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Politics Trudeau ditches electoral reform – and some of his new-politics appeal

Electoral reform is so 2015. It was a policy for the Justin Trudeau who assured Canadians that changing the way things work was possible. But now it's 2017. So on a cold February day, he slipped a change into a new minister's mandate letter and slipped out of his promise to change the voting system. In effect, he was saying it wasn't realistic.

Way back in 2015, there was no doubt it could work. "Within 18 months, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform," the Liberal election platform stated unequivocally. On Wednesday, the new Minister of Democratic Institutions, Karina Gould, said there's no consensus.

Electoral reform wasn't the centre of Mr. Trudeau's 2015 election campaign, but it was part of his political persona. In opposition, he often raised it when he spoke to young voters about changing politics – and young voters came out in unusual numbers to vote for his Liberals.

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Ditching the promise now almost fits the chillier zeitgeist of 2017, when the government is trying to figure out how Donald Trump will shake Canada's economy, and when Mr. Trudeau has already had to make some tough political decisions on things like pipelines. It might seem that dumping electoral reform was just a hard choice in today's hard world.

But the truth is that Mr. Trudeau, circa 2015, never said anything about consensus. He must have known, even back in those heady days, that there was never going to be a consensus about electoral reform in Parliament. Not unless he and his party changed their mind to support proportional representation – a voting system Mr. Trudeau disliked, and one that would hurt his party's chances of winning a second majority. In power, the Liberals made only feeble attempts to find or forge a consensus among Canadians.

No wonder the NDP and the Greens, two parties who crusaded for proportional representation, declared Wednesday's announcement a betrayal. Nathan Cullen, the New Democrats' electoral-reform critic, told reporters he was going to choose his words carefully, and called Mr. Trudeau "a liar."

Mr. Trudeau was right about one thing: There is no consensus. The NDP and Greens insisted that experts and witnesses who appeared at a parliamentary committee were largely in favour of proportional representation, but that was no measure of the public will. In the Commons, the three major political parties vehemently disagreed, with each favouring the system that appears to favour them: The NDP wanted PR, Mr. Trudeau liked preferential ballots, and the Conservatives didn't want change.

But Mr. Trudeau didn't really seek consensus. When an opposition-controlled committee suggested a referendum pitting proportional representation against the existing system, Liberal MPs attacked it. The Liberals pretended they had an open mind, but didn't really want PR. The government eventually sent out an internet survey asking people their feelings about democratic institutions – which by design could never find consensus.

It was the PM who promised electoral reform, without saying what kind. He could have chosen to put forward his own preferred option, preferential ballots and campaigned to build a consensus, but he didn't. The promise became a quagmire. He calculated it was better to drop it.

That's probably not a cost-free calculation. Left-leaning voters cared more about electoral reform, and the NDP will make it a cause; the Liberals always fare worse when they face strong competition on the left. And it allowed the NDP to attack Mr. Trudeau's image as a new kind of politician, accusing the Liberals of acting cynically in their electoral self-interest. "The old party decided to protect the old party," Mr. Cullen said.

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Electoral reform had been part of Mr. Trudeau's new-politics appeal that struck a chord with young voters in 2015. As opposition leader, he spent many days speaking to young voters about political cynicism, telling them, as he did at a stop at the University of Waterloo in 2014, that disaffection with politics among young people "is much more a reflection on what politics is doing wrong than on you yourselves."

He told those students that Canada needs electoral reform. "It's just not right that we have a prime minister with a majority who is, you know, disliked or disapproved of by 60 per cent of the population," he said then. But now it's 2017.

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