Cullen attempts to put electoral reform back on federal agenda

Liberal MPs vote down House motion to change Canada’s voting system.

Ottawa’s Peace Tower clock is ticking down to the MPs’ summer break and electoral reform is nowhere on the to-do list.

The lack of major changes to Canada’s voting system comes despite a campaign promise by the Trudeau Liberals to replace it, plus a last-ditch “Keep Your Promises Tour” and 132,000-signature petition led by local NDP MP Nathan Cullen.

“I think the way Mr. Trudeau handled this was only a recipe for more cynicism among the electorate, particularly young people,” said Cullen, speaking to the Observer last week, when Parliament was scheduled to break on June 23.

Cullen is the NDP critic for democratic reform and the former vice-chair of the all-party Special Committee on Electoral Reform, which in December recommended that Canada develop a new voting system.

Before winning a majority government in October 2015, then third-party leader Justin Trudeau promised it would be the last election held under Canada’s “first-past-the-post” voting system. Once in government, the Liberals convened the special committee, but rejected its findings saying there is a lack of consensus on the issue.

Critics of the current “first-past-the-post” system argue that it leads to many “wasted” votes because MPs can win a riding and parties can win government with far less than 50 per cent support.

Supporters argue that first-past-the-post is simple, favours majority governments, and gives strong representation for less-populated rural ridings.

While it is still used in countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and India, all other European democracies and many other former British colonies such as Australia and New Zealand now use forms of proportional representation or multiple run-off votes for most elections.

Cullen said the fundamental idea of such voting systems is to make every vote count.

“People don’t have to vote strategically, or out of fear, but vote for what they want and have that vote mean something,” he said, noting that less than half of the 18 million votes cast in Canada’s last election actually went to a winning candidate.

On May 31, Cullen put the special committee’s December report to a vote in the House of Commons — the first time issue had come to a vote this parliament.

The committee’s report, with its recommendation to change the voting system, was voted down 159 to 146, with all but two Liberal MPs voting against the motion, and all other parties in favour. On his “Keep Your Promises Tour,” Cullen visited 19 cities in ridings held by Liberals who previously said they were in favour of reform.

Looking ahead, Cullen said the debate will continue at the provincial level if the BC NDP and BC Green Party form government — the two parties have suggested a 2018 referendum on the issue — and nationally when parliament resumes in the fall.

“We need to come back with some sense of hope and promise, so people don’t turn away and tune out, which would be a natural response when you feel betrayed,” he said.

“Certainly Mr. Trudeau has burned all credibility when it comes to keeping some of the most integral promises he made to Canadians.”