I've said it before, and I've said it again, the Liberals have lost the moral right to govern. Paul Martin has not been able to staunch the complacency and the arrogance of his tired party, and the next election looks set to be run not on the issues, or on what the Liberals can do to build a better Canada, but on how demonic Stephen Harper is. In short, the current brand of Liberals offer nothing new. They need to be defeated. Only after spending four years in opposition will they be ready to return, refreshed, to govern this country on a moderate path, assuming we decide to let them.
But who do we replace them with? Who?
The Fourth Way
Consider for a moment the Green Party of Canada. Note their interesting combination of environmental awareness with the acceptance of free market forces. Consider for a moment what Canada might be like if, by some miracle, the Greens were elected to power. Could you live with 2-4 years of Green power? Would we suffer? No more, I'd wager, than under a Conservative, NDP or Liberal government.
Now set this aside for a moment, to come back to later.
Our Current Stalemate
In February, Adscam delivered a broadside blow to the new government of Paul Martin. The depth of apparent corruption ripped the teflon off the Liberal Party and things started to stick. The Liberals fell a devastating 20% in the polls, transforming what was supposed to be a cakewalk of an election into a very close race. When the polling numbers stabilized, the split between the Liberals, the newly-united Conservatives and the resurgent NDP was 38-28-18.
The Conservatives, smelling blood, reconsidered their leadership strategies. After banking on the charismatic but inexperienced Belinda Stronach as a means of looking ahead to 2008, the vote swung to the more experienced Stephen Harper when they realized they were electable in 2004. Despite the fact that many said that this would cement the impression that the Canadian Alliance had taken over the Progressive Conservative Party, Harper takes over as a rational and capable-looking leader of a united right-wing party at a time that the Liberals appear to scramble. Will there be a Conservative honeymoon?
The opinion polls that follow show the Lib/Con/NDP split at 38-28-18.
Then Paul Martin unveils his first budget as Prime Minister. Despite not being the bold document that many are looking for, he does manage to play it down the middle and make it appear that the Liberals are charting a direction between the "extreme" policies of the Conservatives and the NDP. Does this shift the numbers?
The AdScam scandal deepens. The civil war between the Chretien and Martin Liberals spill back onto the front pages. It becomes increasingly clear that Paul Martin doesn't have a legislative agenda. His new ads are ridiculed. The Conservatives and the NDP keep firing.
For two months now, the popularity of the three main parties has remained within the statistical margin of error of those three numbers. The Conservatives and the NDP may be feeling refreshed, but they're really no closer to forming a government than they were in 1993. And the fact that this is so should be of great concern to them, for Harper especially.
If you consider that, this past December, the split between the two parties was something like 58-13-13, what has happened is that the 20% of voters who were so disgusted by the Liberals antics as revealed by the Liberal Party civil war and by Adscam, have moved over to the secondary parties their willing to support. The remaining Liberals may hate the complacency and corruption that have crept into their party, but they see the alternatives as so unpalatable that they are not willing to switch. Indeed, some polls suggest that a full 12% of voting Canadians are Liberal supporters who do not believe that their party deserves to be reelected.
There are two ways to break this no-clear-winner logjam; Quebec controls one. In Quebec, the separatist Bloc Quebecois have proven to be the party of choice for voters disgusted with the Liberals. The BQ will be the reason why Canada ends up with a minority government should this happen in the next election. However, if Quebeckers decide to shift their allegiances, then the Liberals will gain the handful of seats they need to squeak out a bare majority. Even if BQ supporters start to bleed to the Conservatives or the NDP, the resulting vote splitting could give the Liberals those same seats.
For the rest of Canada, the situation is more complicated. The Liberals are falling because the centrists that have supported them (and who tend to decide the fate of governments) know that it's time to vote for someone else. But who? The Liberal party has so effectively straddled the centre over the past ten years, the parties on either side of it have not had much centrist ground on which to grow.
Some centrist voters have switched allegiances to the Conservatives or the NDP, but others are so afraid of the extreme reputation of one of the other parties that they're unwilling to switch their vote for fear that vote splitting brings that other party to the fore. Maybe the Conservatives and the NDP deserve our vote moreso than the Liberals, but the centrists who are going to decide this election are reluctant to give that vote because hardened Conservatives and NDPers will see a shift of the political centre towards them as blank cheque and not for what it is: a solumn granting of the country to hold in trust, and not mess up, for the next four or five years.
So, here we sit: new-NDP supporters too afraid of Conservative baggage to consider joining ranks with the centre-right of this country; new-Conservatives marching to Stephen Harper's tune that the NDP represent as much of a threat to Canada as the Bloc Quebecois; disaffected Liberals who know that their party deserves to be defeated, but afraid of the two main candidates to replace them; and just about every other Canadian out there who has thrown up his or her hands in despair and decided not to vote. Stalemate. And unless one of us blinks, that stalemate looks likely to continue, and do harm to the Canadian democracy.
So, I have a proposal...
Let us Meet on Neutral Ground
If the NDP and the Conservatives set aside their differences and worked together, they'd have the votes to defeat the Liberals, but for one side to move to the other would be an admission of defeat. However, here we have the Green Party of Canada, taking chunks of policies out of the NDP, the Conservatives and the Liberals, and spinning it together with environmental awareness in a new and fresh way. Why not use the Green Party as neutral territory where everybody gives up a little bit of something and gets a little bit of something by working together?
And as the Green Party represents a new, different, but still centrist alternative, it might prove a tempting home for those Liberals currently thinking about jumping ship, especially if they think that doing so does not bring about the spectre of Stockwell Day as Minister of Foreign Affairs. And if those that choose not to vote instead decide to vote Green, we'd have a landslide.
I know there's a risk in going with a new and untested party but, at the end of an 11-year-long Liberal dynasty, any new governing party is going to be a risk. At this point I'm even willing to live under a Harper government for four years, although I don't think I'd like it. There are 10 million Ontarians who have survived Bob Rae and Mike Harris. So, if I can live under a Harper government, if Ontarians can survive Bob Rae and Mike Harris, surely you could live under a Green government. And it might be fun.
What have we got to lose?
So, as a centrist who, until now, decided to vote NDP, I'm here to make this offer: if any one Conservative out there were to come forward and give me their word of honour that they will vote Green in the upcoming federal election, I will give them my word of honour that I will change my vote, and also vote Green.
Who's with me?
I know that this is a Quixotic quest, but I don't care. The Liberals don't deserve our vote, but the disaffected among us have not settled into a single solid group. If we wish to make this tired party understand the disapproval of the centre, the centre-left and the centre-right, we three are going to have to use our votes creatively. Besides, I think it would do Canada good if we thumbed our noses at those so arrogant as to say that any vote other than Liberal or Conservative is a wasted vote.
Canada is a country built from compromise. Throughout history we have moved forward by accepting the fact that though we can't get all of what we want, by reconciling with our opponents, we actually can get most of what we need.
Who's with me?