Pre-campaign books about politicians are always interesting when the author gets significant access to the subject, because it gives the subject a chance to offer a well-thought-out and carefully considered case for his election or re-election to an impartial reporter. It’s not a press conference full of headline-hungry hacks marinating in Red Bull; it’s a civilized, coffee-scented sit-down with a journalist whom the candidate considers — at the very least — fair-minded and not liable to knife him in the back. With a greasy, no-holds-barred campaign in the offing, here’s his chance to make a more civilized case to the electorate.
Parliament Hill reporter Aaron Wherry’s new book, Promise and Peril: Justin Trudeau in Power, offers some fascinating insights along those lines, not least on the question of the Trudeau government’s signature debacle. I don’t mean SNC-Lavalin (although nothing is challenging it for second place). I mean the Liberals’ promise, later doubled and tripled down upon and then abandoned in jaw-dropping fashion, that 2015 would be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post system.
Here’s what Trudeau and his closest advisers want you to know about that. First of all: The PM is a keen student of electoral reform. Alexandre Lanthier, his long-time senior aide, recalls to Wherry that the two of them “covered this so many times in car rides across the country.” And this rumination led Trudeau to some pretty firm opinions about which reforms he liked and which he didn’t. “Too many people don’t understand the polarization and the micro issues that come through proportional representation,” he said in 2013.
Trudeau was quite enamoured with ranked ballots, by contrast, and supported them during his run for the party leadership. “What we need is a preferential ballot that causes politicians to have to reach out to be the second choice and even the third choice of certain (voters),” he said during a leadership debate.
He would readopt these opinions quite aggressively after his party jettisoned the electoral reform promise. “Do you think that Kellie Leitch should have her own party?” he famously asked a woman in Iqaluit when she inquired after proportional representation. Indeed Trudeau was suddenly, again, full of anti-PR sentiments: “Proportional representation in any form would be bad for Canada,” he declared, because, he said, it would encourage people to divide off into special interest parties instead of assembling under big tents like his.
So why on earth did the Liberals promise an end to first-past-the-post, with no specified preferred replacement? Trudeau and gang ask us to believe this was not — repeat: not — a dead-obvious, wildly cynical (and successful) ploy to suck up NDP votes, which now makes them look like absolute jerks.
Instead we are asked to believe that this scholar of electoral reform, who felt quite strongly that proportional representation was “bad for Canada,” was convinced by his caucus to “leave the door open at least a crack for proportional representation” because he thought (per Wherry’s interviews) that he might be “willing to be convinced that (he was) wrong.”
There is no evidence he was, in fact, willing. Instead we are to believe that the committee of Trudeau’s MPs and those of other parties that Trudeau tasked to study and consult on this matter at great expense, and that ended up recommending PR, only to have then-democratic institutions minister Maryam Monsef dismiss their work as not what she asked for, only steeled his resolve against PR. We are to believe that Trudeau forgot to stump for ranked ballots even occasionally, once he became prime minister, because — per Katie Telford, now Trudeau’s chief of staff, to Wherry — “then we wouldn’t have been doing a lot of other things.”
“If I had it to do over again I would’ve been making an aggressive case for preferential ballot,” Trudeau tells Wherry.
Truly, the mind boggles. A keen student of electoral reform would have known the New Democrats would never accept ranked ballots because PR is party gospel, and ranked ballots are beside the point to PR and not in their electoral best interests. A keen student of electoral reform would have known the Conservatives would never accept ranked ballots because they believe quite strongly in the status quo, and because they are also not in their electoral best interests.
The honest person Justin Trudeau purports to be cannot claim good intentions in this situation and expect to get away with it. I cannot ever recall seeing such an implausibly ambitious plea for clemency for such a transparently cynical record. It says a lot that he would even attempt it.
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