The Fifth Player, Not a Fifth Wheel

I have a prediction to make. Now that the Liberals and the Greens have announced their alliance in Central Nova, somewhere in this country over this weekend, a political cartoon will run. It will feature Liberal leader Stephane Dion dressed up as Dr. Evil, on the set of the second Austin Powers movie, looking down at a pint-sized version of Green Party leader Elizabeth May capering about. With pinky to his lips, Dion will intone:

“I will call her… Mini-May.”

If any political cartoonist happens to read this and subsequently draws this cartoon, I won’t ask for any share of the royalties; just credit me, will you?

And as for the Green Party members or officials’ response to such publicity? Well, herein I have a second prediction:

“Bring it on.”

Of the people who follow politics in this country, many are in shock. The exclamations and epithets are flowing freely: “ugly”, “baffling”, “confusing”, “a slow-motion train wreck”, “American” (huh?). People have not seen anything like this before, and pundits of all stripes — but primarily those who seem most likely (however unlikely) to be hurt by the alliance — are reacting with what appears to be fear and confusion, or at least proclamations that this innovation is doomed (DOOMED!) to failure.

But say what you like about Elizabeth May and her approach. Even if her bid to dethrone Peter MacKay in Central Nova fails, the fact remains that it has still paid dividends. The Green Party has been given, since her election, a level of publicity that is an order of magnitude greater than what Jim Harris was able to deliver. Indeed, I would say that the publicity arising from the news today is approaching the level of what would be achieved in the next election if May participated in the leaders’ debate. Right now, Elizabeth May is more visible to the Canadian public than Jack Layton, and he’s sitting on a party with 29 seats in parliament, over a two-and-a-half million votes in the bank and decades of history behind him. That’s got to hurt.

The Greens received around 4.5% of the vote nationally in 2006, despite being hampered by a media that wasn’t really paying attention to them, and despite being locked out of the leaders’ debate. And while that number still managed to impress pundits like me, it’s still at a level that there’s nowhere to go but up, especially considering that the Greens have been bequeathed more resources than typically seen by other minor parties, especially considering that the Greens have a solid organizational base, and especially considering that they have a leader that’s adept at attracting media attention.

People are talking about how this alliance is going to alienate Green voters; well, in 2006 there frankly weren’t that many to begin with, and many of those who went over to the Greens’ side went there less out of a fervent devotion for the environment, and primarily to send a message to the mainstream political parties in the nation, who they felt had failed the electorate. Voter turnout showed a significant uptick in 2006 compared to the 2004 election; I have to wonder how much of that uptick were Green Party voters, voting for the first time in years?

And this is the market that Elizabeth May is appealing to: those voters who have given up on the system, who think: Liberal, Conservative, NDP, it doesn’t matter — my vote is wasted on these three, and there’s no one else to vote for.

Well, that sentiment has been inaccurate for some time, but the smaller parties haven’t had a loud enough voice to tell voters that. Until now.

So That’s What May is Thinking, What is Dion Thinking?

What does Dion get out of this deal? Considerably less than May does, except in one critical area. By agreeing to help a new political party elect its leader to parliament, Dion gives the appearance of acting beyond his own partisanship, opening up the legislature to more voices on the issue of the environment. This suggests something other than politics as usual, and thus Dion gets to suggest that he’s a different kind of politician. Certainly the move has attracted national attention, and pulled the political story of the day out of Harper’s control, for now.

Not that there’s all that many votes to be had in this arrangement, of course. But then, perhaps Stephane Dion genuinely believes that Elizabeth May deserves a seat in parliament as the leader of the Green Party. It would be a refreshing change if this was the case.

Where Have We Seen This Before

Now, to answer some of the criticisms, one of the points most often raised is that it is somehow unnatural for a mainstream political party like the Liberals to pull candidates from ridings, and thus not run a full slate across the country. The Green Party themselves have fed this sentiment, since in the past few elections, both federally and in Ontario, one of the ways the Greens have trumpeted their (wishfully thought) mainstream party status was shouting “hey, look at us! We’ve got a full slate of candidates!”. But the mainstream parties in the history of this country have fallen short before.

In the 2000 federal election, only the Liberals ran a full slate of 301 candidates. The Canadian Alliance was three short, as were the New Democrats. The Progressive Conservatives could only muster 291 candidates. The New Democrats were short again in 1993. And while Reform’s unwillingness to run candidates east of the Ontario-Quebec border locked in the perception that they were just a regional protest party, their victories still made them legitimate enough to be a force in parliament.

Besides, in terms of pith, I can hardly compete with the Canadian Cynic:

…how can I put this diplomatically — you don’t have 308 candidates worth voting for. So shut the hell up.

P.S. Dear Jack: Neither do you. See above.

As for inter-party alliances during elections, there is precedent for that in Canada as well, although it has fallen off the radar in the last two generations. It’s a shame, but it used to be that our parliaments were looser coalitions of MPs out to represent their ridings, rather than voting blocs designed to prop up party leaders. As late as 1975, Ontario Liberal Leader Robert Nixon lead an opposition coalition of two parties: the Liberals, and a single MPP who sat under the banner of Liberal-Labour.

This was a holdover of a move in 1945 when labour groups under the Labour-Progressive Party ran candidates jointly with the Liberals under leader Mitch Hepburn, a move designed specifically to marginalize the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Ontario (for some reason, labour and farmers didn’t get along at the time). Liberal-Labour continued to nominate Liberal candidates, both federally and provincially for the next three decades.

In the 1960s, the Social Credit movement considered running joint candidates with the Progressive Conservative party, in an attempt to bolster that party’s right wing. Indeed, in 1967, R.N. Thompson, the leader of the federal Social Credit party, resigned to run as a Conservative with the blessing of Ernest Manning. This ultimately spelt the death of the Socred party outside of Quebec. More recently, proposals to “unite the right” called for joint riding nomination meetings between the Reform Party and Progressive Conservative parties in order to elect candidates both sides could support.

The big difference with Dion and May’s alliance is that, rather than various groups getting together at the riding level, as is the case in the examples above, the decision to pull the Liberal candidate from Central Nova and the Green candidate from Dion’s riding has been done at the party leadership level. And that is something both Dion and May will have to answer for. Will it affect their popular support? Only time will tell.

As for complaints that this move is undemocratic — well, first I’ll point to Jennie at Idealistic Pragmatist who best gives voice to this:

Now, some will inevitably be thinking here: “but IP, I know you, and you LIKE the idea of coalitions!” Well, to that I can only say that this is quite a different animal from a coalition. A coalition happens in GOVERNMENT, AFTER the election. If, for example, the Liberals were to win a minority of the seats and the Greens were to get a few more, enough to make a majority government together, then they could form a coalition and govern side-by side. I would find nothing wrong with that; indeed, it would be the kind of thing I argue for in every third or fourth post in this blog. If the Liberals and the Greens want to stand up and announce their preference for forming the government together after the next election, I will applaud that. Actively banding together before the election, though, is not a coalition; it’s just a very puzzling strategy that disenfranchises Green voters in Saint-Laurent-Cartierville and (much more debilitatingly) Liberal voters in Central Nova. And as someone who thinks real voter choice is one of the best things about this country’s politics, that’s something I can’t support.

It is important to note that this whole issue of parties cooperating strategically in order to ensure that members on both sides are elected in the face of a Conservative “enemy” wouldn’t be an issue if we elected our MPs through proportional representation, ensuring that Green Party supporters have a voice in parliament. But that isn’t the case. In my response to IP, I said:

In the lead-up to the Ontario provincial election, the late Bob Hunter appeared on television and told Green Party supporters to vote Liberal? Why? His argument was that the only way to get the proportional representation that was required to give the Green Party its voice in Queen’s Park, was to give the mainstream party that believed in proportional representation (supposedly the Liberals) a majority under first-past-the-post rules.

Well, you can certainly have at it regarding the flaws of this logic, and this seems to be a recycling of the same mantra — although, transforming this move into something that gives the Green Party a seat or two right now is probably a better outcome than just asking all Green Party supporters to lend their support to the Liberals.

Then there’s also the tradition, which now seems out of favour, of the other parties standing aside or offering, at best, token resistance, in a seat a party leader is going for, although this typically has been just for by-elections, and whatever courtesy Stephane Dion is giving to Elizabeth May, she certainly isn’t giving to Peter MacKay.

I’m not saying that the strategy is without its problems; far from it. But it’s not unprecedented. And given how much publicity this move has netted May and the Greens this weekend, I’m much closer to agreeing with Jim Harris’ suggestion that the strategy is almost “brilliant”.

Further Reading

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