Conversations across the land are turning to the next election, a full five months away.

Canadians may not all be aware of the fixed October 19 election date, but they know an election is coming soon.

Many voters whose main concern, this time, is booting out the science-hating, democracy-disrespecting, and über-controlling Harper regime, are thinking seriously about how to most effectively achieve that goal.

For more than two years supporters of the Liberal party have made the argument that “progressives” who are appalled by the Harper government must vote for their party next time.

Vote for anyone else, Liberals and their allies in the so-called “strategic voting” movement would say, and you will “split the vote” and re-elect Harper.

Over the past two weeks that argument got a lot weaker.

NDP more ‘respectable’; Trudeau too wobbly

The election in Alberta broke what you might call a psycho-political barrier for the party that is now the Official Opposition.

For voters who supported the NDP last time — especially, it seems, in Quebec — Rachel Notley’s success affirms their 2011 choice. If Albertans can see the NDP as a reasonable and pragmatic alternative government, Quebeckers can believe they would not be alone if they chose the NDP this time as their vehicle to oust Stephen Harper.

It is a bit early to say for sure, but we may be seeing a similar development to Alberta’s west and east, in British Columbia and, to a lesser extent, Saskatchewan.

At the same time, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s wobbly performance has not helped his party’s cause. Pollsters were saying, a while ago, that Trudeau’s many gaffes and verbal miscues did not seem to hurt him.

But those misstatements keep adding up. The Liberal leader’s most recent self-inflicted wound came in the form of confusing and contradictory comments on the possibility of a post-election coalition with the NDP.

Indeed, Trudeau too often comes across as a politician who does not really know what he believes in, and, as a consequence, cannot be trusted without a script — as Prime Minister Harper quipped in the House last week.

Voting for the Conservatives’ Bill C-51, while denouncing many of its provisions and promising to fix it once in power, feeds into a narrative of Liberal opportunism, vacillation and incoherence.

By contrast, the NDP and its leader more often than not project an image of firmness and conviction, buttressed by Official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair’s forceful performance in Parliament.

That image is only now beginning to break through the built-in mainstream media’s bias in favour of the two “traditional” parties.  

Studies showed that after the Liberals selected Trudeau as leader they benefited from a huge bump in media coverage. Notwithstanding the results of the 2011 election, and Mulcair’s effectiveness at holding the Prime Minister’s feet to the fire, Trudeau’s party got much more ink than the New Democrats, especially in English Canada.

Quebec media researcher, Jean-François Dumas, reported that in the first half of 2014 there was 69 per cent more coverage of Trudeau than Mulcair in English Canadian media.

Liberals have been the darling of lobbyists and insiders

Even now, we can see that built-in bias at work in some commentary.

In The Globe and Mail, Campbell Clark writes that the New Democrats are trying to sell an “orange wave image” even though it is a “mirage.”

Clark relies on the one most recent poll that is an outlier: the Nanos poll. It shows the NDP gaining, but still trailing the Liberals and Conservatives. That poll was conducted mostly prior to the Alberta election and the final vote in the House on C-51. Others that show a far greater advance for the NDP were conducted entirely after those two events.

Nik Nanos himself still pushes the “vote-splitting” trope. He told Bloomberg News that the main significance of the NDP’s rise will be to split the “left” vote and help re-elect Harper.

Nanos is typical of the Ottawa insider class that could not wrap their heads around the NDP’s success in 2011, and breathed a sigh of relief when the Liberals’ selection of Trudeau seemed to set things right again.

Ottawa insiders — lobbyists, former senior public servants, consultants and journalists — have been the most enthusiastic Liberal boosters over the past two and a half years.

They might respect the good work many New Democrat MPs do, but do not seem to be able to get over the traditional image of the New Democrats as overly earnest, sweaty-palmed, activist and trade union types.

Many are taking the NDP a lot more seriously, these days, however, which is causing some anguished re-evaluation.

This writer has picked that up in a number of conversations. 

Nineteenth-century ‘class warfare’: huh?

One Ottawa man who spent most of his life and career working overseas for the United Nations says he likes Mulcair, the tough and articulate parliamentarian, more than the feckless Trudeau, but still thinks of the NDP as “stuck in the 19th Century.”

How so?

“Class warfare,” intones the former United Nations man.

That’s an odd observation considering the fact that Mulcair refuses to consider raising anyone’s personal income tax, while Trudeau would raise taxes for those earning over $200,000.

There are probably many rabble readers who wish the NDP were a bit more class warfare-ish, considering the big increase in inequality Canada has experienced over the past two decades.

A new study by the very mainstream Institute for Research on Public Policy (IRPP) says Canada has seen one of the biggest “surges” in inequality of all developed countries. It cites an OECD estimate that the top one per cent of Canada’s income earners captured 37 per cent of total income growth over the past three decades.

Nonetheless, Mulcair’s NDP remains steadfastly focused on the sacred and holy “middle class.”

Its economic policies include tax measures to encourage business investment with which the Conservatives can happily agree. They even adopted some of them.

Its main social policy proposal is for $15 per day child care, available — like other popular social programs, such as health care — to rich and poor alike.

Another Ottawa denizen — a retired professor of English — told this writer he has the impression the current Official Opposition is dominated by rookie Quebec MPs, who would never be able to “sell their party in the West.”

He was actually quite surprised to learn that the NDP has 43 non-Quebec MPs, 15 more than the third party Liberals. And those MPs come from all provinces and territories, save Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, the Yukon and Nunavut.

As we have said previously in this space, it would be hard to argue that the NDP is not currently much better positioned than Trudeau’s party — in terms of experience, bench strength and competence — to offer a solid and viable alternative to the current government.

But a great many who are now weighing their options for the October vote do not see things that way.

And the image of a party dominated by young, accidental Quebec MPs feeds another unfair impression, that the NDP is somehow crypto separatist because it would recognize a 50 per cent plus one vote in a sovereignty referendum as the basis for negotiations.

Trudeau cited that canard when justifying his aversion to a possible coalition with the current Official Opposition.

Craig Scott’s referendum policy is hard on separatists

The NDP’s position on what to do about a hypothetical future Quebec referendum — as elaborated by Democratic Reform critic and constitutional lawyer Craig Scott — is, however, anything but soft on the separatists.

Scott’s proposed alternative to the current federal Clarity Act would have the federal government intervening long before any referendum vote was held.

His proposal would enable the federal government to nix any tricky or vague referendum question from the outset of the process. It is every bit as tough in that respect as the current federal law. One of Mulcair’s Quebec backbenchers certainly saw it that way. When Scott unveiled the policy he jumped to the Bloc.

Trudeau and some Ottawa insiders to whom this writer has spoken also cite the NDP’s notional anti-trade bias.

Again, many rabble readers might wish that were the case.

The fact is, however, with Vancouver MP Don Davies in charge of the trade file, the NDP has been quite pro-trade. It even boasted that it voted for the Harper government’s Canada-South Korea free trade deal.

The chimera of ‘strategic voting’

And so the argument that one has to vote “strategically” for the Liberals to avoid vote-splitting does not hold water, and neither does the notion that the current Official Opposition is a radical, 19th century, class warfare party.

That latter argument is almost laughable, in fact.

When you put that all together you have to conclude that groups such as Leadnow that are focused on encouraging “strategic” voting on a riding-by-riding basis are wasting their time.

Encouraging so-called “progressives” to over-think their vote in terms of what opinion polls tell them about how their neighbours might vote is a foolish, and most likely counter-productive, exercise.

Those who want to work to minimize Harper’s chances of slipping into power yet again would be best advised to work on increasing voter turnout, rather than pushing the silly and pointless “strategic” option.

If “unlikely voters” — such as the young, the poor, and Indigenous Canadians — voted in proportion to their population there would be very little chance the current Prime Minister could get anywhere near another majority. 


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...