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What’s a popular prime minister to do about electoral reform?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ruined his own election-anniversary party on Wednesday with a comment that seemed to show him cynically backing down from his party's signature promise of "ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system."

In an interview with Montreal's Le Devoir, Mr. Trudeau said the degree to which his government is willing to reform the way federal governments are elected will depend entirely on the degree of support the idea gets from the public. This is a new tone, and the right one. For months, this page and others have called on the PM to give Canadians the final say on any fundamental change to our democracy. If he wants to end the long-standing first-past-the-post system, he should put it to a national referendum.

But in Le Devoir, Mr. Trudeau added another twist. He said that public support for ending first-past-the-post system seemed to be waning, because, well, how should he put it... He's so popular.

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"Under Stephen Harper, there were so many people unhappy with the government and their approach that people were saying, 'It will take electoral reform to no longer have a government we don't like.' But under the current system, they now have a government they're more satisfied with, and the motivation to change the electoral system is less compelling," he said.

This is a clumsy statement, and he was rightly pilloried for it. It is also false. That the Conservatives won a majority in 2011 with 39.6 per cent of the popular vote was problematic to many – just as the Liberal majority, built on 39.5 per cent of the vote, now is. The desire of many Canadians to reform the electoral system is motivated by more than partisanship. So is the desire of many other Canadians to keep the current system.

Mr. Trudeau created a bipartisan committee last spring to examine the issue, consult and report to Parliament in December. His message, delivered as the committee deliberates, is that he isn't sure that a dramatic reform, such as bringing in proportional representation, is all that popular or possible.

But no one should be fooled into thinking Mr. Trudeau is walking away from reform altogether. He said that he might need less popular support for a lesser reform. Among the "lesser" reforms mooted in last year's Liberal election platform were mandatory voting and online voting.

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And if that doesn't grab Canadians, well then they can stick with the existing system. It can't be all bad. After all, it gave the world Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right?

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