Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/6/2015 (2135 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has just released a significant electoral and democratic reform policy package ahead of the anticipated 2015 fall federal election. While it will add some heft to the Liberal program, the net effect is questionable and highly partisan and is at odds with Trudeau's stated intention to fix Ottawa and end what he sees as the abuses of the Harper government.
Under a Trudeau government, the Liberals would introduce significant and sweeping changes, including:
- Move to introduce a new electoral system to replace Canada's first-past-the-post, winner-take-all electoral system.
- Introduce gender parity for the cabinet.
- Make changes to election-financing legislation restricting spending by political parties between elections (where the Conservative party currently has an advantage).
- Amend the Conservatives' Fair Elections Act and scrap the Citizen Voting Act.
- Make voting mandatory.
- Make changes to the House of Commons regarding the selection of committee chairmen and chairwomen.
- Introduce self-imposed restrictions on omnibus bills and the use of prorogation to end a parliamentary session;
- Add more national-security oversight.
- Have more free votes for MPs with the important exceptions of confidence votes, the Liberal election platform and items deemed to impact on the guarantees contained in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the abortion litmus test for Liberal candidates).
- Strengthen the parliamentary budget officer.
- Introduce a prime minister's question period, presumably along the lines of the British model.
- Introduce a wider access-to-information model for the federal government.
- Allow more parliamentary input into Supreme Court appointments.
The Liberal party is looking for a new narrative to campaign on in the 2015 federal election. Trudeau wants to be the "change" candidate. Will this cut it?
It has certainly got Trudeau and the Liberal party some attention. Not all of the policies are unique to the Liberal party. The New Democratic Party and the Green party also favour doing away with the first-past-the-post electoral system.
Of all the proposed changes, Trudeau has to be careful playing around with the federal cabinet. Canada was historically considered a deeply divided country between French and English -- what the author Hugh MacLennan famously described as the two solitudes. The federal cabinet is considered one of the foremost power-sharing tools to hold the country together.
Canadian politics is traditionally done on a regional and provincial basis. How will the gender-parity quota in the cabinet interact with the regional dimension? What other groups would demand parity in terms of cabinet representation? Trudeau is campaigning on making "government appointments that look like Canada."
The French-speaking province of Quebec is historically very sensitive to any changes to the original Confederation bargain, believing French-speaking Canadians are one of two founding peoples and putting forward political claims on this basis. While Quebec separatism may be dormant, it is far too early to pronounce it dead. Recent polls suggest the NDP led by Thomas Mulcair may be leading the Liberal party in Quebec. Former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe will lead the battered party into the fall election, further compounding the Quebec political scene and making it more difficult to predict the outcome.
While the gender-parity goal is perhaps to be lauded for corporate boards, a cabinet gender quota takes Canada back to the 19th century when cabinet posts were allocated by religion. The 1873 cabinet of Liberal prime minister Alexander Mackenzie included four Catholics, three Presbyterians, three Anglicans, two Methodists, one Congregationalist and one Baptist (himself). His cabinet was judged to be "inept and nondescript" according to W. A. Matheson, the author of The Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
Following the results of the 2011 federal election, which saw the Liberals fall to third place, the jury is still out on the future of the Liberal party. But the tone and direction of Trudeau's proposals suggest his advisers believe the Liberal party cannot readily win an election under existing circumstances. Some of the proposals amount to an attempt at a reverse gerrymander, a bid to erase presumed Conservative advantages by fundamentally altering the system.
The proposal to create a prime minister's question period may open Trudeau up to charges he intends to grandstand if he becomes prime minister.
Trudeau seems to lack the natural political instincts of a political master such as former prime minister Jean Chrétien, who won three majority governments between 1993 and 2000. Rather, Trudeau appears much more dependent on his advisers who appear to reflect the whim and flavour of the moment as well as partisan considerations.
The full impact of Trudeau's proposed electoral and democratic changes remain to be seen. But the Liberals have to be careful some of their proposals don't take the party further away from government rather than closer to it.
Some of the Liberal proposals may be criticized as unworkable or even detrimental to Canada's political stability. With these proposals, it is far from clear the Liberal party offers a major improvement over Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's highly centralized administration.
Bruce Campbell is an Ottawa-based political analyst. He was a research assistant for former senator Heath Macquarrie.