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Progressive Canadian politics: Co-operation or cannibalism?

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Political cooperation

As a team member of Project Democracy I've long been interested in political and electoral reform, and over the past few years I've written repeatedly on this topic (see: Canadian politics in the death zone, Canadian political calculus: Zero-sum or win-win?, Postcards from the 2012 by-elections, The case for NDP, Liberal, Green Cooperation?, Do Canadians want political cooperation?, Voters, polling, and Canadian democracy: where have all the flowers gone?, Project Democracy: 2011 Electoral Analysis).

However, despite multiple forays, I don't think I've exhausted the topic. More importantly, despite all the electronic ink spilled, in important respects we are still at square one in terms of reasonable prospects of how to get there. Canada is one of the few remaining developed nations still torturing itself with the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system, which is constantly producing erratic, unpredictable, and unrepresentative outcomes. We are, however, still no closer in solving this democratic deficit.

Where are we now?

An excellent opportunity to revisit this topic is a study released by Ekos Research, Liberals Widen Lead on Eve of Throne Speech: Confidence in National Direction Nears All-time Low.

Notice a difference? In the 2.5 years since the last federal election, support for the Conservatives has dropped by over a third (34 per cent), from the 39.6 per cent they received in the May 2011 election, to 26.1 per cent as measured by Ekos between October 10-14, 2013. This a dramatic decline, dropping below what has sometimes been considered as the irreducible Conservative base of 30 per cent. This is below rock-bottom for the Harper Conservatives.

At the same time, support for the Liberals has doubled (up 52 per cent) to 36.3 per cent, up from their all-time historically dismal result of 18.9 per cent in the 2011 federal election. This is a rebound to 2004 levels of popularity when Paul Martin won a minority Liberal government with 36.7 per cent of the popular vote (and the Harper Conservatives lost with 29.6 per cent, more than what they currently command).

The NDP, meanwhile, have seen a modest decline of support from 30.6 per cent in 2011 to 24.9 per cent, while Green party support has risen from 3.9 per cent to 6.5 per cent.

So much for the horse race.

These numbers have and will fluctuate. It is clear the Harper Conservatives are down, but are they out? It is clear the Liberals are back, but will the love affair with Justin Trudeau wax or wane? Will the NDP rebound or return to third-party status? Can the Greens improve on their single-seat standings?

Shedding considerable light on these questions are investigations that Ekos has done on Canadian perceptions of whether the government is moving in the right or wrong direction. For a period of two years from early 2009 to early 2011 (the last Conservative minority government) the Canadian public was fairly clearly and evenly divided on this question, with numbers on both sides hovering in the low 40s, although at the beginning of 2010, the balance tipped, and more people began to believe that the federal government was moving in the wrong direction.

Since the 2011 election (and the onset of the Harper majority government), the divergence has been dramatic (with the exception of a blip near the end of 2012) so that now 56.1 per cent of Canadians believe the federal government is moving in the wrong direction, while only 32.3 per cent still believe that the government is moving in the right direction. Clearly if this trend continues for the next two years (or even remains at these levels) it will be very grim news for the Harper Conservatives, a clear indication of how out of touch they have become with the values of the majority of Canadians.

What all this means from an electoral perspective is illustrated by one final piece of research by Ekos, how first and second choice preferences determine the "vote ceiling" of the political parties.

What Ekos found was that 49 percent of Liberal supports would be open to supporting the NDP as their second choice while 45 per cent of NDP voters would be open to supporting the Liberals as their second choice. Thus: [0.49 X 0.363 = 0.178] + [0.45 X 0.249 = 0.112] = 0.29. In other words, 29 per cent of Canadian electorate "identifies itself as left-of-centre and would consider voting Liberal or NDP." Between them, the Liberals and NDP command the support of 61.2 per cent of the Canadian electorate (up from 54 percent in July 2013), almost 2.5 times that of the Conservatives, and almost double that of the 33.3 per cent vote ceiling of the Conservatives. Translation: Conservative fortunes are sinking fast, and by co-operating the Liberals and NDP could beat the Conservatives hand's-down under virtually any imaginable electoral scenario.

However, as Ekos notes:

"With Conservative supporters largely isolated from this battle for the centre-left, it seems that the key battle for the next election will not be a Liberal-versus-Conservative or NDP-versus-Conservative, but rather Liberal-versus-NDP.

"While vote-splitting will certainly be key to any success of the Conservative party in the next election, it may not be enough to propel the party to another election victory in 2015 (and will certainly not be enough at these numbers). … These numbers do not leave a lot of room for a Conservative government, despite the centre-left's cannibalistic practice of consuming each other’s votes. These dynamics may, however, raise the issue of a coalition government."

In other words, if the key battle for electoral support in 2015 is between the Liberals and NDP, and as is clear from first and second choice support, one party almost exclusively gains support at the expense of the other, where respective levels of support split  in October 2015 (when the next federal election is slated) may be critical and could allow the Conservatives, if their numbers rebound slightly (and they have two more years to try and make nice with the Canadian electorate, and may well benefit from the lion's share of the 30 new federal ridings that will exist in the 2015 election), to come up the middle and win yet another mandate. Would this serve the interests of the 73.9 per cent of Canadians who currently oppose the Harper Conservatives? I'll let readers make up their own minds.

Where do we go from here?

Nathan CullenThe political landscape continues to be bleak with regard to political co-operation as I wrote earlier in Canadian politics in the death zone. Since the 2011 election the irreducible political arithmetic (as outlined by Ekos above) has been noticed by two political leadership candidates. Both have advocated for a one-time program of cooperation between progressive parties that would, in turn, lead to electoral reform. After that, all parties (NDP, Liberal, and Green) would return to their respective corners of the ring and duke it out as before, although under different electoral rules.

Thomas MulcairNathan Cullen, running for the helm of the NDP, made political co-operation a cornerstone of his leadership bid and attracted a very respectable 24.6 per cent of the vote on the third ballot (at which point he was forced to drop out of the race) indicating that a sizeable proportion of NDP members agreed with him and support the idea of looking for a mechanism of political cooperation with Liberals and Greens. Current NDP leader, Thomas Mulcair, however, has little inclination to follow this path, although he (and the NDP as a party) remain firmly committed to implementing electoral reform (i.e., a system of proportional representation) once elected. It is an important commitment, however, we have to find a way of getting there.

Joyce MurrayMeanwhile, Joyce Murray, running for the leadership of the Liberal Party, made a similar case, arguing that a one-time cooperation agreement with the NDP and Green parties would serve not only Liberal interests, but also those of Canadians as a whole. Despite a spirited campaign, and finishing in second place next to current Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, Murray received the support of only 10.2 per cent of Liberal party members. Trudeau has expressed no interest whatsoever in political cooperation, preferring to paddle (like his father before him) the Liberal canoe solo. Worse still, Trudeau is outspokenly opposed to proportional representation, arguing in the leadership debates that:

Justin Trudeau"The problem with proportional representation is that every different model of proportional representation, actually increases partisanship. What we need is a preferential ballot that forces politicians to have to reach out to be the second choice, even the third choice of different political parties. We need people who represent broader voices not narrower interests. I understand that people want proportional representation, but too many people don't understand the polarization and the micro-issues that come through proportional representation."

Trudeau would like to see a preferential ballot system. This is better than nothing on a riding-by-riding basis, however, as Murray pointed out in rebuttal, it is not any better than FPTP in terms of representing the overall political composition of the country.

Elizabeth MayElizabeth May of the Green Party is very interested in cooperation; however, she occupies a very lonely spot on the cooperation dance floor given that it takes a minimum of two to tango to this tune.

So, while:

1) Study after study indicates that the Liberals and NDP in co-operation could trounce the Harper Conservatives; and

2) Poll after poll shows that a large proportion of progressive Canadian voters view themselves as centre-left and would support either party; and

3) Half of the supporters of both parties would vote for candidates of the other party as their second choice; and

4) A one-time electoral agreement would allow the country to get to a place where electoral reform could be implemented (and both the NDP and the Green parties support proportional representation); and

5) Where by every reasonable measure it is clear that the 73.9 per cent of Canadians who currently oppose the Harper Conservatives would be better served by an NDP minority government, a Liberal minority government, or a coalition government of any progressive composition.

Nonetheless, Canadian politics are still mired at an impasse.

Why do I feel like I'm on a slow-motion train wreck?

[This is part one of a two-part series; part two is Progressive Canadian politics: Does it exist?]

Christopher Majka is an ecologist, environmentalist, policy analyst, and writer. He is the director of Natural History Resources and Democracy: Vox Populi.

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