Breaking Campaign Promise, Trudeau Abandons Move to Democratize Electoral System
The Canadian Prime Minister has likely stopped pursuing implementation of a proportional system fo representation because his party – the Liberals – stand to lose the most with such a change, says Dimitri Lascaris
KIM BROWN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown, in Baltimore.
The government of Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has been portrayed as being quite popular in Canada. However, recent policy decisions and polls suggest that the government is perhaps, more out of touch with popular sentiment that is usually portrayed in the media.
For example, last week Trudeau announced that he will not pursue a reform of Canada’s electoral system, something that he had promised repeatedly, prior to becoming Prime Minister. Also, a new Ekos poll, that is about to be released, shows that Canadians are far more supportive of Palestinians than Trudeau is himself.
And joining us to discuss Trudeau’s defiance of popular sentiment in Canada is Dimitri Lascaris. Dimitri is a lawyer, journalist and activist. He’s also a Board Member here at The Real News. Dimitri, thank you so much for being here.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thanks for having me, Kim.
KIM BROWN: So, first let’s begin with the electoral system change that Trudeau promised, but is now no longer pursuing. So, what was this change about, and why did he decide to abandon the effort?
DIMITRI LASCARIS: In Canada, we have a system called, “First Past the Post”, which means essentially a winner-take-all system. So, in an electoral district, which we call ridings here, if you have, for example, four or five candidates, the candidate who garners the most votes — even if it’s much less than the majority of the votes — becomes the representative of the riding, the MP. And all the other votes, basically get wasted. They don’t have any impact on the composition of our parliament.
So, there was a lot of pressure for this system to be changed, because so many votes were not effectively being taken into account, in the distribution of seats in the parliament. And the system that best accomplishes that is, “Proportional Representation”.
Now, sensing that there was this strong public sentiment for this change to a fairer electoral system, in the 2015 election, which brought Justin Trudeau to power, he said very clearly, and repeatedly, that this was going to be the last election that we conducted under the, First Past the Post system. And he would see to it that before the next election, we would have a system that “Makes every vote count”.
Those were his words, and to this day you can see that promise in the Liberal Party electoral platform. However, after spending millions of dollars, what he did was he came to power; he put together a committee, to study what kind of system should be put in place, to replace the old system. The experts, millions of dollars were spent, months’ of work was put into it, numerous experts were consulted on electoral reform.
Overwhelmingly, their testimony was that Proportional Representation, which is used widely across the world — including in many western democracies — that that was the best system, the fairer system. He heard from 100’s of thousands of Canadian on this issue. Approximately 70% of them said that they wanted proportional representation, and then in the last second, he just basically ditched the whole thing.
And all of that time, money, expertise, and input from Canadians was wasted. I think the reason, quite simply, why he did it — the real reason — is because no party stands to lose more in a Proportional Representation system, than the Liberal Party.
Effectively what would happen, is that seats would get re-distributed from the Liberal Party to smaller parties, like the Green Party, and the NDP. And the Liberal Party would no longer be able to command a majority, which it currently has, with less than 40% of the popular vote — a system that has prevailed over and over again in Canadian elections. That was, I think, the real reason.
What he told people, was that there wasn’t a consensus. You know, in other words, that there wasn’t complete agreement across the country on a new system. Well, since when do we set the bar that high, for adopting a program of legislative reform, whatever the subject of that reform may be? Why does there have to be complete agreement? Isn’t it enough that 70% of the Canadians, who gave their input, said that they wanted a system of Proportional Representation?
So, frankly… and oh, he articulated some other excuses, but none of them really hold water. Like, he expressed a fear of an extremist party having power. But you look at what’s happening to the Conservative Party now, one of their candidates is Kelly Leitch, another one is a fellow by the name of Kevin O’Leary, a Canadian who appears on reality TV in the United States, each of whom could easily be characterized, and fairly be characterized, as extreme right wing in their politics. They could quite easily become the leader of the Conservative Party.
And under the First Past the Post system, that party could acquire a majority government with much less than a majority vote, even with substantially less than 40% of the vote. So, in fact, it’s the current system, which creates a risk of an extremist coming to power, a heightened risk, not a system of Proportional Representation.
KIM BROWN: So, apparently, the New Democratic Party, the NDP, and the Greens, are insisting that a referendum be held on changing the electoral system. So, what are they proposing to do in this referendum, exactly?
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, I think that they… first of all, people would… You could approach this referendum in any number of ways. You could simply ask people, do they want to change the electoral system – yes or no? You could ask people — you could give people a series of options. You could say do you want a First Past the Post, option two – do you want a Proportional Representation; option three – do you want another system, for example, one that is known as Ranked Ballot? And you could allow them to choose from a menu of options.
There’s a number of ways in which you could approach the referendum. Another way to do it is to adopt a system, provisionally, for one election, and give the country the experience of operating under that new system. And then conduct a referendum on whether they liked that system. And I believe that this was tried in other jurisdictions, it may have been New Zealand.
So, you know, there are a lot of ways you could slice and dice a referendum. The advantage of it of course, is you get direct input from the populace about what they want to do with the electoral system. But Justin Trudeau wants nothing to do with a referendum. He says that he’s concerned that it’s going to be divisive, and that at this time, you know, we don’t need to have a divisive debate about this.
But in fact, what he has done, which is to completely abandon the promise that he clearly made in the election, to make this the last election under First Past the Post, is itself divisive. And it’s created a great deal of antipathy, and a lot of people feel betrayed, because they voted for the Liberal Party precisely for that reason. They thought that this was going to get them a new and fairer electoral system.
KIM BROWN: So, the other issue that I mentioned in the introduction is the new Ekos poll that shows that Canadians believe that sanctioning Israel, for human rights violations is reasonable.
However, Trudeau has repeatedly declared unwavering and unconditional support for Israel. So, first what can you tell us about the poll’s findings?
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, the poll was conducted by Ekos Research Associates — its results have been published in two parts — the first part, I discussed it on The Real News a couple of weeks ago. Its principle finding was that far more Canadians view the Israeli government negatively than view it positively. And the vast majority, a nexus of 90%, said that they do not believe that criticizing Israeli government policy is necessarily anti-Semitic.
It’s often claimed in this country that criticizing Israel is anti-Semitic, and clearly that’s not a view shared by Canadian people. The second part looked at the question of how the government should deal with Israel’s persistent, decade’s long human rights abuses, and asked people, first of all, if they thought that sanctioning the government, sanctioning Israel, was a reasonable measure to ensure its compliance with international law, 66% of Canadians said yes. Remarkably, 75% of the supporters of Justin Trudeau’s own party also said yes.
We also asked Canadians what they think about the boycott movement, the Palestinian call for a boycott, and whether that was a reasonable measure to ensure compliance with international law? The numbers there were even more striking, 78% of Canadians said they thought it was a reasonable measure, and 88% of the supporters of Justin Trudeau’s own party said that they thought that that would be reasonable.
Now, Justin Trudeau is radically at odds with, not only Canadian opinion, but with the opinion of the people who support his own Party. In the time that he has been in power, which is less than 18 months, his government has voted against something in excess of 20 Resolutions that were either critical of the Israeli government, or supportive of Palestinian rights, at the United Nations.
It has not voted in favor of one such resolution. And on each occasion the Resolution in question passed with an overwhelming level of international support. In addition, the Trudeau government was refusing, up until very recently, to criticize Israel’s adoption of a settlement regulation law. Which effectively purports to legalize its settlements, that are a clear violation of international law.
And only when forced, did it issue a statement, very quietly, in which the government of Canada said that this law, which is really an affront to the Palestinian people’s human rights, and to the will of the international community, was unhelpful. That’s all that the Trudeau government could bring itself to say, that it was unhelpful.
You know, you couldn’t really imagine a more dramatic contrast between public opinion on this issue, and government policy. Justin Trudeau has talked repeatedly about having social license to pursue his agenda, and how important it is to have social license.
Well, when it comes to electoral reform, and when it comes to Palestinian rights, just two issues of others we could talk about, he has no social license whatsoever, to pursue his agenda, and that doesn’t seem to be deterring him at all.
KIM BROWN: So, why is Trudeau ignoring popular opinion on this issue too? And what does he have to gain from this unwavering support for Israel?
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, I think he’s ignoring it because he can. You know, we have, one problem that we have, is an electoral system that really doesn’t allow the populaces will to be reflected in the distribution of votes in Parliament. So, the two issues are kind of linked. We need to have an electoral system which better reflects the popular will, if we want to see government policy better reflect the popular will.
The other is, we have a media in this country that aren’t telling people just how bad our government’s policies are, with respect to such things, as climate change, or Palestinian rights. The corporate media do a terrible job of reporting on that. There’s been almost no coverage at all of Canada’s voting record under the Trudeau government at the United Nations.
And, you know, in terms of what he stands to gain from it, well, frankly I think that’s a question that’s impossible to answer. There really is no apparent benefit to the government of Canada, to any political party, given these poll numbers, of pursuing this agenda, particularly with respect to Palestinian rights.
In fact, one would think, looking at the poll numbers, that parties would be of the view that they stand to gain voter support, by being more vigorous in their defense of Palestinian rights. What is driving Justin Trudeau to pursue this extraordinarily pro-Netanyahu agenda? You know, that’s… I can’t read the man’s mind, perhaps it’s some level of Christian Zionism, perhaps it’s a paralyzing fear of being stigmatized as an anti-Semite by the Zionist Lobby, I don’t know.
All I know, is that it’s utterly irrational. It’s not in the self-interest of any party to be so deferential to the Israeli government, and it certainly isn’t the right thing to do.
KIM BROWN: Well, another related issue is, that boycotts of Israel for its human rights violations is increasingly being portrayed as anti-Semitic, including with Canada’s Parliament. Last year the Parliament voted to condemn individuals and groups that supported boycotts of Israel.
So, what does popular opinion say about this, Dimitri?
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Well, remarkably, you know, given that the vast majority of the Members of Parliament, all of whom were Liberals and Conservatives, voted in favor of that motion. A majority of Canadians actually opposed that motion. 53% said they are against it, 21% said they are neither for it, nor against it, and only 26% said they supported it. 55% of the supporters of Justin Trudeau’s own party said they opposed the motion, and only 20% said that they supported it.
It remarkably, even 1/3 of Conservative Party supporters, opposed this motion, and only 46%, less than a majority, support the anti-BDS motion, despite the fact the Conservative Party leadership is about as pro-Israel a leadership as you can find in the Western world. The predecessor government, under Conservative Steven Harper, was widely regarded as the most pro-Israel state in the world during his 10 years in office.
And yet, even the supporters of his own party, 1/3 of them are opposed to the anti-BDS motion. And this really, I think, you couldn’t demonstrate more dramatically what a disconnect there is. At least with respect to the issue of Palestinian rights between Canadian public opinion, and the views of the political elites in this country. And by that I mean the leadership of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party.
KIM BROWN: Indeed. Well, we’ve been joined today with Dimitri Lascaris. He is a lawyer, journalist and activist. He’s also a Board Member here at The Real News. Dimitri, we appreciate your reporting today, thank you.
DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thank you, Kim.
KIM BROWN: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.