The promise that was broken: Politicians break promises at their own peril.

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

February 9th, 2017



The fundamental elements of a successful democracy are an informed public, a free press and an electoral system which best reflects the will of the vast majority of the voters.

At the time the disparate Canadian provinces undertook confederation, voters had but two federal political entities to choose from: the Liberal Party founded in 1861 and the Conservative Party established in 1854.

Sir John Macdonald9

With just two political parties First Past the Post made sense.

So it was natural for Canada’s election system to be premised as a choice between only two parties. The candidate with the highest vote count would win their election poll in a system called first-past-the-post (FPP). Since the national popular vote typically coincides with the number of seats in a two party system, the public was well represented.

150 years later a lot has changed. Additional political parties representing a more diverse population with more complicated issues and demands have emerged. Recently 100% of Canadians have been governed by political parties which claim a majority of parliamentary seats, regardless that their popular support amounts to less than 40% of the voters.

At the 2012 federal Liberal convention in Ottawa, former leader Stephan Dion chaired an electoral reform policy session, also attended by Justin Trudeau. Although many present, including Dion expressed a preference for proportional representation, there was a consensus to promote a ranked/preferential ballot as a transitional or first step.

Minister of Democratic Institutions and Peterborough-Kawartha MP Maryam Monsef addresses the crowd during a town hall meeting on electoral reform at the Mount Community Centre on Tuesday, September 6, 2016. Monsef is on a seven-week, cross-country tour gathering input on democratic reform. Jessica Nyznik/Peterborough Examiner/Postmedia Network

Former Minister of Democratic Institutions and Peterborough-Kawartha MP Maryam Monsef addresses the crowd during a town hall meeting on electoral reform. Jessica Nyznik -Peterborough Examiner/Postmedia Network

Three years later, as Mr. Trudeau was struggling his way up from third place in the election campaign, he added another vote-getting promise – that this would be Canada’s last federal election under FPP. However once the election was over and the brass ring was firmly in his hand, the urgency seemed to have vanished. He appointed a relatively inexperienced MP as his minister of democratic institutions. She was slow off the mark, proceeded to organize an unfortunate on-line survey, and mis-managed her special parliamentary committee.

The committee finessed the government by recommending a proportional representation approach but only if subject to a referendum. But there is simply not enough time left in the electoral term for that to reasonably happen. So the PM shuffled his junior ministers and announced that he was breaking his promise because there didn’t appear to be a consensus for change.

Except there is consensus. Mr. Trudeau’s own party wants it – they had in fact passed a policy resolution calling for this kind of change. The third parties (NDP, Greens, BQ) are almost unanimous in their desire to adopt proportional representation. And that just leaves the Tories who like the status quo, knowing that FPP is the only way they could ever win majority government again.

But the Conservatives poll less than 40% of Canadians at best. So the government doesn’t need a referendum to change our political system, it already has the numbers. Besides, changing from FPP was an election promise, and Trudeau won the election.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves the stage following a discussion on women's leadership, Thursday, November 24, 2016 in Monrovia, Liberia. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaving a stage. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Politicians break promises at their own peril. I’d bet that electoral reform is one that will come back to haunt Mr. Trudeau. It is unknown how many NDP, Bloc and Green supporters walked their votes to the Liberals largely because of the promise of electoral reform. Judging by the reaction among the media and those commenting on social media, if they did, they won’t make that journey again. Mr. Trudeau has just lost a huge chunk of personal credibility and trust. That will cost him in support come election time.

There are also Liberals who now feel betrayed and alienated by a leader in whom they had put so much faith and trust. Once lost it is almost impossible to regain the hearts of his once loyal supporters. He can expect to see party unity suffer and membership start to decline. Volunteer workers will become less available, and contributions will start to dry up. Come voting day it will be that much harder to get out the vote and fewer volunteers will be there to help get it out.

Mr. Trudeau has been overexposed in his first year in office, and most of that has been positive, at least up until now. Both main opposition parties will have new leaders for the 2019 race and as they energize their party faithful expect to see them stick Trudeau with this issue until the votes are finally counted.

Finally, what will become of all those reluctant millennials who thought they were voting for a different kind of politics and politician? Perhaps some of them will show up at the National Day of Action for Electoral Reform at Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto, this Saturday 2-4 PM. See you there?

Ray Rivers

Ray Rivers writes weekly on both federal and provincial politics, applying his more than 25 years as a federal bureaucrat to his thinking.  Rivers was a candidate for provincial office in Burlington in 1995.  He was the founder of the Burlington citizen committee on sustainability at a time when climate warming was a hotly debated subject.     Tweet @rayzrivers

Background links:

Trudeau Lying? –   More Lying? –   Liberal Policy Resolution

Breaking His Promise –   National Day of Action on Electoral Reform

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2 comments to The promise that was broken: Politicians break promises at their own peril.

  • Gary

    We can only hope.

    I seriously doubt that by the next election down anybody is going to remember this one. By then the 30 to 40 billion dollar annual deficits (another broken election promise) will be high on the voters radar screens, especially if the Liberals start clawing back seniors’ income, as is currently being batted about. Only millennials who have not experienced previous Liberal governments could possibly have taken this bunch at its word. Anybody of my generation knew damn well that Trudeau would never implement a change to the election system. And he right in his abandonment. If you were to have a referendum, change would be rejected by the citizens, as it has in the past.

  • Hans

    Most jobs typically require education, training, and some kind of demonstration of ability, judgment, and good character to get hired. Politicians get their jobs (which they usually want to call “public service”) by winning a few popularity contests, and getting re-elected becomes their primary concern.
    While there are some exceptions – MMW comes immediately to mind – it should not be surprising when politicians are lacking in the normal hiring requirements, especially good character, and doing the right thing is sacrificed in favour of winning elections.