Fraser Forum

Response to electoral reform announcement bordering on revisionist history

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The reaction to the government’s announcement that they were going to break their election promise to replace Canada’s current first-past-the-post electoral system reveals a lot about the priorities of the opposition parties.

Nathan Cullen, NDP MP, called Trudeau a “liar” and “the most cynical variety of politician.” NDP Leader Tom Mulcair supported his MP, calling the announcement a “betrayal.” Green Party Leader Elizabeth May (pictured above) said she felt “more deeply shocked and betrayed by my government today than on any day in my adult life.”

These are indeed strong reactions to a campaign promise that was given very little attention during the election campaign.

The tenor of the opposition complaints, and even the media’s description of the policy change, is bordering on revisionist history, or in today’s parlance, “alternative facts.” For example, CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme went so far to describe it a “major campaign promise.”

In truth, the promise to replace the existing electoral system was one item buried in the middle of more than 200 campaign promises. More importantly, the promise never indicated what the system would be replaced with.

Despite the claims by the opposition parties that Canadians voted for the Liberals based on this promise, it’s more likely that most Canadians were wholly unaware that the promise was even made. Of the three English-language debates, the Maclean’s debate made passing reference to the issue. The media didn’t give it much weight either. During the campaign “electoral reform” was mentioned 851 times in print and online media compared to “health care,” which was mentioned 31,979 times.

Even after the election and during the all-party consultations, most Canadians were unaware that deliberations were even taking place. So much for this being a “major campaign promise.”

But more importantly, where was the opposition outrage regarding the actual major Liberal promises that were broken, such as balancing the budget by 2019-20? Unlike the pledge to change the way we vote, promises on “modest” deficits and balancing the books were repeated in each of the debates, featured in election ads, and discussed throughout the 11-week campaign.

Yet, searches of Hansard find no similar outrage, or indeed mention by the NDP or Greens on the revelation by Finance Canada that the country would not see the books balanced until 2050. This is most likely because they are more concerned about gaining political power than their responsibility to Canadian taxpayers to keep spending in line with revenue.

In fact, Elizabeth May, while noting that the Green Party platform states that balanced budgets are desired, personally had no qualms with budget deficits saying, “it is not a bad idea to go into deficit to kick-start the economy. It is a good idea.”

Unlike the Liberals, both the NDP and the Green Party had committed to proportional representation (PR) in their 2015 election platforms. What these parties, and other proponents of PR, don’t tell you is that there’s a cost to the system. First, there’s an incentive for smaller parties to form, as they have a higher probability of electoral success. If you think five political parties is a lot, there would be even more under a PR system.

Second, because the vote is dispersed among more parties, there’s a higher likelihood of coalition government. Smaller parties end up having disproportionately more power because they often hold the balance of power. The policy consequence of smaller parties holding more power is that the size of the central government in PR systems is almost 25 per cent larger than in systems similar to Canada’s current first-past-the-post. The higher levels of spending also lead to higher government deficits.

While the NDP and Green parties are outraged and feel betrayed, in this case, the broken promise to replace first-past-the-post is one Canadians should be relieved about.


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