Having the progressive political views that I do, I am on the mailing list of Lead Now, a non-partisan Canadian organization dedicated to building a better, more progressive government and democracy. I (and presumably everyone else on their list) got an email last week titled, “Maybe the most important question we’ll ever ask you,” and the question read:
It comes down to this: we believe that Canada needs a multi-party political system and electoral reform to make sure we can elect governments that best represent all Canadians. The question is: how do we get there? We want to know what you think of the following statement (we are the authors of the statement, which we are using to learn what you think):
“I call on the opposition party leaders to support political cooperation for electoral reform. During the next federal election, the NDP, Liberals and Greens should work together in key ridings to defeat Conservative incumbents. After the election, they should cooperate to pass electoral reform and make sure our government better reflects the values and priorities of all Canadians.”
To be clear, what’s meant by co-operation between the opposition parties is that in ridings currently held by Conservatives, the opposition parties (NDP, Liberal, Green, and Bloc) get together and decide who they think has the best chance of defeating the incumbent Conservative. If that person is, say, a Liberal, then the NDP and Green (and Bloc, if this is QuÃ©bec) parties don’t run candidates in the riding, in the hopes that the people who would vote for those candidates will then line up behind the Liberal candidate. I understand the thinking behind this, and I’m sympathetic to people who, in exasperation, are saying, “We need to do SOMETHING differently to get this current government out of office in three years,” but I think there are some serious assumptions that go into this model, and have grave reservations about it.
- It assumes that anyone, or at least most, of the people who would vote for Party A’s candidate would line up behind Party B’s candidate if there were no candidate from Party A. This is my biggest practical concern about the idea, because I think it’s shortsighted to assume that someone who’d vote for the NDP would vote for the Liberals automatically if there was no NDP candidate available, or vice versa. People vote for parties for a reason, and it’s not like the NDP and the Liberals have indistinguishable party platforms, concerns, or points of view. This is why they’re two separate parties! I’m not saying that people would flock to the Conservatives, but rather that I think many would stay home or spoil their ballot, rather than voting for the designated candidate. There’s lots of people who’d take great umbrage at the idea that their vote is assumed to be transferable in the parties’ eyes, and would not look favourably on either party involved.
- It undermines the democratic principle by removing the choice from the voters; the decision of who to run where is likely to be made by only a handful of people. Either the decision is made in Ottawa by the party strategists, or the decision is made by the individual riding associations. I’m deeply uncomfortable with the decision coming from Ottawa, because what the people in Ottawa see as viable may not at all jive with what the people in the riding want, and ultimately, this needs to work on a riding-to-riding level. Having the decision of who is available to for citizens to elect being made not by the people in the riding by from strategists is insulting to the voters and the riding associations. But even having the riding associations make the decision makes me a bit squirrelly, because I’m well aware of how few people are often involved in the riding associations. If this is a policy that is taken up, then the riding associations involved must undertake a significant public campaign to sound out the riding, get voters aware of what the riding associations are looking to do, and above all, listen to what the voters have to say about it. If that means scrapping the idea in that riding, that means scrapping the idea in that riding. Ignoring what the voters are saying risks having the whole endeavor backfire, and seriously undermines the spirit of democracy.
- It assumes that people vote for parties rather than people; while this is often true, I think especially in tight races, the candidate matters more than is typically acknowledged. Races are run based on party politics, but at the end of the day, we’re electing individuals to represent us. My parents live in a politically interesting riding that the Conservatives have held for the past few elections. Before that, though, there was a Liberal who ran and while she lost (barely), she was exactly the sort of person I would want representing me. I wasn’t entirely sold on her being a Liberal, but she was whip smart, articulate, versed in a variety of things, and an excellent speaker who took guff from no-one. I happily voted for her, even though I was tepid at best about her party.
- It assumes that the voting patterns from the recent past are still an accurate predictor of future voting patterns (as much as they ever are), regardless of the NDP’s unprecedented success in this past election. Many people (including yours truly, once) thought that a vote for the NDP was often a lost vote, since the NDP didn’t stand a chance to win many ridings (and thus, was always a third party). Since that’s been proven at least partially wrong, I suspect that voting patterns will shift noticeably in the next election, as people who vote strategically reconsider what exactly a strategic vote is. Basing the decision of which single opposition party to run in each ridings on historic voting patterns may fail to catch the adjustments that I suspect will come in the next election.
- It is a PR minefield for the opposition parties to navigate – witness the brouhaha that ensued from the coalition talks a few years ago. This isn’t necessarily a reason to not do go through with inter-party cooperation, but all parties involved would be foolish to not learn from the coalition debacle. The Conservatives will have a field day with the “opposition parties are working behind your back to decide who you’ll be able to vote for” trope, and unfortunately, it’s not entirely inaccurate (though I’m sure they’ll spin it so hard our collective heads will spin too). To avoid this, the opposition parties must all be on the same page (and publicly so), with the same (extremely clear and succinct) message, and be entirely transparent about the process and the decision making. Considering that the opposition parties are, at the highest level, still competing, I think this may be very difficult to achieve; even if we do achieve it, I would not underestimate the Conservatives’ ability to throw mud and halftruths at it to such an extent that it becomes an unpopular idea. The opposition parties cannot, under any circumstances, underestimate that or the potential level of backlash from voters.
Canadian P’neers, I’m very curious what you think of the proposition, especially if you’re in favour of it. I’d like to be persuaded – I would like to feel like there is another option or tactic to get Harper out of office in three years! So, what say you?