OTTAWA — Democratic reform can be rough and more than a little messy.
This is especially true if you are a former Liberal in the Senate standing in front of that reform train.
First, you’re booted from caucus.
Then, you’re told that none of you, regardless of party work, merit or experience is sufficiently qualified to be the government leader, or “representative” as he or she will be now known in the upper chamber.
Government House leader Dominic LeBlanc thinks those senators should just be excited to be part of a renewal that will leave appointments in the hands of the prime minister, choosing from a list of nominees from an arm’s length committee.
This new process will eventually involve input from the provinces, and LeBlanc, a firm believer in the milk of human kindness, pointed out that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and premiers were hugging during their climate change meeting, such is the level of collaboration in this country.
As he was pronouncing this, British Columbia Premier Christy Clark was announcing she wanted no part of this attempt at renewal.
The Senate plan looks good until one drills down to try to figure how the place will actually operate, how good government legislation will get through and what might happen if an outbreak of independence fails to extinguish the political oxygen on which it exists. In the meantime, LeBlanc is largely dependent on moral suasion to ensure bills will be passed and the Senate will help remake itself.
The Trudeau Liberals, however, will find out how hard real democratic reform can be. The Senate might be the easiest, low-hanging fruit available.
A key to real democratic change will be how much emphasis is put on a much larger commitment to democratic reform in Friday’s throne speech. The Liberals have promised the most fundamental change possible, a change in the way Canadians vote — and they promise to have legislation ready in 18 months.
Reform is one of those words that sounds so poetic on the campaign trail, but can quickly turn guttural when the actual reform can is opened.
There is a reason that talk of true voting reform fades to dusk, then to darkness. The government of the day would be changing the system that just got it elected.
The first-past-the-post system Trudeau has vowed to abolish just gave him a “false majority,’’ 54 per cent of the Commons seats with 39.5 per cent of the vote.
Stephen Harper did almost precisely the same thing in 2011, winning 54 per cent of the seats with 39.6 per cent of the vote, something to be kept in mind whenever either is referred to having “swept” to victory.
Regardless, Trudeau is clearly fashioning a “promise made, promise kept,’’ style government even if some of those promises might get bent.
In the party platform, the Liberals promised a “national engagement process” that would “fully and fairly” study ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting and online voting. Legislation would be presented in time to ensure change for the 2019 election.
A study done for the Broadbent Institute by Abacus Data released this week tells us a ranked or preferential ballot (used Thursday to choose a new Commons speaker) would give us a larger false majority. The Liberals would have gained an additional 33 seats for a super-majority of 217. The Conservatives would have lost 33 seats and the NDP would have gained six.
Under that system, 14 Ontario Conservative seats (including the one held by former cabinet minister Lisa Raitt) would have flipped to the Liberals. Two other Conservative seats would have gone to the NDP.
Under proportional representation, Liberals would have won as many as 136 seats, but lost its majority. Conservatives would have won seven to nine more seats, but the NDP would have been the big winner with as many as 23 extra seats.
Little wonder the NDP will — again — push hard for voting change.
Those who sought change in our system in the Abacus poll preferred the proportional system. It is a system that advocates say is not only more equitable, but would result in better gender parity and diversity in the Commons and push up voter participation rates.
There are a lot of promises to be kept by this new government. Many will change the country, but this would change the way we choose governments. It’s a rare government that will hold firm to a promise that could hurt its prospects of re-election, but we’ve been told this is a new era.