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Broken Promise

February 19, 2017

Yes, Prime Minister Trudeau did promise, during the election campaign, that his government would reform the electoral system by adding some form of proportional representation.  Yes, he did appoint a minister with the specific task of investigating electoral reform.  Yes, he did announce the results of this investigation.  He told us that Canadians favoured change in the electoral system, but that there was no consensus among them for the type of change.  With that result, he abandoned his promise of electoral reform.  Immediately, the media were occupied with cries of outrage.

Why was there so much outrage?  Some people felt betrayed, saying that they had voted for his party because of that promise.  Some people saw hidden motives behind this change of position, claiming that reform might benefit the Liberals, or might disadvantage the Liberals.  I suppose that everybody is interested in the electoral system because everybody uses it; any change is going to affect most people.   Has no politician ever broken an election promise before?  Maybe this seldom happens in Canada.  It does seem to be happening every day in the US.

I’d say that this is an honest and correct change, in the face of public opposition to the original promise.  It takes a great deal of courage, and is the mark of a good leader, to change something as controversial as this promise.  In fact, our Prime Minister did proceed a long way down the path of electoral reform, before deciding that it was a bad idea.

Our current electoral system is generally called first past the post.  This means that one member is elected in each constituency, with the party having the largest number of members elected forming the government.  In this system, the popular vote has no effect on the outcome of an election.  Like all electoral systems, it has positive and negative effects.  This system favours major parties, and neglects minor parties.  It generally promotes a majority government by not accounting for the popular vote.

There are various schemes to reform the traditional democratic electoral system, by taking the popular vote into account.  A ranked ballot is one.  Proportional representation is another.  They all favour, to some extent, minor parties, regional parties, or single-issue parties.  They all disadvantage major parties.  Some of them are quite complex.  They may also favour minority governments.  They may even encourage coalitions to form after the election results have been announced.

I like the current system, mostly because it promotes majority governments.  This sort of government can do its job of governing the country and enacting legislation, while still being accountable to the people who elected it.  Still, I’m open to a certain amount of proportional representation.  People who voted for minor parties or for polititions who hold unpopular views still need to be represented in parliament.  After all, in a democracy, the majority rules but the minority must be heard.  The only issue for me is how much proportial representation we should have.


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