Uniting the Canadian left

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In preparing the panel discussion organized as part of the rabble.ca relaunch celebration in Toronto (you can hear the podcast here) I identified four options for the Canadian left. The idea was to hear discussed in an open forum - with due attention to partisan concerns - what is being debate widely on the left: how do progressives respond to the Harper government and the prospect of a majority Harper government?

I said progressives could be divided roughly into four groups, independents, strategic voters, Greens, "left" Liberals and New Democrats, and asked which of the following strategies makes the most sense.

1. Everybody should join our party or group and do what we do, and all will be well. Victory lies over the next hill. We need to do nothing more than what we are doing, only better. Divisions will be dealt with through the electoral process.

Common project: All should work for proportional representation by joining and supporting Fair Vote Canada.

2. Strategic voting. Each citizen has to make an informed choice, riding by riding, as to who has the best chance of defeating the Conservative candidate.

Common project: Build expertise and pool resources for a strategic voting site following the lead taken for election 2008 by environmental groups.

3. The NDP, Green and Liberal parties need to co-operate. They should act as if proportional representation already existed: agree on some common priorities and then study the electoral map and agree to step down in favour of one candidate in, say, 40 Conservative held ridings.

As well, in any riding where one candidate lost by less than 500 votes, and no other opposition party was within 1,000 of the winner, that candidate should be allowed to run unopposed by the two other parties. Bringing the Bloc into the conversation could also be envisaged.

Common project: join the political party of your choice and make it happen.

4. We need a Belinda Stronach of the left. The Green Democrats make more sense than the NDP and the Greens fighting each other and electing Harper. A healthy three party system outside Quebec can be made to work against the right. Or how about a Liberal Green Democratic Alliance, expressing the desire of just about two-thirds of Canadians to not have a Harper government, let alone a majority government.

Common project: convene an across party lines "thinkers" conference and get people talking about envisaging a new party system.

As you can tell from listening to the podcast, the room full of rabble supporters favoured option one, proportional representation (PR), as did the noted panelists Maude Barlow, Anne Lagacé-Dowson, Murray Dobbin and Jessica Yee, though with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

I was somewhat surprised by the degree of support for PR. Of course, only PR allows for voters wishes to be registered when you have multiple parties contesting an election. First-past-the-post only makes sense for democratic parliamentary government in a two-party system, which was my option four.

Murray Dobbin is calling for an alliance of the opposition parties to defeat the Harper government on a confidence motion in the House of Commons as soon as possible, and to go to the Governor General with a plan to form a coalition government. Anyone who fears what the Harper government is capable of doing over the next months should be taking the proposal seriously.

The biggest problem with PR is that it takes a government elected by the first-past-the-post system to implement PR. Since bringing in PR would make it more difficult for the government to get re-elected, and because governments are averse to doing themselves in, electoral reform does not happen.

One of the reasons to work for an anti-Harper coalition government would precisely be to have it adopt PR before going back to the voters.

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