It's Time to Think Outside the Box


There is a logjam in Canadian politics these days. Two things happened this past month which should have had a significant role to play in the fortunes of our mainstream political parties. Should have, but didn’t.

First of all, the Conservative Party of Canada chose their new leader and, despite the assertion that Stephen Harper’s victory represented a takeover of the old PCs by the Alliance (which was the consensus among the Canadian body-politic three months ago), Harper has made noises of reconciliation towards the centrist PCs, and a number appear to have listened. The party seems pretty united and strong — at least from the portion of the country west of the Ottawa River.

But Conservative Party support was at 27% in the weeks before Harper won the leadership. The first polls taken afterward: 27%.

Then Paul Martin followed up with a budget. Now, it wasn’t the bold, Paul Martin-vision-thing type budget that many expected, but it did play things astutely down the middle. Martin’s prudence won him the competing soundbites of Jack Layton saying that the budget did too much in some areas and too little in others, and Stephen Harper saying exactly the opposite. End result: both leaders said that some of Paul Martin’s budget did the right things, and if you’re able to please and tick off the Conservatives and the NDP at the same time, the impression left with the Canadian public is: “well, Paul Martin did something right.”

But, consider the numbers: Paul Martin’s Liberals before the budget: 38%. Paul Martin’s Liberals after the budget: 38%.

The numbers are not good for the Liberals because of the way they break down across the country. The Liberals look set to lose their majority. But the numbers aren’t good for the Conservatives, either. Paul Martin, through his vindictive and politically stupid purging of Chretien Liberals and his handling of the AdScam scandal, has basically handed the election to the Conservatives — or would have, if this had been 1984. However, at 27% in the polls, the Conservative Party stands roughly where the Canadian Alliance stood in 2000, when they reached their highest level of popular support, but were held to just 66 seats. They are 11 points shy of the combined vote of the PCs and the Alliance in that same election. For Stephen Harper, the next election should be a slam dunk, but it isn’t.

I’ve often joked that Canadians are eager to replace the Liberals… with the Liberals. Canadians are sick of Liberal arrogance and ineptitude, but they are not about to abandon Liberal policy. With the party at war with itself and with the depth of Liberal incompetence on display with the daily breaking of AdScam news, Canadians want change — but when they see what change might bring, they hesitate. That’s the only explanation as to why the Conservatives remain at only 25-27% and the NDP at 15-17% despite the fact that the Liberals are basically conceding the election.

This was anticipated. A few weeks ago, over at the Middleman, there was discussion on an article by Christie Blatchford discussing (what else?) the sponsorship scandal. Her basic take: that concern over this serious stumble in the Liberal party’s fortunes will soon be forgotten because, angry though Canadians are, they are not angry enough to take the next step and elect Prime Minister Harper. Ms. Blatchford finds this disgusting, as do, I’m sure, 50% of Albertans, or the 44% of Canadians (the combined number of Conservatives and NDPers) who have committed themselves to change. But until the 27% of Canadians on the right reach out to the 17% of Canadians on the left and convince them to cooperate to bring about change, change won’t happen.

The Liberal dynasty of the past ten years was about more than vote splitting; otherwise, the Conservatives would be more of a threat than they are now. Really, the Liberals have so effectively straddled the centre that they have left the surrounding parties with little ground to grow. As a result, those surrounding parties have tended to develop towards their grassroot extremes, espousing policy and values that the majority of Canadians can’t stomach. Harper and Layton are trying to combat this, both in appearance and in substance, but the basic equation remains: hate Liberal arrogance and lack of integrity? Vote Conservative. Hate the Conservative’s anti-gay, anti-abortion reputation? Vote NDP. Hate the NDP’s anti-American, anti-capitalist, trade-union reputation? Vote… Liberal?

The NDP and the Conservatives bear some of the responsibility for this by not embracing Liberal policy that the Canadian voters themselves embraced in the 1997 and 2000 elections (the gun registry, debt reduction, the Clarity Bill, etc), but Canadians everywhere are at fault for failing to look for other choices when the “mainstream” failed to give them what they wanted. Why should it be that if one favours a free market economy, one has to pick a party espousing environmentally unsound policies? Why should it be that when one is looking for a progressive social policy, we have to declare globalization the enemy?

If the Conservatives and NDPers don’t embrace more centrist policies, and if the Liberals can’t give us the integrity we so desire, why should voters consider these three parties as our only alternatives? The 2004 election is going to be a confusing logjam anyway, so what do you have to lose in going for somebody completely different? For example, why not consider voting Green?

I am not a sandal-wearing, granola-crunching, hippie environmentalist (although I do work for an environmental magazine). I pick the Greens because this youthful party has an interesting mix of policies that go beyond their single issue campaign. I pick them because I’ve happily voted for them before, and they are starting to show up on opinion poll radar. They have interesting things to say about changing our taxation policy in such a way that targets resource consumption rather than income, while being revenue neutral and fiscally prudent, and they try to use the forces of the free market to bring about positive environmental change. It’s different. It’s not pilloried to the right or the left. Certainly it’s worthy of consideration?

You yourself don’t have to pick the Greens to make your dissatisfaction with the mainstream parties known. Do you like laissez-faire social policy with your laissez-faire economic policy? Consider the Libertarians. Or maybe you want a politician who speaks for himself rather than a party? Either way, lodging your vote with a smaller party that more closely represents your true ideals, or which has a different take on the old debates, or which brings up new issues to debate, has more weight than simply staying home. If every voter who stayed home during an election instead cast their ballot for a different party, the three mainline parties would be delivered such a shock to their system, they might have to radically change their approach, and I think that would be good for Canadian democracy.

To the mainstream opposition parties, I suggest that if you want to progress beyond your glass ceilings, you should embrace Liberal policy that the voters appear to have endorsed over the past two elections. Instead of campaigning (again) to kill the gun registry, campaign on the promise that not only will you keep it, you’ll run it better than the Liberals did. If you’re having trouble convincing the voting public that your left-leaning policies are economically sound, have them audited, and use that as a photo-op to show that you’re less afraid of an Auditor General than the Liberals currently are.

Or, better yet, if your policies from the 1997 and 2000 elections still don’t resonate with voters, find new ones; especially centrist ones that the Liberals haven’t touched. Make senate reform front and centre for your election campaign, for example.

Think outside the box. Because, if you’re not careful, Canadian voters will start thinking outside the box for you. And that might be enough to send all three maintstream political brands home in a box.

What Else is Out There?

  • The Greens are the “other” party most often appearing on the opinion poll radar these days. They’re roughly at 4-5% nationally, with spikes in BC. They also have, in my opinion, a very professional website
  • The Libertarians have been around for a long time, and they’re pretty up front about where they stand. If you want the government out of your life for good, as well as the right to smash through your windshield at 100 kph, this is the party for you.
  • The Freedom Party started life as a splinter group from the Libertarians, but it’s clear which one got the webdesigners in the divorce. These guys appear to have a much more neo-conservative bent.
  • The Marijuana Party appears to be this election’s substitute for the Rhinocerous Party of Canada (there’s a reference on my blogroll somewhere if I can find it). They’ve got a good website, and passionate members, but as single issues go, not one that electrifies most of the electorate.
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