Canada’s last three elections are proof positive that we have a flawed electoral system. Does it make any sense that recently it’s been impossible to get a government that reflects the views of the majority of our population? How is it that a little more than a third of the electorate can determine who forms Canada’s government?
There is no question that Canada has a dysfunctional political system in which the views of the majority of Canadians cannot be represented by a single political party. Although almost two-thirds of Canada’s voters in the last three elections opposed the platform, policies, and philosophy of the Conservative party, it is the Conservatives who have formed the government. The majority vote was split amongst four parties, thereby thwarting the predominant will of the people and making a mockery of democracy. And this may very well continue into the future.
In the 2011 election the NDP replaced the Liberals as the official opposition, pushing the Liberals into a definite third party status with only 34 seats, compared to the 103 seats for the NDP. The Bloc Quebecois were decimated, retaining only 4 seats, but the Green Party managed to obtain 1 seat.
As for the Conservatives, with an increase in overall vote from 37.6% in 2008 to 39.6% in 2011 (an actual increase of only 1.97%), it gave them 166 seats and a majority government. By having the opposition vote split amongst four competing parties, an increase of less than 2% of the overall vote enabled the Conservatives to elect an extra 42 members – beyond the 124 elected in 2008.
So what do we do? How do we get out of a system that seems to ensure an unending regime of Conservative governments – governments that do not have the support of the bulk of our population? In the best interests of Canada, it’s up to progressive-minded citizens to urge the NDP, the Liberals and the Greens to form a coalition. A groundswell of public opinion in support of this would force these competing parties to act responsibly, to set aside narrow partisan politics, and to establish a formal coalition. It’s only then that the majority of Canadians would be in a position to vote for a political entity that would reflect their views, values, and interests.
Coalitions are commonly formed after an election, but in Canada, at the present time, an agreement to form a coalition by the NDP, the Liberals and the Greens would have to be made before the next election. If a coalition of these parties could be established before the next election, a unique election strategy could be used that would produce dramatically different results.
In a coalition, the three parties would retain their individual identities, but would have to agree on a common platform or agenda, not on all matters, but only on some basic, fundamental issues. They would also have to agree on a strategy for the next election.
Although historically there have been some pro forma coalitions in Canada, federally and provincially, the concept by and large is somehow alien and unknown in Canada. This is despite the fact that coalitions have been the order of the day in many European and other countries – and have been proven to be eminently successful.
In the case of Canada, in 2008 there was an ill-fated attempt at a coalition between the Liberals and the NDP, but it was immediately discredited because of an initial colossal public relations blunder. Although the coalition was hammered out between the Liberals and the NDP and it was only these two parties that were signatories to the agreement, at the public announcement, in addition to the leaders of these two parties, with them at the table was Gilles Duceppe, the leader of the Bloc Quebecois. All that the leader of the Bloc agreed to do was to not vote against a Liberal-NDP government – he was in no way party to the actual coalition agreement. But there he was on the platform shaking hands with Stéphane Dion and Jack Layton!
Not surprisingly, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives immediately besmirched the coalition as the creation of a Separatist-Socialist cabal, plotted in backrooms in secret and to the surprise of the public – complete with photos of a smiling Duceppe, Layton and Dion – Dion whom they had long discredited as a loser. Although the coalition had a reasonable and sensible platform, this was totally ignored by the mainstream media which unanimously bombarded the public with Conservative propaganda on this issue. The coalition was stillborn and the new Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, instantly disowned it.
In light of this, after the necessary preliminary private discussions between these three parties, the actual procedure to form a coalition should be done openly and in public – leaving no surprises for anyone. This would make it difficult for the Conservatives to try to discredit an open democratic process.
Interestingly, an AngusReid Public Opinion Poll (Jan. 19, 2013) revealed that “29% would be in favour of an agreement between two parties to only run candidates from one of the two parties in ridings where vote splitting occurs [and] 41% support a formal agreement between the two parties to share power in a coalition government.” Considering that there has been very little discussion about a possible coalition and absolutely no official rationale for forming a coalition, the reasonably favourable public view of such a development is rather surprising. In fact, this bodes well for the emergence of a possible coalition on the Canadian political landscape.
A meaningful election strategy, equally in the interest of all three parties, would be an agreement to run all the incumbent candidates in the next election, NDP, Liberal and Green, without opposition from the other members of the coalition. Such a strategy would guarantee the reelection of every currently elected member. As for the seats currently held by the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois, the coalition should run a single candidate in each of these constituencies from the party that came in second in the 2011 election.
From Elections Canada data I have compiled a set of tables that provide the factual basis for a winning election strategy. On the basis of the procedures cited above, Table 1 shows that in the next election the NDP would be entitled to run 213 candidates, the Liberals 90, and the Green Party 2. However, Table 2 is of greater consequence since it shows that in the 2011 election there were 64 constituencies where the combined NDP-Liberal-Green vote exceeded the Conservative or the Bloc Quebecois vote. In the next election, a coalition candidate, from the party with the greatest vote, would have a strong likelihood of winning the seat. In this manner the NDP could theoretically win an extra 27 seats and the Liberals 36, but the Greens may not be able to gain any extra seats. Although the Greens came in second in one constituency in Ontario, the Conservative won by more than 50% so it would be difficult – but not impossible – for a coalition Green candidate to win the seat.
Table 3 shows that in the next election, with this strategy, the NDP could theoretically win up to 130 seats, the Liberals 70, and the Green Party could win 1 and maybe 2 – for a majority coalition government of 201 seats. In such a coalition it would seem reasonable that cabinet seats would be determined on the basis of the proportionate share of members in the government, with 65% going to the NDP, 35% to the Liberals, and perhaps the 1 Green Party member could be included.
On the basis of this rationale, in the next election the Conservatives could be reduced to 107 seats and the Bloc Quebecois would be totally eliminated, if they ran at all. This means that the number of Conservative members would be roughly proportionate to their share of the vote. However, there is another factor that must be taken into account and despite a coalition and the strategy that was put forth, the results of the next election will not be those portrayed in Table 3. In the next election there will be 30 new House of Commons seats and most of these will be in suburban Alberta and Ontario – where the Conservatives have been doing extremely well. How a coalition would deal with this situation is difficult to determine. Each party may run candidates in these areas, resulting in the inevitable vote split and almost guaranteeing that most of these seats would be won by the Conservatives. On the other hand, the coalition members may decide on some form of cooperation which could reduce the number of Conservative seats. Overall, this is an unknown factor.
But even if the Conservatives took all of these 30 new seats, this would give them only 137 seats vs the potential 201 of the coalition members. Again, to be realistic, the coalition would get less than their full potential, but they would be certain to win a majority government. And in this case, the biggest winner of all would be the Canadian people – it would be democracy in action where the majority of the population would have a government that would reflect the beliefs, values and interests of the bulk of Canada’s people.
To put the coalition proposal in perspective, for years the minority of Canadians on the political right languished in the wilderness because of a split in their political movement. However, after a series of misadventures, they finally coalesced into a single party—albeit with some alienation and disaffection in their ranks. Basically, their strategy worked—and although they continue to receive only somewhat more than a third of the vote, they managed to get two minority governments and the current majority government.
Although the people on the political right coalesced into a single party, this would be impractical and highly inadvisable for the NDP, the Liberals and the Greens – each has unique strengths and a distinct identity which could be preserved in a dynamic coalition. As stated previously, coalitions occur on a regular basis in Europe and in other parts of the world – so it’s time this happened in Canada. It should be recalled that when the Liberals and the NDP cooperated in the past, it was at those times that some important progressive legislation was passed. Undoubtedly, there will be opposition in each of the parties to a coalition suggestion. However, it should be possible to present convincing arguments that this would be in the best interests of both our country and these parties. For the Liberals, now being the smaller entity, there’s still the vivid memory of how the Progressive Conservatives were subsumed by the Reform/Alliance zealots. There’s also the practical worry that such a political realignment might result in a horse and rabbit stew, strongly smelling of NDP horse. But we are not talking about merger; we are talking about a coalition, so there would be no threat to a smaller party. Furthermore, at this stage, for these three political parties to be an effective political force, they need one another. And stemming from this, the three parties are in a position to exact compromises from one another.
Admittedly, an alternative to a coalition could possibly come about if the NDP managed to restage in Western Canada what they accomplished in Quebec in the last election – rising from 1 seat to 59. But there are no indications that such a dramatic development is in the works. Through good faith negotiations these parties should be able to agree that when they form a coalition government they would enact some form of proportional representation or a system of preferential voting – there are several systems to choose from. This should be the most crucial provision for all three parties. Another key feature for the coalition government should be to abandon any on-going commitments for Canada’s further integration into the U.S.A. and to withdraw from the Security and Prosperity Partnership which endangers Canada’s sovereignty. There should be no problem for them to agree to enact a national child care program (ideally it should be modelled on Quebec’s system) and a national policy to work with First Nations to resolve their crucial problems.
On matters of taxation, environment policies, and other issues on which the parties might disagree, there would have to be compromise, and because of necessity, an agreement of some type would have to be worked out.
The public should urge the parties to agree to put a halt to the obsession of lowering taxes, which reduces the quality of our social services. “Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society” (U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes). It’s taxes collected by governments that provide us with the wide array of social services and infrastructure, such as schools, medical services, libraries and parks, safe streets and livable cities.
As for NAFTA, if they had the courage, it would be highly advisable to abrogate NAFTA. Only then could Canada once again have an independent energy policy. When it’s in their interests, the U.S. simply ignores NAFTA rulings, e.g., softwood lumber. We would be far better off with the rules of the World Trade Organization – and this should not affect our trade relationship with the USA whatsoever. After all, the USA trades with the rest of the world – without NAFTA.
Aside from agreeing to enact progressive legislation, a NDP-Liberal-Green coalition would put an end to the possibility of any future Harper majority government. The grim fact is that the current Conservative majority, just part way through their term of office, has already managed to undermine Canada’s standing in the world and has done significant harm to some of our social and economic fabric. Another term in office could really do irreparable harm to Canada as we know it.
Because of Harper’s tight control over all communication from his party, he has been able to present a rather benign and innocent image. However, there is no reason to believe that the party has actually turned its back on its original raison d’être. In fact, the Reform-Alliance agenda is still the basis of the current Conservative Party. After all, in Stephen Harper’s own words he portrayed Canada as being “a second-tier socialist country, boasting ever more loudly about its economy and social services to mask its second-rate status” (National Post, December 8, 2000). With such an underlying philosophy, a further Conservative majority would pose an unprecedented danger to our country – and only a NDP-Liberal-Green coalition could prevent this from happening.
The Harper Conservatives have already killed off the Canadian Wheat Board, and next on their agenda they may dismantle and sell off the CBC. Of great concern they may legitimize Canadian and American private clinics to undermine Canada’s health care system. They have systematically proceeded to water down and undermine our environment regulations – and it seems they are prepared to allow the corporations, especially the oil and gas industry, to formulate our policies.
Since 2004 Canada had a sensible, fair and democratic procedure to fund political parties by means of a federal taxpayer subsidy of $2 per vote, but shortly after getting their majority the Conservatives enacted legislation to phase this out totally by 2015. The purpose of this subsidy had been to replace the reliance of political parties on corporate, union, and wealthy donors which inevitably gave them undue political influence. Without the subsidy Canada will end up like the USA where corporations and the top 1% pour in unlimited funds into election campaigns which has the effect of producing the best democracy money can buy. The responsible thing for a new coalition government would be to reintroduce a federal subsidy to all parties on the basis of the electoral vote.
On the world stage, Canada used to be regarded as a reasonably independent peace-keeping nation, but that’s now in the past. It seems that to ingratiate us to the U.S.A., we have performed as a first-class warrior state in Afghanistan and recently in Libya. As for the F-35 fiasco, an aircraft that the Conservatives initially stated would cost $9 billion has now mushroomed to $45 billion, with their spin machine still maintaining that they really didn’t mislead the public on its cost. However, aside from horrendous costs – money that should be spent on Canada’s infrastructure and other social matters – what’s this aircraft for? What has not been properly presented to the public is that this is a first-strike weapon of war, designed to cripple a sophisticated enemy’s defences – only Russia and China are in that category. Aside from preparing us to launch war, the F-35 is almost totally useless for Canada’s purposes. Canada desperately needs a new foreign policy – the country simply can’t afford another term in office with this government.
Given the dangers that lie ahead of us, the NDP, the Liberals and the Green Party should immediately start the process to form a coalition, which might take some time. Once a coalition is established, these parties would then be in a position to defeat the Harper government at the next election, and we could then get a government that would indeed reflect the wishes of the majority of Canada’s population.
Tables 1, 2 and 3 graphically support the argument for a coalition and make such a conclusion almost self-evident. Surely a government of this type would be in the best interests of Canada and its people. But can the leadership of these parties rise above short-term partisan politics? At a time when our country desperately needs this, are they capable of becoming statesmen?
By acting responsibly these parties could carve out an honourable place for themselves in Canada’s history. Most importantly, they could alter the course of Canada’s future – for the better.
John Ryan, Ph.D., is Retired Professor of Geography and Senior Scholar at the University of Winnipeg. He can be reached at jryan13 at shaw.ca.
Tables Sources: Compiled from Elections Canada data by John Ryan. These data are listed in a better format at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Results_by_riding_of_the_Canadian_federal_election,_2011