On Canada's Potential Liberal Democrats

Spurred on by the surprising willingness of politicians in the United Kingdom to set aside their differences and actually work constructively towards a decent coalition government, momentum appears to be increasing towards some sort of cooperation between the Liberal Party of Canada and the New Democrats in unseating the governing minority Conservatives.

Also, and perhaps not by coincidence, it’s almost the start of summer. Parliament will soon be out of session, and this is traditionally a time when political reporters have little to write about. And so a lot of text is spent on speculation of leadership contests unrun, elections uncalled, and whatever else can fill their quota. So, we should all take such speculation with a grain of salt.

Still, it’s interesting the different tenor this speculation has taken. Liberal war-room insider Warren Kinsella has written about it extensively, and prominent Liberals and New Democrats, including Jean Chretien, Bob Rae and Ray Romanow have talked about the need of such a coalition. And, despite attempts by the Conservatives to demonize the hypothetical with recollections of their ill-informed propaganda about the proposed 2008 coalition, the public reaction appears to be more amenable to the possibilities. So long as a possible coalition doesn’t include the Bloc, the general public seems to like the idea of the Liberals and the NDP working together in some form.

That being said, I’m concerned that the media, some pundits, and even some insiders appear to be using the terms “electoral cooperation”, “coalition” and “merger” interchangeably, and I have to say that I have substantially different reactions to each.

You all know that I am not opposed to coalitions. Indeed, I think party leaders would have to be fools to rule out such arrangements if an election produces an inconclusive result. In a minority parliament, no party has a mandate, except to represent their constituents as best as they can by reaching out to MPs from other parties and negotiating and compromising to produce an agenda that a majority of MPs can be happy with. Some of our best governments have come from minority parliaments, when at least two parties have cooperated towards a common agenda, and it is the fact that we simply don’t trust our larger parties anymore that is a large reason why we’ve limited them to minority parliaments these past six years. If we voters are tired of minority parliaments, it’s only due to the unwillingness of the political parties to work together within them, and the fact that the Liberals and the NDP are considering ways to change that has to be considered a breath of fresh air.

I am also not opposed to some form of electoral cooperation between the Liberals and the NDP, if only to smarten up those who have advocated “strategic voting” in the past. Too often, the bogeyman of a Conservative government has been used by the Liberals, not to reach out to the NDP, but to snatch voters and try to win Liberal seats, and too often this has proven self destructive to the Liberals.

Consider the 2004 election, where the Conservatives came close to winning, and Liberal leader Paul Martin put out a similar alarm. Some indications are that this call worked in lowering Conservative support and moving NDP supporters to the NDP, but the parliament that resulted was almost unworkable, with the combined Liberal-NDP seat totals tied with the combined seat totals of the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois (and, at the time, the Bloc were not at all interested in cooperating with a Liberal government).

Paul Martin’s call for NDP supporters to move to the Liberals to forestall a Conservative government may have pulled NDP voters to Liberal candidates in ridings the Liberals had no hope of winning, but which the NDP did. The NDP lost a squeaker to the Conservatives in Oshawa, and in a handful of ridings in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. If Paul Martin had moderated his call, even a bit, to suggest that Liberal voters should consider voting NDP in those ridings, the combined Liberal-NDP support in parliament would have been enough to command a workable coalition. Today, several ridings rest in Conservative hands that could conceivably switch to the New Democrats if the Liberals were a bit more nuanced in their call for “strategic voting”.

But my support for cooperation between the Liberals and the New Democrats doesn’t extend to a full merger. That would be a mistake, in my opinion. The frustration here is that people talk about such a merger as a “unite the left” movement, to go with the Conservatives’ successful “uniting the right”, as if political people can only be left or right. This is a sad oversimplification of the way individual voters think.

The Liberals are not a party of the left. Traditionally, they are a party of the centre, and they have successfully governed by offering a mix of the best policies of the left and right. New Democrats have different aspirations than the Liberals, and forcing the two parties to merge will require one or both parties to subsume some of those aspirations, and to silence some of their calls for change.

I find such an act to be fundamentally undemocratic, and it was a complaint of mine when unite-the-right supporters were cajoling reluctant Progressive Conservatives or Alliance members to do the same. Such supporters, in my opinion, were frustrated that Alliance voters could want things that Progressive Conservative voters did not, and could exercise that want by keeping their vote away from the other party. Their successful attempt to remove one of the two voices on the right was an attempt to force voters in that part of the political spectrum to make a choice that they preordained. Force a choice.

Why should a voter be required to pick a limited selection of choices that don’t represent their values to the degree that the voter wants? The response of many voters of having their choices taken away is not to vote at all. Not coincidentally, voter turnout in the past few elections has been depressingly low, and it took four years and two elections before the newly minted Conservative Party of Canada won a percentage of the vote equal to the combined percentage of the vote commanded by the Progressive Conservatives and the Reform/Alliance parties in the 1993, 1997 and 2000 elections.

Far more democratic, in my opinion, is to allow the various political lines of thought to have a voice in parliament equal to their support throughout the country. In other words, it should no longer be the case that a sufficiently “big tent” party can take majority control of parliament based on just 40% of the ballots cast. The Reform Party made significant contributions to Canada while never holding power, by holding the Liberals’ feet to the fire and highlighting the problem of our mounting debt. Now that voice has been silenced thanks to the “unite the right” movement and Stephen Harper’s fetish for unfettered power. It would be a similar mistake to discount the contributions the New Democrats have made by being “the conscience of parliament”, and trying to remove that conscience through a new, amalgamated “Liberal Democratic” party.

And the only solution to prevent this, in my opinion, is to bring proportional representation to the House of Commons. That way, one can reasonably vote Green, New Democrat, Liberal, PC or Alliance, and be guaranteed that their voice will be heard in parliament — and, quite possibly, acted upon. Perhaps that should be the focus of any Liberal-New Democrat discussions that might or might not be going on as we speak: electoral cooperation focused on toppling the Conservatives in the next election, followed by a redesign of the system that forces continued cooperation by all the parties in the future, so that things get done.

That would be a real case of setting aside short term partisan gain for the real benefit of the country.

blog comments powered by Disqus