Will Trudeau’s electoral reform make it ‘virtually impossible’ for Liberals to lose power?

Justin Trudeau, pictured here on Nov. 30, 2015, is meeting with Mayor John Tory for 45 minutes.
Justin Trudeau, pictured here on Nov. 30, 2015, is meeting with Mayor John Tory for 45 minutes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michel Euler

The Liberals promised during last year’s election campaign to introduce a series of democratic reforms, including changing the way that Canadians elect their federal representatives.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that the 2015 election would be the last time Canadians would vote in a “first-past-the-post” system, where the candidate with the most votes wins a seat in the House of Commons.

The new government has said an all-party committee would study the issue and consult with Canadians, but it has refused to commit to a referendum.

But Scott Reid, a Conservative MP, said in a fundraising appeal to party members that Trudeau is “planning on pushing through a (electoral reform) plan that will benefit his Liberal party, making it virtually impossible to remove them from power.”

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau denies electoral reform favours the Liberal party 

Are the Liberals indeed planning to make it “virtually impossible” to remove them from power?

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Spoiler alert: The Canadian Press Baloney Meter is a dispassionate examination of political statements culminating in a ranking of accuracy on a scale of “no baloney” to “full of baloney” (complete methodology below).

This one earns a rating of “a lot of baloney” — the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth. Here’s why.

The facts

In the past, Trudeau has expressed his support for a preferential ballot system, where voters in a particular riding rank the candidates in their order of preference.

In that system, if nobody has an absolute majority after the first count, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated. The second-place choices on the ballots cast for that unsuccessful candidate are redistributed to the other candidates. This process goes on until one person has a majority.

The government has said that other forms of voting would be studied as well, including proportional representation.

“The government has no intention of prejudicing that debate and we have every interest in ensuring that all voices and perspectives are heard,” said Paul Duchesne, spokesman for Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef.

What the experts say:

Reid said that if the Liberals, who will likely have a majority on the all-party committee, go with a “full” preferential ballot system, the Liberals would be assured victory.

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A full preferential ballot means that voters must rank all of the candidates, otherwise their ballot is considered spoiled. Such a system exists in certain Australian jurisdictions.

A Nanos Research survey conducted right before the October 2015 vote showed 46 per cent of Conservative respondents said they had no second choice for support. As a result, Reid argues, Conservative voters would be most likely to have their ballots declared invalid in a full preferential system.

Over time, those voters would learn how to properly cast their ballots, but Reid says that wouldn’t happen immediately.

“If (Trudeau) wants to design a system that guarantees that he’ll win the next election, he’ll put in a full preferential system.”

Former Harper adviser and University of Calgary political science professor Tom Flanagan said it’s unlikely that the government would go for a full preferential ballot system.

Flanagan said he does believe, however, that in the short term, the Liberals would have the advantage in a flexible preferential ballot system, because polls have shown supporters of other parties (including the Conservatives) would be more likely to rank the Liberals as their second choice.

WATCH: Global News takes a look at what may soon replace our plurality system.

Still, Flanagan notes that even when governments try to shape a voting system to benefit their party, it doesn’t always work.

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He pointed to the 1952 British Columbia election, when the Liberals and Conservatives ushered in a preferential ballot to try and keep out the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, or CCF.

In that case, the new British Columbia Social Credit League wound up forming a minority government when they became the second preference of many voters.

Flanagan also argues that parties that win with a big majority eventually have trouble satisfying all of the different groups of voters in the tent.

“Things would happen that would eat into the big Liberal majority,” said Flanagan, author of the recent book “Winning Power.”

In Australia, where a form of preferential voting has been the norm for nearly a century, power now regularly changes hands between parties on either side of the political spectrum, he added.

Antony Green, an Australian political science professor and elections expert, said full preferential voting has led the parties to hand out “How to Vote” cards outside polling stations to help influence the final result.

“I would be surprised if Canada went down the path of full preferential voting,” Green said in an email to The Canadian Press.

“It is a big step to take, going from a system of a single X to one where all squares must be numbered. It would also be complex, given campaigning outside polling places is not allowed in Canada.”

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The verdict:

A lot of baloney
The central flaw with the Conservative statement is that neither Trudeau nor the Liberal government have ever specified how they would want a preferential ballot system to work, much less a full preferential ballot.

The Conservative statement is also based on an assumption that the all-party committee will recommend a full preferential ballot over any other kind of system, including an optional preferential ballot.

Assuming for the moment that the committee went with an optional preferential ballot, the Liberals might well have the upper hand in the next election, based on recent polls. Using 2015 data, the Liberals would theoretically gain substantially more seats in a preferential system, said Eric Grenier, the polling analyst behind the website

But there are many variables to consider before the next election, including who leads the Conservatives and how that person will position the party.

It is not inconceivable that the Conservatives could change the way they approach voters and widen their overall appeal, so that they became the second choice of more Canadians.

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The Conservative claim perhaps should have read that Trudeau “might” push through a plan that would benefit the Liberals, making it “extremely difficult” to remove them from power “in the next election.”

As it stands, however, the statement contains “a lot of baloney.”


The Baloney Meter is a project of The Canadian Press that examines the level of accuracy in statements made by politicians. Each claim is researched and assigned a rating based on the following scale:

No baloney — the statement is completely accurate

A little baloney — the statement is mostly accurate but more information is required

Some baloney — the statement is partly accurate but important details are missing

A lot of baloney — the statement is mostly inaccurate but contains elements of truth

Full of baloney — the statement is completely inaccurate

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