The Trudeau II Government’s Electoral Teleology

The Liberal Platform and the Trudeau II Government’s Policy Proposal

During the last general election, the Liberals pledged to study changing the electoral system from single-member plurality (also known pejoratively by its opponents as “first past the post”) to some other system – whether that be mixed-member proportional, some form of single-member majority with preferential balloting, single transferable vote, or whatever. The Liberal Party’s website proclaims that the general federal election of 2015 “will be the last […] conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system.” The Liberals also pledged to do the following:

We will convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting. This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform.

This wonderfully ambiguous proposition leaves various questions unanswered. What does “proportional representation” mean in this context? Pure proportional representation as in Israel? Mixed-member proportional in like New Zealand? It doesn’t say, but I would presume the latter. What is the point of striking a separate all-party committee given that the Conservative Party has indicated its opposition to changing the electoral system in any way? Recently, the NDP’s Critic for Democratic Reform, Nathan Cullen, submitted a request to the Minister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, that the Liberals not command a majority of the all-party committee. That way, they could not impose their own recommendation over the objections of the other parties. Additionally, once the all-party committee delivers its recommendations to parliament, will the Trudeau II Government introduce legislation in order to implement what the committee recommends? Or would it reserve the right to break with the committee’s recommendations and implement its own plan instead? And if so, what is the point of striking the committee in the first place? Why not simply table a bill before the Commons and allow the regular House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to study it? Perhaps Trudeau II’s cultural appropriation of Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s “Sunny Ways” render clarity on all these questions unnecessary. (For instance, how many politicos — let alone Canadians writ large — know that Laurier derived his “sunny ways” from Aesop’s Fable of the Sun and the North Wind, or that he did so in light of how he contrasted the post-Macdonald Conservatives’ approach to the Manitoba Catholic Schools Question to his own proposed solution? Trudeau II’s use of the phrase “sunny ways” therefore has very little to do with Laurier’s beyond any critique of the previous Conservative government).

Prime Minister Trudeau II’s mandate letter to Minister Monsef says much the same as the Liberal platform; it asks that she “bring forward a proposal to establish a special parliamentary committee to consult on electoral reform, including preferential ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting and online voting.”

Thus far, Monsef hasn’t given much indication of which system she would prefer, though Trudeau II has signalled his preference for a ranked ballot. Overall, the Liberals also haven’t yet ruled out holding a referendum on changing the electoral system either, but they seem to be leaning against it. In principle, Canadian voters should be able to vote on whether they want to change the electoral system, especially given that the voters of British Columbia (in 2005 and 2009), Ontario (in 2007), and Prince Edward Island (in 2005) had the opportunity to do so; ultimately, they all decided to stay with single-member plurality. Former NDP MP Pat Martin even tabled a series of private member’s bills in the 38th, 39th, and 40th Parliaments that proposed amending the Referendum Act in order to encourage any government of the day to put “any question relating to the Constitution of Canada or the reform of the electoral system of Canada” to a referendum.

On 1 February 2016, Conservative MP Scott Reid noted that citizens and residents of several jurisdictions over the last 20 years — New Zealand, the United Kingdom, British Columbia, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island — had voted in referendums on whether to change the electoral system by which they elect members to their respective parliaments and legislatures. He asked Minister Monsef whether the Trudeau II Government would do likewise. Monsef responded with a curious mixture of teleological pabulum and ambiguous obfuscation.

Last week, we acknowledged that it was not until 100 years ago that some women in Manitoba got the right to vote, a right that would only be extended to indigenous peoples in 1960. It is in that spirit of evolution and inclusion that we will undertake a process to consult with Canadians in a meaningful and thorough discussion about ways to modernize our democratic institutions.

This statement represents Monsef’s attempt to situate the Trudeau II Government’s preference to change the electoral system without holding a referendum into the wider teleology of the Whig Progress Narrative, which holds  that history moves inexorably toward liberal-democratic perfection and has been central to the ideology of the Progressive movement since the early 20th century. This teleology starts with broadening the franchise in the 19th century to non-propertied classes, then to women in the early 20th century, and to indigenous peoples in 1960; crucially, from Monsef’s point of view, all of these expansions of the franchise were accomplished by statute alone. Monsef thereby implies that holding a referendum would detract from this inevitable “evolution and inclusion” of the franchise and the electoral system through which voters exercise that franchise. This in turn would contradict the teleology and thus amount to an illegitimate rearguard action.

Monsef added in a recent interview: “We have an opportunity, with this government as we approach the 150th anniversary, to strengthen and modernize our democratic institutions and bring them into the 21st century and that is the mandate that we got from Canadians.”

It is interesting to say the least that a Minister, ultimately elected as a Member of Parliament under the banner of a party that received only 39.47% of the popular vote — yet won a parliamentary majority in the general federal election of 19 October 2015 — now boasts of having obtained a mandate from Canadians as a whole to abolish the current electoral system and impose an alternative unilaterally. Again, Monsef relies on this trite teleological trope: single-member plurality must necessarily give way to “modernizing our democratic institutions,” and it therefore seems to the Liberals that anyone who disagrees with this proposition is out to subvert democracy. It also appears from Monsef’s comments that the Trudeau II Government wants to impose these changes by the 150th anniversary of Confederation and of the Dominion of Canada in 2017.

How to Counter the Liberals’ False Electoral Teleology

The New Democrats have tried to make the special all-party something other than a Liberal fait accompli. But if the Conservatives want to mount a successful campaign against this Liberal proposal, but they must understand that the Liberals have constructed this bizarre teleological view of electoral reform and counter it effectively when they argue in favour of putting electoral reform to a referendum and in defending the virtues of single-member plurality.

First, the Conservatives must point out that they are responsible for the main milestones in Monsef’s statement of the electoral teleology so that the Liberals cannot appropriate this legacy as their own. In fact, it was the Conservative government of Sir Robert Borden in 1918 that tabled the Act to confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women in 1918 and the Conservative government of John Diefenbaker that tabled the bill extending the franchise to all indigenous peoples.

Second, the Conservatives must expose the red herring of the Liberals’ Electoral Teleology: universal adult suffrage and the right to vote itself, under section 3 of the Constitution Act, 1982, do not equate to the electoral system by which Canadian voters elect members of parliament. These are two separate issues, but the Liberals’ Electoral Teleology relies on the false premise of combining the two together in order to delegitimate single-member plurality, even going as far to imply that it is somehow unconstitutional and an intolerable form of bigotry designed to exclude marginalized groups. You do not “waste” your vote simply because you happen to cast your ballot for a party that does not form government. To suggest otherwise would be to make the absurd assertion that our democratic rights include the right to elect members who then in turn must become cabinet ministers in government.

Third, the Conservatives need to defend single-member plurality, which its critics pejoratively dismiss as “first past the post.” Peter Hitchens and John Pepall in his book Against Reform have mounted excellent defences of single-member plurality. You can read my defence on single-member plurality, too.

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About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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