Albert Einstein famously said that insanity was “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” On that basis, Canadian politics have now entered a realm of insanity. Like a demonically possessed hamster we race furiously on a circular treadmill while staying in exactly the same political place under a delusion that this will take us to a different destination.
The stark political landscape
Despite recent Nanos polling showing the Conservative party with only 31.3 per cent of popular support — and the combined Liberal-NDP-Green party support in Canada at 63.2 per cent, slightly more than double that of the Conservatives — this support continues to be fragmented amongst three political parties. Although the Liberals are enjoying a bump in popularity thanks to the election of Justin Trudeau, leading with 35.4 per cent of support, with the NDP at 23.6 per cent and Greens at 4.2 per cent (the BQ is at 4.8 per cent), they have picked up this support largely at the expense of the NDP (down 3.6 per cent from February 2013) and the Green party (down 1.7 per cent). Tellingly, almost none of it came from the Conservatives (down only 0.2 per cent). As has been the case for many years, the “progressive” political parties draw support largely the expense of one other.
Since the 2006 election, the Harper Conservatives have maintained a rock-solid, fossilized, nucleus of die-hard supporters in the range of 32 per cent. No matter multiple prorogations, being found in contempt of Parliament, running from a confidence vote in the House of Common, the miserable economic performance of Canada, the muzzling of scientists, withdrawing from the Kyoto protocol, the Bev Oda orange juice scandal, the Peter McKay helicopter scandal, wildly ballooning costs of F-35 fighter jets, the serial abuse of omnibus budget bills, the robocall scandal, the dreadful Canada-China FIPA, the complete abdication of serious climate change measures, Dutch Disease eroding the Canadian economy, the reckless exploitation of the tar sands, the destruction of the Experimental Lakes Area and the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory (PEARL), the annihilation of the National Roundtable on the Environment and Economy, the ignominious refusal to deal with critical social, environmental, and health concerns faced by native people — all issues that might have brought down a government in times gone by — nothing shakes the faith of these Harper supporters. They are impervious to political rationality.
Moreover, the Harper Conservatives know precisely who these people are (primarily older voters), how to wind them up, and how to get the to the polls. The Conservatives have more money than any other political party, better databases, and no scruples about using the most egregious of attack ads. They’ve stacked the deck by eliminating public support for political parties, and in 2015 there will be 30 new ridings, 25 of which are predicted to be good prospects for Conservative victories.
Yet, faced with such flint-hard political realities, the vast majority of Canadians who support progressive politics are in no better position to stop the Harper Conservative juggernaut. Analyst Paul Adams illuminates this impasse in Strategic voting: The last worst option for progressives.
“Those like me who had hoped (but weren’t really expecting) that the parties would cooperate have to be realistic: it’s unlikely to happen before the next election. … Reluctantly, I have to say that the next step is to look at ways to marshal so-called “strategic voting.” What that means is encouraging progressives to vote in their constituencies for whichever of the three parties — Liberals, NDP or Greens — has the best chance of winning locally. There are all sorts of reasons why this is a less effective method of engineering a progressive victory than direct party cooperation would be.”
As a member of the Project Democracy team that developed the informed strategic voting initiatives that ran in the 2008 and 2011 elections, I concur with Adams. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “Strategic voting is the worst possible approach to sane politics — except where no others exist.” The archaic first-past-the post electoral system is approaching complete dysfunctionality; proportional representation is still off the mainstream political radar; and political cooperation (whether pre-electoral, or post-electoral in a coalition government) has repeatedly fallen into a crevasse (see below).
Despite promoting discussion and dialogue on a plethora of issues [the future of Canadian politics; the validity and/or utility of strategic voting to attain political objectives; how to harness social media and information-age technologies in the service of political objectives], and attracting over 400,000 participants in each of the 2008 and 2011 federal elections, the impact of Project Democracy’s “informed strategic voting” initiative remained minimal. In our post-2011 election analysis, both statistical and anecdotal information indicated that strategic voting (employed by ~ 4.56 per cent of opposition party voters) probably tipped the balance in five ridings across the country. To achieve a more substantial impact would require more than doubling this penetration rate to 10 per cent, which (on statistical grounds) would have resulted in ~22 additional seats being won by opposition parties (which, in 2011 would have resulted in a minority Conservative government). Project Democracy’s methodology correctly identified the strategic candidates in 73 of 84 key ridings that were part of our program. With an 87 per cent accuracy rate this methodology did better than virtually all pollsters.
Thus, with a sufficient participation rate, informed strategic voting can work, however, it’s an awkward and inelegant interim solution to what is a complex and important issue, namely how to correctly reflect the full spectrum of Canadian political convictions within the institutions that govern our country. We need a mechanism that is equitable and transparent not an ad-hoc, jury-rigged, last best resort.
Lost on the ascent: Liberals fall into the crevasse
Fresh from a commanding victory in which he received 80.1 per cent of the electoral “points” at the Liberal leadership convention (giving him carte blanche to remake the party in his own political image), early indications are that Justin Trudeau is determined to lead the Liberal Party out of the centrist, small-l liberal position it has long-held in Canadian politics. During the leadership race, Trudeau emphatically rejected any notion of political cooperation. In debate with leadership contender Joyce Murray (who campaigned actively on a platform of political cooperation and electoral reform leading to proportional representation, but received only a disappointing 10.2 per cent of support from Liberal Party members and supporters), Trudeau claimed that, “every different model of proportional representation, actually increases partisanship.” Trudeau has championed the rapid development of the bitumen sands and maintained that “the science is still unclear” with respect to the environmental and climatic damage caused by their unfettered exploitation.
In his first days in office he has already signaled that he supports the Harper Conservatives’ proposed counterterrorism act that critics argue would violate civil rights. Bill S-7 would allow police to preemptively detain Canadians for up to three days without charges and to imprison Canadians for up to a year if they refused to testify at an investigative hearing. “Our police force can fight terrorism with existing tools,” NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar has responded. In one of their first parliamentary votes the Trudeau Liberals sided with the Harper Conservatives to defeat an NDP motion that would have scrapped the secretive Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) that will bind Canada into a largely non-reciprocal trade deal with China for a minimum of 31 years and effectively concedes important legislative and judicial elements of Canadian sovereignty to the Chinese (see Gus Van Harten’s Fourteen reasons the Canada-China FIPA needs a full public review for more information.) Green Party leader Elizabeth May voted with the NDP.
If these initial steps are any indicator, Trudeau has embarked on a course that would take the Liberal Party far outside the centrist ground it has traditionally occupied — a significant departure from progressive Canadian political values.
In his campaign for the NDP leadership, Thomas Mulcair also rejected political cooperation (in opposition to leadership contender, Nathan Cullen, who ran on a platform of political cooperation leading to electoral reform similar to that subsequently adopted by Joyce Murray: see Joint nominations and electoral reform: defending Canadian values for more information), although Mulcair is strongly supportive of electoral reform and proportional representation. Indeed, following their recent policy convention, and spearheaded by Craig Scott, opposition critic for democratic reform and Alexandrine Latendresse, their deputy critic, the NDP are preparing to embark on a sweeping cross-Canadian consultation with Canadians to discuss proportional representation. This is a major step forward for electoral reform in Canada, the first time in federal political history that it has come off the backburner to be positioned on a major political stage.
Given the abrupt re-orientation of the Liberals, it is easy to understand why Mulcair would have little inclination to cooperate with a party seemingly headed towards the right of the political spectrum. This leaves Elizabeth May of the Green Party as the only one on the political cooperation dance floor. Given that it takes two to tango — and May was hoping for three — this is a very lonely dance indeed.
Corpses on the trail: Political cooperation in the death zone
Like the north face of Everest, the pathway to political cooperation in Canada is littered with bodies — corpses lying where they fell, having expired from lack of democratic oxygen. The failed Liberal-NDP coalition deal forged by Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton is a particularly ghoulish one, sabotaged by Stephen Harper’s “coalition of socialists and separatists” attack ads, finally garroted by Michael Ignatieff who succumbed to the fear-mongering of the Harper Conservatives and gave it the coup de grâce.
In the 2008 election, Elizabeth May missed a historic opportunity to throw the weight of the Green Party behind Stéphane Dion, a close political ally (recall that Dion’s “Green Shift” environmental policy was a carbon copy — no pun intended — of the Green Party environmental platform). Project Democracy calculated that had May — as many activists urged her to do — called on her supporters to back the candidates best positioned to defeat incumbent Conservatives, such a “Green’s Shift” electoral outcome could have changed the electoral standing so that Liberal, NDP, and Green parties in coalition would have held more seats (131) than the Harper Conservatives (124). However, May vacillated and the opportunity was lost — as was Stéphane Dion shortly thereafter.
Now Joyce Murray’s bold plan for a one-time political cooperation arrangement leading to electoral reform (see Joyce Murray: In her own Words) has been sidelined. As Paul Adams notes, “Joyce Murray and her supporters, who championed party cooperation in the Liberal race, will now be expected to toe the party line, and will cease to be much of a political factor for the moment. This is exactly what happened with Nathan Cullen and his supporters, who dutifully put their team sweaters back on after the NDP leadership race last year.”
Alternatives to the precipice?
What all this means is that — despite the historically unprecedented excesses of the Harper Conservatives to muzzle opposition politicians, scientists, environmentalists, first nations, trade unionists, physicians, the civil service, and even their own back-benchers; despite the wanton destruction of decades of legislative work by Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments; the unending scandals, the Conservatives’ dreadful financial management of the Canadian economy, their complete abdication of the climate change file in the face of what may be the most consequential issue to face humanity — the 2015 federal election will be fought on virtually the same electoral playing field that the 2011 one was. Unless and until Canadians demand a more concerted and coherent approach of their politicians — a better electoral system than first-past-the-post; a better political system than that determined solely by a zero-sum calculus; and better governance than abject-capitulation to the interests of foreign powers and transnational corporations — then we will continue to be mired in insanity — doing the same thing over and over while despondently awaiting a different outcome.
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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