Cabinet shuffle attempt by government to 'smooth over' electoral reform file: advocate

Karina Gould, centre, was named the new Minister for Democratic Institutions on Jan. 10. Photo from The Canadian Press
Karina Gould, centre, was named the new Minister for Democratic Institutions on Jan. 10. Photo from The Canadian Press

The federal Liberal government’s recent cabinet shuffle has signalled a slight shift in the Canadian political landscape with a fresh approach to foreign relations and immigration. But with a new minister taking on a muddled Democratic Institutions portfolio, the promise of timely electoral reform legislation remains in limbo.

Time is short and the timeline for electoral reform is still unknown, raising doubts about a hefty campaign promise made by the Liberal government.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that his government is still keen on “renewing” Canada’s 150-year-old voting system, making good on a significant promise made by the Liberals in the last federal election to have a new voting system by 2019.

Rookie MP Karina Gould has been tasked with the job.

Gould, a 29-year-old from Burlington, Ont., whose Oxford education and international work experience impressed colleagues, defeated Tory incumbent Mike Wallace in the October 2015 election in a riding that had been a Conservative stronghold for most of 35 years.

Prior to her appointment, Gould acted as the parliamentary secretary for the minister of international affairs and La Francophonie.

She’s poised to take over a heavy electoral reform file that troubled former minister Maryam Monsef to the point of calling out and defaming an all-party parliamentary committee that recommended a move to proportional representation on the condition that a national referendum was held. Monsef said the committee failed to recommend a specific alternative to Canada’s current first-past-the-post system. She was later forced to apologize.

“The previous minister seemed to be a bit of a political liability, for a number of reasons,” said Jeffrey Dvorkin, a journalism professor at the University of Toronto, citing her inability to manoeuvre the government’s “cold feet” on electoral reform and the controversy of her birthplace. “I think this seems like an attempt by the government to smooth that over a bit.”

Gould has until the early summer, Elections Canada says, to introduce legislation for reform, giving her only a few months to fulfil a lofty promise to voters.

Last June, Gould told the House of Commons, “Electoral reform is the next step in this evolution toward a more inclusive system. We can build a better system that provides a stronger link between the democratic will of Canadians and the election results.”

Political reporter Aaron Wherry said, on a recent CBC podcast, that there are a lot of unknowns about the future of electoral reforms considering Gould has only slightly more experience with electoral reforms than Monsef.

“The easy assumption is that they’re just going to bury this and they just want it to go away and all things would be easier and better for them if they went away,” Wherry said.

In her first time speaking to reporters as the minister of democratic institutions Tuesday, Gould said she’d need time before announcing “next steps” in the process.

“I really do believe we can get the best system for Canadians and understand where we need to go moving forward, and I’m really looking forward to doing that work.”

However, CBC’s Wherry points out the promise of legislation seemed obscure from the start.

“It was a vague promise to implement some kind of reform, an arbitrary deadline of doing that in time for 2019. The government didn’t seem reluctant to hold a referendum, it didn’t want to rule one out, it didn’t seem to want to put a specific proposal or alternative on the table,” Wherry said.

Dvorkin agrees, citing a lack of clarity on the issue.

“I don’t have a clear sense of what the options are as presented by the government. And I think there is a communications problem in clearly setting out how the different forms of voting would manifest.”

As to whether he thinks there will be a new voting system by the 2019 election, Dvorkin said, “There are so many variables. The government’s attention, seems to me, so focused on U.S.-Canada relations that I’m not sure that this will be the priority that this once appeared to be. “