Liberals give a masterclass in spin with the nixing of electoral reform promise

Photo of Justin Trudeau speaking at the University of Winnipeg.Justin Trudeau speaking at the University of Winnipeg.Photo by Levi Garber.

When election time rolls around, Liberal party campaigns stand on tall tales. Be it the environment or the economy, a good Liberal knows the secret to success lies not in substance but appearance. Smile to the Assembly of First Nations and wear traditional clothing while promising a nation-to-nation relationship. Do the same when it comes to business interests in the energy industry, and when the time comes to make a decision, approve two gas-guzzling pipeline projects and remain indifferent to ensuing Indigenous outcry.

This is following the Liberals’ habit of making crystal clear promises while campaigning that are mystified once they assume power. For example, the Liberals committed to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), an instrument that grants, among other things, a right to Indigenous peoples to declare nationhood. This would plausibly imply the sovereign power to block any pipeline that would cross First Nations territory. Upon forming government, the Liberals pumped the breaks on UNDRIP, the very instrument they made out as sacred, as the justice minister said adopting UNDRIP directly into Canadian law would be “unworkable” and “a distraction.”

Simply put, the Liberals’ key to getting elected is by playing the spin game. A massive brokerage party – essentially a coalition of diverging political views held under the same banner – is driven by inclusive messaging that can appeal to voters of all stripes. And the Liberals are a brokerage party par excellence, having made standing on shaky ground and holding no core political commitments beyond vote-mongering into a certified art.

Justin Trudeau’s reign so far, including his most shameful walk-about yet on electoral reform, is indication only of what more is to come. In brazenly arrogant style, the Liberals have now reneged on various campaign promises that acted as the pillars for their left-platform.

The Liberal spin is evident when one examines their various green commitments made during the election that were walked back on, like phasing out subsidies to fossil fuel companies – an ode to their supposed commitment to creating a diversified, sustainable economy – and speedy, substantial investment in green infrastructure. In power, the subsidies remain as the government has already contracted itself into a natural gas subsidy until 2025. Oil companies, then, are allowed even more opportunities to profit at the public’s expense. This is due to the Liberal government’s stamp of approval on the pipeline projects and additional failure to follow through with their promise to strengthen the regulatory powers of the National Energy Board.

For the Trudeau government, promises mean nothing if the party has something to gain from dumping them. This level of self-interest in politics is as dangerous as it is shortsighted. What point is there to an election if parties can say whatever they please in an attempt to gain votes when there is no principled intent to carry out their very proclamations?

Trudeau infamously claimed that any appetite for electoral reform is based on a visceral hatred for former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. This is the Liberal mindset at its most explicitly patronizing, further shown when Trudeau declared in his mandate letter to the new minister of democratic institutions that there is no “clear preference” for reform, despite statements otherwise from the all-parliamentary committee on electoral reform.

This government has a damning view of voters. They are myopic “sheeple” that only desire a virtuous leader that knows better and will sort things out for them. Conviction and logically held beliefs are to be spoon-fed to the public.

The Liberal campaign, premised on the silly reactionary slogan of “real change,” applied the simple claim that Trudeau would “make every vote count” in Canadian democracy. The only plausible way of interpreting this claim is as an endorsement of proportional representation. No other system so literally makes every vote count. This is achieved through the use of an algorithm known as the Gallagher index, which is applied to election results in order to calculate the proportion between votes received and seats allocated for every party. The goal is to use this to achieve “perfect proportionality” in the House of Commons.

But the Liberals were keen to decry – in a viciously paternalistic attack – the intelligence of average Canadians during a particularly distasteful session of Parliament, where the recently replaced minister of democratic institutions Maryam Monsef joked about how no one could possibly have the brains to figure out how an equation like the Gallagher index works.

Unfortunately for the Liberals, Canadians do have the brains to figure out how promises work.

In this case, it’s basic math. Trudeau promised to reform the electoral system, got elected, and now refuses to go forward with reforms. It’s simply not adding up. Two plus two does not equal five, mister prime minister.

Trudeau is on the record saying electoral reform is a “priority for a lot of Canadians,” clearly indicating that the government was aware that the promise for change in the electoral system was a game changer for many left of centre voters looking for a reason to vote strategically.

Of course, Trudeau has always walked on both lines of this issue. It’s the Liberal way to talk out of both sides of your mouth – to tell the left you believe in deficit spending while assuaging the right by talk of “eventual” budget balancing. Indeed, Trudeau had already concluded precisely that the moment electoral reform presented itself as a danger to his reign on Parliament Hill, it would be sent to the guillotine.

For the Liberals, politics is a spin game. But they would do well to remember that Canadians will only tolerate so much before stepping off their merry-go-round.