Liberal leader promises 'more free votes' but offers fewer free votes

Liberal leader promises ‘more free votes’ but offers fewer free votes

For his first two years as Liberal leader, Justin Trudeau offered few specific policies and Canadians were largely left guessing what he would do on most policy files. Trudeau repeatedly stated he would liberalize Canada’s marijuana laws and in 2014 he issued a diktat that under his leadership no one who was pro-life could even run for a Liberal Party nomination. He talked a lot about the middle class, but could not define who, precisely, he was talking about.

In the past few months, he began rolling out policies on a myriad of issues, including on June 15 his plan for “Real Change,” a laundry list of 32 ways of reforming government. Promises included broadening the input for senate and Supreme Court appointments, encouraging the youth vote, having gender-based analysis for all government policies, and “respecting” scientists. Trudeau also promised parliamentary and electoral reform.

Trudeau’s promise for more free votes garnered plenty of positive coverage, although many party leaders have made such promises in the past and haven’t followed through. But under the heading “More free votes,” Trudeau said “Liberal caucus members in a Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau will only be required to vote with the cabinet on three different measures”: confidence measures such as the budget or Throne speech, fulfilling the Liberal electoral platform, and “those that address the shared values embodied in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

There is a lot to unpack there. First, he specifically says Liberals MPs will have these free votes under a Liberal government, so this promise of allowing free votes does not apply if the Liberals are still in opposition. It also says caucus members who are not part of cabinet have free votes, suggesting that members of the cabinet do not. While Prime Minister Stephen Harper has often pressured his caucus and cabinet, on several life and family votes the cabinet was divided, indicating that cabinet members were free to vote their conscience – and against the government.

Which brings us to the way in which Trudeau is most limiting his caucus: matters of conscience. By parliamentary tradition, MPs are allowed to vote their conscience or to represent their constituents on moral issues. Trudeau has redefined moral issues as Charter issues – what he calls “shared values” – and requires that MPs toe the party line. While Trudeau promises “more free votes,” he is effectively delivering fewer free votes.

Trudeau also promises that if the Liberals win in October, the 2015 federal election will be the last one conducted under the first-past-the-post system. Pundits wonder whether Trudeau’s embrace of radical electoral reform represents a genuine change of position on the efficacy and fairness of the current versus alternative systems of electing MPs, or whether it is a cynical ploy to prevent Conservatives from being elected to power again; most studies of electoral reform suggest a permanent Liberal-NDP alliance governing Canada, if MPs were chosen by proportional representation or ranked ballots.

More problematic, however, is that Trudeau is running on electoral change without letting voters know which change he would introduce. The Liberal leader has said his preference is a ranked ballot and voted against proportional representation last December, but is promising (under the rubric “Make every vote count”) to ensure various electoral reforms are “fully and fairly studied and considered … by a special all-party committee,” which will make recommendations upon which a Liberal government would act within 18 months of being elected. That means voters will not know which electoral reform a Liberal government will embrace and foist upon the country, until it is passed.

Because the NDP is committed to electoral reform, the Liberals could pass such legislation, even if it governs with a minority. Indeed, this promise seems tailored specifically to win over NDP support, in the event that no party wins a majority and the two left-of-center parties can cooperate to form a new government.

Trudeau’s proposals should give Canadians pause. They would radically remake the political landscape by tightening the leader’s control of the Liberal Party and placing Parliament firmly within the control of some parties and out of reach for others.