Sometimes ambiguity can be a blueprint for survival

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau displayed no such ambiguity when he launched a plan for electoral reform during the last election, boldly proclaiming that 2015 would be the last vote under the current system.


First published on Monday, February 6, 2017 in The Hill Times.

OTTAWA—In politics, ambiguity is usually considered a sign of weak leadership. But it can sometimes be a blueprint for survival.

When the Government of France weighed in on the question of an independent Quebec back in 1977, they coined a phrase that epitomizes political ambiguity. The “non-indifference” policy was their explanation to support but not to interfere in the move for Quebec separation.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau displayed no such ambiguity when he launched a plan for electoral reform during the last election, boldly proclaiming that 2015 would be the last vote under the current system.

Today, he probably wishes that he had been a little less categorical. In the heat of a campaign, certainty is a lot more attractive than ambiguity.

Explaining his about-face in the House of Commons last week, the prime minister appeared uncomfortably resolute. Without consensus on electoral change, it would be folly to change the system.

Predictably, the New Democrats attacked Trudeau viciously. NDP spokesperson Nathan Cullen admonished himself publicly to choose his words carefully. He then proceeded to call the prime minister a “liar” and “the most cynical variety of politician” who “spit in the face” of hundreds of thousands of Canadians.

Cullen’s response was angry, because his party stands to lose the most without proportional representation.

His party is also to blame for the impasse. They chaired the parliamentary committee which effectively set up the Liberal exit strategy.

By endorsing only one alternative system, that of proportional representation, committee members effectively signed the death warrant for electoral reform. The Conservatives said little last week, because they oppose reform. Their insistence on a national referendum on the matter was intended to scuttle any change.

By recommending only one system, and then agreeing to a national referendum, the NDP killed its own goose.

Anyone who is old enough to remember the national referendum on the Charlottetown Accord and the two Quebec referenda on separation knows that those debates are divisive and inconclusive. History informs us that the majority of provincial referenda on voting systems opted for the status quo. That was what the Conservatives were banking on.

The two major parties that actually want change are the Liberals and the New Democrats. By making common cause with the Conservatives, the New Democrats secured some short-term mileage. They also managed to damage the government minister charged with the responsibility of implementing electoral reform, with much public fanfare.

In the long term, their moves killed the only real opportunity for reform because they were unwilling to consider options other than proportional representation.

Late last year, I attended a meeting on Parliament Hill with former NDP member Lynn McDonald. At a discussion group involving former parliamentarians, she kept insisting that proportional representation was the only alternative to the current system supported by the experts.

She was not interested in any other system because the weighted vote tends to benefit centrist parties, not ideological parties situated on the left or right.

Fair Vote Canada promotes only one alternative, the proportional voting system. Not surprisingly many signatories to their “non-partisan” declaration are unions with public NDP affiliation.

Cullen referenced the number of Canadians upset by Trudeau’s reversal in the “hundreds of thousands.”

In a country of 34.6 million people, this does not appear to represent a strong enough impetus to change our current voting system with one that takes power from voters and gives it to political parties.

As one who left politics because of party interference in local nominations, I would be loathe to replace first-past-the-post with a system in which the parties can pick a list of their preferred candidates.

We should change how we vote. There are multiple examples of how a weighted vote would produce a Parliament that represents the majority without putting more power in the hands of parties.

The parliamentary committee, chaired by the NDP, could have worked toward a consensus report. They could have proposed multiple options for reform, including the weighted ballot. In that system, the voter ranks their preferences for member of parliament. This system guarantees that the candidate with the most support from the voters is sent to Parliament.

New Democrats promoted proportional representation, because their primary wish is implement a system where smaller parties get more seats in the House.

They were snookered by the Conservatives, who managed to secure a commitment for a national referendum.

That lack of consensus left Trudeau with no choice.

The least worst system remains.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era Cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.