Joyce Murray at the 4th Liberal leadership debate

On March 3, 2013 the candidates for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada squared off in the fourth in a series of five debates. Member of Parliament for Vancouver Quadra, and Liberal leadership contender Joyce Murray, had a hard time convincing her colleagues on the stage at Pier 21, Canada’s national museum of immigration, that political cooperation and electoral reform were policies that the Liberal Party should embrace.

MP Marc Garneau called her proposal for political cooperation “a fantasy.” David Bertschi, another Liberal leadership hopeful, mischaracterized her proposal for cooperation as being about a “merger” of political parties. MP Justin Trudeau — continually characterized as the “presumptive” leader in the Liberal leadership race by the mainstream media — maintained that, “every different model of proportional representation, actually increases partisanship.” A spirited exchange between Murray and Trudeau made clear their political differences on this issue: 

Joyce Murray: If you were actually listening to Canadians you would know that two-thirds of Canadians want proportional representation so that their votes count and we don’t have the kind of divisive, toxic system that we have today. If you were listening to Canadians, you would be going after proportional representation and to do that, you have to defeat Stephen Harper. If you were listening, over half of Liberals themselves want us to do a one-time cooperation so we don’t split the vote in election after election.

Joyce Murray & Justin TrudeauJustin Trudeau: I have met people across this country who agree with you that we don’t want the kind of toxic environment in our politics. 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.

Joyce Murray: The preferential ballot system is business as usual, it is first-past-the-post, and it doesn’t give people the kind of representation they want. There is a clear distinction; a clear choice. I have a plan with some really clear strategies. When I say that two thirds of people want something, you’re not listening to that.

Justin Trudeau: Two thirds of people want a better government than Mr. Harper is providing.

Cooperation runs against the genetics of politics. Political parties are, after all, in competition with one another for the support of voters, and to glean enough support to form a government in order to implement their political vision. Viewed through a narrow political lens, it is indeed a zero-sum game: your loss, my gain.

Moreover, political operatives inhabit the trenches of political warfare. Many party insiders have been lobbing political grenades at one another for years if not decades — and have been on the receiving end of such attacks. Many bear the scars of endless skirmishes — and a few wicked knife fights.  So personal animosities and mistrust can easily augment ideological differences to form a poisonous fog that obscures both commonalities and opportunities for productive collaboration.

Charles Darwin revolutionized biology by developing the principles of what we now call the theory of evolution, and with it principles of competition and the “survival of the fittest” that animate the dynamics between individuals and species. These are undoubtedly powerful forces, and for over a century biologists focused almost exclusively on them as the driving forces behind evolution, speciation, adaptation, and competitive exclusion. In recent decades, carefully study of many different organisms has shown that cooperation and altruism — leading to symbiotic and commensal relationships — are also factors in the biological world. They lead to complex interdependencies that finely structure and help stabilize ecosystems.

And so it can be in the realm of political ecology. Not every dynamic has to be seen and understood through the zero-sum lens (see: Canadian political calculus: Zero-sum or win-win?). Cooperative strategies also bear political fruit and can lead to better governance, better outcomes, and greater stability. There are political objectives that simply cannot be achieved without the participation of a wide swath of society. The hyper-partisan “you’re either with us or against us” mantra is a much more limited political vehicle. Political parties battle tooth and nail to eke out progress on substantive issues, only to then see entire edifices demolished by a subsequent government. The majority Harper Conservative government has been burning the midnight oil to discard the results of decades of work by Liberal — and Progressive Conservative — administrations.

Bearing that in mind, I sat down with Joyce Murray while she was in Halifax to talk politics: political cooperation and electoral reform, issues which have come to the fore as defining principles of her leadership bid, as well as issues of environment, energy, and economy: the crossroads of much of Canadian — and global — politics in the 21st century. This, the first part of our conversation, focuses on the former topics. The second installment will touch on the latter issues.

Political Cooperation

Joyce Murray & Christopher Majka

I started our conversation by referring to the results of a study I’d read about of the perception of proportional representation in some of the many countries (over 80 according to Fair Vote Canada) where it is employed. There were two main conclusions (I paraphrased from my recollection):

1. Politicians dislike systems of proportional representation because they are never able to form majority governments and must continually sit around the cabinet table with political opponents and hammer out difficult compromise solutions. It is hard work.

2. Citizens like systems of proportional representation because their representatives must to sit around the cabinet table with political opponents and hammer out difficult compromise solutions. All major voices and perspectives in society are represented, there is greater consequent “buy-in” by the electorate for the policies and programs that emerge, and the result is manifestly better governance.

I asked Murray what conclusions, in a Canadian context, were to be drawn from this.

Joyce Murray: What we are doing now is not working. What we’re doing now is turning people off of our political system and its representatives. It’s locking in power with just a minority of the vote. It’s giving an extraordinary amount of power to the Prime Minister, and in this case it’s being abused. And finally, when you speak of the electorate liking proportional representation because it forces politicians to sit across a table and collaborate to solve the big problems of the day — I think that’s a good thing. That happens to be my style of decision-making. It’s the kind of leadership that I provided in a business context. It was how I addressed, a difficult portfolio, an environmental portfolio in a centre-right wing government, in a time of reducing spending and focusing on the economy.

Out of the three years that I was Environment Minister in British Columbia I had a very major budget reduction that I had to apply. It was not my preference but it was what I needed to do. But I still received an eco-Olympic medal from the Sierra Club of Canada for my work at the time. Because I did sit around the table with the business community, but also with environmental groups and representatives of communities, to find ways forward where we could increase the protection of the environment wherever possible.

Christopher Majka: How do you envision political cooperation as working in Canada?

Joyce MurrayJM: I envision it working, in a way like the Canadian Olympic hockey team, where the competitors come together for the project of winning the Olympic gold for Canada, and when that’s over they go back and they are competitors again. I call this a “one-time cooperation.” I see it as being transparent and democratic, so Liberals would nominate a Liberal candidate in every riding in the country, as would the other parties. In select ridings where the vote is split amongst the progressive parties — allowing a minority of Conservative voters to elect a minority Conservative representative — in those ridings I would encourage the Liberal riding association to do a primary, or run-off, with the other parties, to pick only one — the strongest — progressive candidate to take the fight to the Conservative candidate — and hopefully defeat them.

I think that two things could happen here. One is that this could attract people back into being interested in voting.  People who have given up, feeling that their vote doesn’t count, and that they will never see their views represented in that particular province or region because of how the first-past-the-post system doesn’t represent. So I think that we could see a lot of voters taking an interest and coming out to vote. I think this may well be the way that we defeat Stephen Harper.

Of course as a Liberal, I’ll be working to re-build the party. Looking at what the party has been doing, [to engage] voters who previously saw the Liberal party as a solution and haven’t been seeing the Liberal party as so — as adding unique value to their lives — and have not been voting for us. I’ll be addressing that, and of course my hope would be that we would have a Liberal government. But the key thing is to defeat Stephen Harper so that we can tackle electoral reform and have a system that represents people better and also motivates politicians to work together collaboratively.

I know that there are a lot of riding associations that are interested in participating in this kind of process — because they’ve told me that. If the executive of a riding association were against it, I wouldn’t force it. I’m not proposing that we cooperate in any of the ridings that are currently held by NDP, or Green, or Liberal MPs — we’re talking about Conservative held ridings only.

Senate Reform

CM: The Canadian Senate has been the subject of a lot of criticism recently. There are those who favour the abolition of the Senate. Others who think it should be reformed. Others who maintain that it can’t be reformed. Does Canada really need a bicameral system of government?

JM: I’m in favour of a bicameral system of government in Canada. I see good work that some of the senators are doing. I would say that the commonality between the Senate and the House of Commons is that we have a Prime Minister who is abusing the process in both chambers of Parliament. My priority is to fix the House of Commons with electoral reform.

Yes, we can improve the Senate process over time by making the appointments process more separate from the political leadership. As with the House of Commons, the Prime Minister has taken the Parliamentary system, which is based a lot on precedent, convention, and history, he has wiped out the way things have been done in the past. He has injected his own partisanship for his own advantage. It’s one of the reasons that our system may have worked historically and it just doesn’t work any more.

Liberal leadership debate

It’s also been influenced by the divisive, toxic, bipartisan politics in the United States. A lot of that has been imported [to Canada]. The use of deeply researched propaganda tools to convince the public of things that may not be true. And we see the Prime Minister using those tools. Whether it is in changes to the Navigable Waters Protection Act, where he is attempting to convince Canadians that this was a navigation bill, whereas in fact it was one of our oldest tools for protecting habitat in the aquatic environment. It’s that kind of abuse of our process.

Using prorogation to evade accountability when convention said it could be used at the end of a mandate to start afresh. Or abusing omnibus budget bills which typically were used when there were a lot of small administrative changes that needed to be made to ensure that a policy change doesn’t disconnect from other details in other bills. In other words, it was never used for policy purposes, and it was certainly never used as a bill to push through entire rewrites of legislation.

This Prime Minister is taking convention and essentially wiping it out, utilizing our system to lock in an advantage in a way that is unhealthy for our democracy. He’s doing that in the Senate as well. So changing the appointments process would help. But changing the electoral system is by far the biggest priority.

CM: Are there ways in which we could limit such ongoing abuse of the democratic process? For example, through changes to the Standing Orders of Parliament?

JM: No we can’t; not while Stephen Harper is in power. These changes that Stephen Harper is making are in his interest, they are locking in his power and he’s continuing, piece by piece, to cement it in. If (the process of) democracy is weakened that does touch the content of democracy as well. For example, the lack of consultation.

Joyce Murray & Karen McCrimmon

One hopeful sign for me is this; while in general Canadians are not paying attention to process — for example, it didn’t work when we campaigned on democratic processes like the contempt of Parliament in the 2011 election; it just didn’t resonate — people are starting to feel very uncomfortable with what they are seeing. An example of that is Idle No More. That’s women in indigenous communities saying, “Hey, wait a minute; we weren’t consulted. Our rights to be consulted and accommodated when something that affects us is being put forward has essentially been trashed in this omnibus bill.” They’re not talking about process; they’re talking about the results. They are being sidelined and bad changes are being made without their involvement.

That’s why I’m very supportive of Idle No More. I’m also delighted that it’s women, taking back their historic power in aboriginal communities — (women) who culturally have been the guardians of the well being of the community, just as they have been in non-aboriginal communities. I was asked to speak at three different Idle No More round dance demonstrations and I was very supportive. I’m hoping that Idle No More continues, and it continues to show Canadians that aboriginal people are not going to stand for this undermining of their involvement in these major changes to our environmental safety net.

It takes two to tango

CM: It takes two, or perhaps three in this scenario of political cooperation, to tango. Elizabeth May is on the dance floor. Thomas Mulcair … not so much. As a Liberal leader, how will you try to convince him to dance the cooperation tango?

JM: First off, if Tom Mulcair were to support cooperation at this stage of the Liberal leadership race, he’d essentially be weighing in to support me. I think it’s natural that he decided not to do that.

Secondly, it’s two and half years until the 2015 election, so a lot can happen. I think the leader of the NDP will be keeping his pulse on how he is doing, and how his polling is doing. So a lot can happen. He’s going to make a pragmatic decision when the time comes.

And thirdly, 18 million people didn’t vote for Stephen Harper. Half of them stayed home. Many of them because they didn’t think their vote would count. So my view is that there are a lot of Canadians that are going to want a mechanism to avoid splitting the vote. And to have a more representative outcome. Sixty per cent of Canadians actually voted for a progressive choice — and they got a Harper majority. I predict that there will be pressure on any leader of a progressive party to actually be part of a solution. I think Canadians are going to have their voices heard with respect to Mr. Mulcair’s decision. And I’m optimistic that he will be listening to Canadians.

Martha Hall Findlay, Joyce Murray, & Karen McCrimmon

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

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka

Christopher Majka studied oceanography, biology, mathematics, philosophy, and Russian studies at Mount Alison and Dalhousie Universities and the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, and was a guest researcher...