change the way we elect our representatives.

If Canadians choose to implement a different electoral system, so be it. But the choice should be theirs to make, through a referendum.