PHOTOS: Can you not quite shake the feeling, like the Canadian voter at left, things keep happening over and over again? Actual Canadian voters may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and NDP Democratic Reform Critic Nathan Cullen.

So long, electoral reform! Welcome back, first-past-the-post!

Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party, said yesterday that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement that his clear promise of electoral reform back in the 2015 federal election campaign was going over the side left her feeling “more deeply shocked and betrayed by my government today than on any day of my adult life.”

Those of us who are old New Democrats, or old Tories for that matter, may not feel quite so much shock.

It is Groundhog Day, after all, and we’ve seen this movie before – over and over and over. Every time we’re persuaded to vote Liberal for one reason or another, as a matter of fact.

This would explain why, in the face of Ms. May’s anguish, New Democrats in Parliament reacted with anger and Conservatives with grim satisfaction.

The NDP Democratic Reform Critic Nathan Cullen flat out called the PM a liar. “This is one of the most cynical displays of self-serving politics this government has yet to engage in,” he said.

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair called the switcheroo announced by newly appointed Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould a “massive political deception.”

Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose suggested that “Canadians should think twice about believing what Justin Trudeau says.”

The difference between the two opposition parties’ approaches, which both seem fair enough under the circumstances, can be explained by the fact the NDPers supported the idea, while the Conservatives, to whom it presented truly an existential threat, most certainly did not.

Seriously, though, did anyone really expect Mr. Trudeau to keep this particular promise? After all, this is what Liberals do. They get elected and break promises.

Well, that’s not quite fair. All parties, New Democrats included, break promises after they get elected and discover that circumstances have changed. This is part of the tough business of governing.

And legislative third parties – which the Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals were before the Oct. 19, 2015, federal election – find it easier than most to make far-reaching promises.

Nevertheless, the Liberal Party of Canada has a bad history of breaking promises more often than other parties, and for what seem like more cynical reasons. No one can claim that in this case circumstances have changed in any significant way since the fall of 2015.

As an aside, in the right circumstances even Liberals sometimes keep their promises. Leastways, the governing Liberals in B.C. did back in 2005 when they allowed a vote on the recommendation of the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform they’d set up while they still remembered losing the 1996 election to the NDP despite winning the popular vote.

Alas for Canadian political history and theory, the vote in favour of the single transferable vote system proposed by the assembly didn’t quite reach the demanding formula set by the government of premier Gordon Campbell.

The B.C. Liberals, who are really conservatives, tried another referendum in in 2009, and the first-past-the-post system won resoundingly, putting that idea to rest.

By 2015 after a decade of Stephen Harper, electoral reform was back on the national agenda, and arguably it was a big part of Mr. Trudeau’s appeal to voters when he promised Canadians would never use the first-past-the-post system again to elect a government. He really did sound like he meant it, too, and lots of Canadians took the bait.

I imagine that the Liberal Party strategic brain trust almost had a conniption fit the moment Mr. Trudeau flapped his lips about voting reform. Ever since, or at least once they saw the size of their majority and did the arithmetic about what the impact of the various possible forms of electoral form could be, they’ve certainly been looking for a way to wiggle off the hook. Now the deed has been done by a new minister who hasn’t been heard from much before.

So while one shares Ms. May’s pain, and feels some sympathy with her concern that new voters may be disillusioned by this cynical turnabout, it’s hard to feel her shock.

This is not exactly a case of the Liberals campaigning to the left and governing to the right, either, as some have suggested. As my colleague Dave Cournoyer, the author of the blog, reminded me this afternoon, smaller right-wing parties would have benefitted from electoral reform as much as smaller parties on the left, or those with causes that span traditional definitions of left and right, like Ms. May’s Greens.

No, it’s a keeping-your-promises issue. As Ms. Ambrose suggested, it’s about whether you can trust the Liberals. And it really shouldn’t shock anyone that they don’t keep their promises with much alacrity, especially on issues like this that have the potential to bleed off their vote to New Democrats and Greens in circumstances that could very well come to pass.

So, no, this is hardly a shocking development. As for that chilling sense of betrayal mentioned by Ms. May, well … Zap! You’re frozen!

What we should feel is resigned. I doubt we’ll see electoral reform in Canada in the lifetime of anyone reading this post.

The Liberals certainly won’t raise this topic again until the next time – heaven forefend! – there are Tories governing in Ottawa.

This isn’t happy news, but in the great scheme of things, it could be far worse. Consider the state of democracy in the great nation to the south of us compared to that up here in Canada with first-past-the-post, warts and all.

Still, if you believe urgently electoral reform is necessary or the health of democracy in Canada, you should probably vote for the New Democrats. No one can guarantee that they wouldn’t break a promise to reform our electoral system too once they’d done the arithmetic. But they’re far more likely to keep this particular kind of promise than Liberals ever are.

In the mean time, it’s déjà vu all over again.

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  1. That Elizabeth May is feeling “more deeply shocked and betrayed by my government today than on any day of my adult life”, given the cynical machinations of the Harper government the last ten years, really underlines the hyperbole of this comment.

    Speaking of cynical machinations, the NDP and Nathan Cullen have purposely undermined this whole process by playing into the Conservatives’ hands and co-writing the Electoral Reform Committee Report that recommended a referendum on the issue. Progressives, including the NDP, know referenda are dangerously blunt tools that divide; can’t be used to decide complex, non-binary issues; and favour the status quo, which is usually the side favoured by conservative parties. They went along and cynical played politics with the committee and the report and many Canadians’ understandable belief in the need for electoral reform. Thus, I feel the need to weigh in and indicate that I don’t agree with the substance of your post, which is relatively rare.

    By the way, it’s also pretty disingenuous to state “the Liberal Party of Canada has a bad history of breaking promises more often than other parties” when the sample size of one of your comparators is 0, i.e., the NDP have never governed federally and had to make the tough choices and the tough decisions and re-evaluate their policy positions when reality imposes itself and circumstances change, as in the situation at bar, where, contrary to your claim that in this case “circumstances have [not] changed in any significant way since the fall of 2015”, Nathan Cullen and the NDP flip flopped and backed the Conservatives’ tired referendum demand, knifing their fellow progressives in the back.

    1. Disappointed and angry as I am at this wasted opportunity, I share your opinions about the duplicitous behaviour of the NDP in this matter. Once again, they took common cause with the FUCKING Conservatives against the Liberals. And traded a shot at permanent influence in a center left governing coalition for what, exactly? For a lottery ticket that once, just once, they pull a Bob Rae federally.

      1. The NDP won the lottery in Alberta and have almost totally blown it. After the election Notley could have cancelled Christmas and jailed the Easter Bunny and people would have gone along with her. Now, after all the sell outs and failed promises? Not so much.

    2. On the point of breaking more promises than the other parties, since the Liberals have held power more years than the Conservatives, simple probability suggests they would have more time to break more promises.

      1. I don’t think the Liberals are particularly evil in this respect. I’m just very angry about this particular promise. Failing to modify FPTP puts the nation at terrible risk to the tides of right wing extremism waxing around the world. It brought a Harper to power, and could bring a worse….who will be free to trample on the 61% with the votes of the 39%. Much as can dislike the liberals, they never pursued policies contrary to the strong wishes of a majority of the electorate. But these days, that’s the Conservative mission, and it’s only FPTP that enables it.

        We will rue this day.

  2. I think it depends on what type of democratic reform is adopted. My preference, for its simplicity, was simply a preferential ballot, where I list my candidates in order of preference. That way, when my first choice, say the Rhinoceros Party, comes in last, my second choice candidate is awarded my vote.

    Someone complained the problem with such a system is it almost guaranteed perpetual Liberal rule, since the Liberals are usually the second choice of both Conservatives and New Democrats. As such, I don’t think the Liberals would have had a problem with such a scheme, but I don’t think it would have made Elizabeth May any happier about it.

    1. This is exactly the problem. The Liberals favoured a preferential ballot, which in the context of Canadian politics would virtually guarantee Liberal majorities in perpetuity. The NDP & Greens, along with most non-partisan experts, favour some variant of proportional representation, while the Conservatives favour the status quo as their only real hope of majority government. The Liberals’ clear preference for preferential ballot was seen by many as self-serving and tainted the entire exercise.

      If Canadians truly want electoral reform, they are going to have to elect a government that truly favours it: the NDP.

      1. As I understand the two systems: the upside of a preferential ballot is it guarantees the majority of voters get either their first or second choice as a representative and it preserves the tie of the representative to a geographic area.

        The downside of proportional representation is the Party apparatus chooses who goes on their party list to be elected and effectively choose which candidates get ranked the highest on the party list and are “sure” to be elected. In a pure PR system, the representative is tied to interest groups, rather than a geographic area.

        Then we can go down the rabbit hole of variations on the two. However, in the end it is the NDP that is responsible for killing the process by siding with the Cons and insisting a change had to go to a national referendum. So we are stuck with our three card Monte political system.

      2. “The Liberals favoured a preferential ballot, which in the context of Canadian politics would virtually guarantee Liberal majorities in perpetuity.”

        I’ve always felt this is a gross simplification to the point of stupidity. It assumes that when the voting systems change that the voting behaviors of the electorate and strategies of the parties will stay exactly the same, which is on the face of it ridiculous.

        And I rather think the NDP and Greens would find proportional representation less to their liking then they believe. For instance, I sadly suspect that a fascist nationalist party could make any low vote threshold that the Greens could clear. I suspect they would not see that as an improvement to either the political system or their position.

  3. Amazing that the NDP fell into the sucker trap. Both the Liberals and Cons must have been laughing up their sleeves when Cullen and crew insisted on a referendum. Isn’t it always easier to note “No” especially when the question is as complex as changing the way we select our government? How many people would even know what they’re voting on.

    Ontario tried the alternate voting referendum thing almost a decade ago. Most had trouble understanding the question. Went down in flames.

  4. With the Liberals crashing in recent Nanos Research polls, both in popularity and leadership comparisons, they saw the writing on the wall and do what political parties always do when confronted with angst and fading good fortune —they look for the easiest path to re-election and then cave.

    Climenhaga is correct in suggesting this potentially suicidal political move could “bleed off their vote to New Democrats and Greens”. After all it’s only two more years until the next federal election. I’m betting voters won’t have short memories, when it comes to this dunderheaded, self-inflicted political gaffe.

    1. I don’t think the LPC at 46-68 down to 39 or so compared to NDP at 16-18 and the Greens at 6-7 at best constitutes “crashing” and warrants panic or knee-jerk reactions to some form of “writing on the wall” or existential angst…

  5. I hate to point this out but the NDP & Cons didn’t help matters with their baffling assertion that it had to be referendum on if we had any reform or not.

  6. Canadian political culture is very very partisan. That has roots back into the 1830’s with the quest for ‘Responsible Government’. So, we are all used to it by now. From a partisan perspective, it makes sense to condemn the Liberals for this current ‘betrayal’.

    However, I am going to take the unpopular position that First-past-the-post vs Proportional Representation will not amount to a hill of beans in our real lives. They are two different ways to divide the spoils of electoral victory amongst oligarchic top-down political parties. Both systems are quite justifiable; FPtP is not a stupid or evil way to make that division, and has strong characteristics that make it better, in some important ways, than PR.

    That being said, both systems build from the foundation of ‘Responsible Government’, an idea championed by the first Reform movement. ‘Responsible Government’ was the best deal our ancestors could negotiate from a reluctant British Empire after we lost our battle for independence in the winter of 1837/38. Very specifically, it was not ‘democracy’ (whatever that word means!)

    PR is *not* a slam dunk. The whole question *should* be put to a referendum. And I would vote against PR if it was put to a referendum, not because I don’t understand the issue, but because changing to PR is a Type 3 error that does not advance the cause of democracy in Canada.

    See, told you it would be an unpopular position! : )

    If you are further interested, please visit my website at

    for 7 long pages of math and history about this whole issue.

    cheers, DB

  7. I knew the Liberals wouldn’t do anything to change the old twiddlee dee and twiddlee dum two step of first past the post. They are running a majority government right now with approx the same %-age of the popular vote that Harper had before them………and the two old line parties…….funded by the same old line millionaires and billionaires like it that way.

    Read Linda McQuaig’s The Trouble with Billionaires (not sure if that’s the exact title) if you want a break down of how our privileged elites fund both old line machines……..or check out how many of Harper’s cuts to real democracy Justin hasn’t gotten around to fixing yet.

    They work together………and the mainstream media, also owned by the corporate 1% helps them to do so. In the weeks and months ahead, we can watch the MSM play footsies with Trump….and maybe a real majority of us will get it in time…….and do something truly scary and radical:

    Vote for an Actual Social Democratic Party, and then stay engaged with support and input…to help them practice the dying political art….OF KEEPING YOUR PROMISES. Surely that’s not just for wingnuts like the Donald???

    1. Speaking of the two-step, look who was sunning herself on a yacht:

      Quote: “Ambrose took holiday on billionaire’s yacht While party criticized Trudeau for island getaway, CPC Party leader ‘couldn’t resist the billionaire lifestyle’ either”

      Vote for an actual social democratic party? Ha! Notley has already shut down input from grassroots members and was run from day one by the same bunch that has run this province forever.

      The Socail Credit tried a preferential balloting system for a while until it looked like they would be in trouble and then they reverted to first past the post.

  8. Sometimes I think rewriting the physical laws of the universe would be easier and less complicated than coming up with a suitable electorial reform agreed to by all.

  9. I made a lot of noise when Chretien broken some of his promises, but I never voted Liberal during his years and for most of those broken promises what I was mad about was that he had suckered other people in to voting for him; what he actually ended up doing in those cases was much closer to the government I wanted.

    I think why this has me more upset than any other broken promise I can remember is that even though I have wanted to see electoral reform my whole adult life, I have always been resigned to the fact that it would never happen. But something about Trudeau got my hopes up. I really believed he would do it. I almost want to say he broke my heart.

  10. If PR were such an NDP priority, could the provincial government not initiate a change in the Alberta voting system — and not make it so difficult as B.C. and Ontario made it for their voters? When I’ve mentioned this to Alberta MLAs, I’ve been met with a blank stare. Of course — when you’re in power thanks to the current system, you just don’t have the motivation to change it — whatever your political stripe. And, then, on the question of fulfilling campaign promises, Maryinga’s throw-away line at the end of her post is spot on. We are reeling from #45 fulfilling to the letter every campaign promise he made.

  11. Maybe groundhog century? A few of us old-times will remember the July 1974 general election. Before calling the election the Liberals under (Pierre) Trudeau had been governing with a shaky minority government, mostly supported by David Lewis’s NDP.

    During that summer general election the PCs under Robert Stanfield promised to get inflation under control by imposing a wage freeze. Both the NDP and the Liberals strongly opposed that measure, and worried voters stampeded to the Liberals. The NDP lost half its seats and the Liberals captured a solid majority.

    But just three months later the Liberals reneged on their promise and brought in their own wage controls.

  12. The NDP and especially the vile, divisive corporatist asshole “conservatives” share the blame here.
    A system where the fascists can’t use vote splitting to slither into power would be better for us all, despite whatever difficulty might arise. The NDP should have cooperated with the liberals instead of giving into petty partisan bullshit.

    The NDP didn’t even campaign here in Calgary lat fed election. Why must our actual socialist party be so weak and useless?

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