An election might be around the corner; political pundits are complaining about the alignment of the parties once again.
In spite of the fact that all of the parties (except possibly the Bloc Quebecois) are down from their 2008 election numbers, it has been over two years since the last election, and the parliament has been basically dinking around since then. Among the politicians and among the electorate, there is a growing sense that an election may be needed to clear the air. And, of course, for the politicians, this means ramping up the rhetoric. Some Conservatives are again fearmongering about a possible coalition of the opposition parties, denying the will of 38% of the electorate by standing up for the… er… 62% of the electorate that did not vote for the Conservative party. Well, you already know my opinion of such idiotic talking points.
But on the Liberal side, there has been a rise in complaints about the existence of the New Democratic Party. This debate comes in a bit of a range. Some wisely point out that there is a need for MPs in a newly formed minority parliament to work together and compromise and a coalition is a natural fulfilment of that democratic process. Some have talked about the need to vote strategically, which has mixed blessings and is extremely difficult to implement with any effectiveness at the national level. Some, however, complaining about the vote-splitting that the other party is doing which is preventing the Liberals from taking their rightful place as the natural governing party of the land, entitled to its entitlements, want the NDP to cease to exist.
In short, the call is out that the New Democratic Party merge with the Liberals. New Democratic voters, I assume, are being asked to set aside their political aspirations to join a big tent that speaks only marginally to their wishes, on the sole benefit that it allegedly prevents a worse government from taking power. I have little time for such silly notions. As has been pointed out, it’s wrong to assume that all Liberal voters and all New Democrat voters will automatically vote for a united Liberal Democratic party. Note that when the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform Party finally set aside their differences and merged, their combined vote totals went down, not up. Since coming together in 2004, there has been only one occasion when their vote totals in an election have equalled their combined vote take in the 1993, 1997 and 2000 elections, and that’s the election we’ve just had. Since 2008, then numbers for the Conservative Party of Canada have gone down again, flirting with 29% on recent occasions.
Ask yourself: where did those 8-9% of Canadian voters go? Did they switch to the Liberals? Unlikely, given that the Liberals themselves have barely budged above the 30% mark. The high numbers of the Green Party speak to a possible outlet of disaffected Progressive Conservatives. It is also likely that many of those lost voters just threw up their hands and decided not to vote, effectively disenfranchising themselves.
This is, in a nutshell, why I think all moves to merge political parties are wrong headed, be they Liberals with New Democrats or Progressive Conservatives with Reformers. By removing a political option from the list of choices available to voters, you are disenfranchising voters, forcing them to pick from (in their mind) far more unpalatable choices. It’s a profoundly undemocratic move, in my opinion. Why should voters be forced to choose a party whose platform they largely disagree with? Why are people surprised that a record number of voters don’t vote?
But this isn’t why I decided to write this post. In the comments about this issue over on Warren Kinsella’s site, I think I detected a bit of a blindspot among some of the political types there. Witness some of these comments:
Hebert’s first conclusion is wrong. The sum would be less because the resultant party would be much further to the left than the LP currently is and Canadian public opinion (like public opinion in the rest of the western world for the last thirty five years) has been moving slowly to the right with the pace quickening in the last three or four.
Yes the end to vote-splitting could potentially mean some seat gains, but there could also be as many if not more picked up by the CPC with the influx of disgruntled moderate LPC supporters.
Your usual logic on this issue is all wrong, and here is the reason why:
A Liberal/NDP union will not cause any Conservatives to switch their vote. (Thus the about 35% the Conservatives are polling right now stands)
A Liberal/NDP union would cause more than a few Blue Liberals and Red Tories in the Liberal Party to switch to the Conservatives. (At least 5%, if not much more of the Liberal Party would switch)
A Liberal/NDP union would cause many NDP and Liberal folks (including me) to vote Green or just not participate in the upcoming election.
There are more, but I think the second comment (by MississaugaPeter) is an illustration of what I’m saying while at the same time being close to the mark of reality. The discussion about merger talks between the various parties tend to concern themselves with how the voters will swing. We are looking at vote changes of 5% or so which, admittedly, could change governments in this finely balanced arrangement of parties and popular support. But when MississaugaPeter notes that many voters might just stay home and not vote, it’s the only reference we have to a large but largely ignored group: eligible voters that don’t vote.
By far, the largest voting bloc in this country are those eligible voters who don’t vote. In the 2008 election, only 59.1% of voters turned out to the polls. The 40.9% who stayed home represented 9,573,987 voters. That’s more voters than there are people in New York City. That’s more voters than Conservative and Liberal supporters combined.
So, I’m a little confused why so much rhetoric has been spent by the various parties trying to get partisan voters to switch sides. Why are we so concerned about how many Liberals could vote Conservative and vice versa, or how many New Democrats could be enticed to the Liberal fold? Why is no party leader or policy maker going out and talking to the 9.5 million Canadians to ask them why they don’t vote? Why isn’t there any work being done to craft a policy or platform that can entice some of those eligible voters back to the voting booth (assuming the various parties could get past the credibility gap to catch the attention of these non-voting voters, many of whom are likely deeply cynical about such promises).
Consider the numbers, if just 10% of those 9.5 million voters found enough that they liked in a particular party’s platform — enough to take a leap of faith and return to the democratic process — that would represent 950,000 votes, the equivalent of the Green Party’s support in the last election, or almost 7% of the electorate. 950,000 votes would significantly close the gap between the Liberals and the Conservatives, or between the New Democrats and the Liberals — and that’s assuming each party keeps those voters who voted for them in 2008. With Conservative party support down from its 2008 numbers, an additional million voters heading to the Liberals could be enough to change a government.
Of course, the big question is what it policies it would take to convince some of those 9.5 million electors to come back to the voting booth, not to mention convincing them that the policy promises were being made seriously and would be kept once the ballots were counted. I can’t help but suspect that since many have walked away from the democratic process because they feel their votes do not count anymore, the policy that could get them back would have to be democratic reform — either proportional representation, or even something simpler, like having a “none of the above” option placed on the ballots.
The sad thing is, the mainstream political parties, who continue to benefit from our antiquated first-past-the-post system, may believe that they have much to fear from making such changes. Under proportional representation, no longer would it be possible for a mandate from just 40% of the voters to translate into a majority control of parliament. But the mainstream parties are not only cutting their own throats overlooking this massive pool of potential voters, they’re doing something worse.
The 9.5 million voters who have chosen not to vote represent a rot in the Canadian democratic process. They represent a disconnect. The way the system is designed allows the mainstream parties to govern without regard to what would be a majority mandate if those 9.5 million came off the fence and voted en masse for their own party, but it’s a phantom mandate. Over 40% of voting Canadians gave no consent for this government to govern, and yet the government governs regardless. How is that democracy? How is that right?