Why the opposition parties should cooperate in 2015

We are publishing this opinion piece on behalf of John Deverell to add to the discussion and debate around "next election" strategy.

Why the opposition parties should cooperate in 2015

by John Deverell*

If Canada is ever to become a representative democracy, the NDP and the Liberal Party will have to cooperate to make it happen. The next federal election offers a unique opening.

Consider the prospect for 2015.

On one side, we have the Conservative Party, governing with a purported majority “mandate” -- but supported in 2011 by fewer than 40 per cent of voters and elected, using legally dubious methods, by many fewer than that.

The Harper government will have shown little respect for ideologically inconvenient facts or for Parliament, will be saddled with a self-inflicted structural budget deficit, and will be attempting to manage a slow-growth economy with rapidly worsening demographics.

Against the Conservatives are four opposition parties –- NDP, Liberal, Bloc and Green –- which since 2011 collectively will have provided ineffectual representation for more than 60 per cent of Canadian voters.

Each of the four opposition parties may obey its knee-jerk instincts and go it alone in the 2015 campaign. If so, there is a high probability that the Conservative government –- despite its manifest failings -- will be re-elected.

This is the systemic stupidity which makes so many Canadians feel disgust at the mention of politics and politicians. They’re all the same, people say. They’re just in it for themselves. In their normal style of operation within Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the politicians and their parties lend much credibility to the despairing popular wisdom.

There is a sliver of hope, however. Two opposition groupings -– the NDP as official opposition and the Green Party –- already acknowledge that the predemocratic electoral system is rotten and should be replaced. Both advocate equal effective votes for Canadian citizens and a democratic representative Parliament.

The voters and activists of the other two -– Liberal and Bloc Quebecois –- since May 2011 have had many fewer seats in Parliament than the popular vote would recommend. You’d think their leaders would be very eager to make the voting system fair and democratic.

Not yet. At its 2012 national convention the Liberal Party endorsed another winner-take-all scheme, the Alternative Vote (a preferential ballot in single-member electoral districts).

Why leading Liberals want to put lipstick on the pig is not obvious. They deny having a death wish like the Progressive Conservative Party. It may be they’re praying for a miracle in 2015 -- a Liberal phony majority. More likely, at least for the next year or so, they don’t want to negotiate with the NDP, from a position of extreme weakness, on the tactics which will be necessary to defeat the government and achieve voting reform.

A related factor is the strong Liberal suspicion, shared by some New Democrats, that NDP caucus and leadership commitment to voting reform is weak and could evaporate now that an image of undeserved NDP majority government is shimmering in the distance.

The tasks for democrats in both parties, and for those now joining the partisan fray, are clear enough. Members of the NDP should be insisting that the enactment of democratic voting reform be a central plank in the party election platform, as it was in Jack Layton’s 2004 campaign.

They should also acknowledge that flying solo is dangerous, and opposition party cooperation could be helpful. The NDP’s new leader should frequently challenge the other opposition parties to match the firm and clear NDP commitment to democratic voting and to cooperate to achieve it.

Members of the Liberal Party, meanwhile, should urge their leaders to recognize and accept, with gusto, a new definition of Liberalism.

Liberals are no longer the natural governing party nor even a plausible government in waiting. The Liberal Party is a third party with substantial support. It should re-cast itself as the reliable advocate for democracy, liberalism, individual freedom, equal opportunity, fairness and compassion in every aspect of Canada’s public life.

Were the Liberal Party to become a champion of democratic voting, neither it, nor the NDP could justify “going it alone” in 2015 –- nor would they need or want to

There would be enormous public pressure for the two parties –- and then the Greens, and then maybe even the Bloc –- to nominate unity candidates under hyphenated labels in the 50 or so swing ridings which will decide the fate of the Harper government.

Should the Liberal Party fail to adapt its voting policy and cooperate with the NDP, and perhaps others, it will be courting two serious risks. Both should be unacceptable.

One is the re-election of the Harper Conservative government in 2015.

The other is a voter swing toward an NDP not firmly committed to enact electoral reform. This would condemn the Liberal party to irrelevance, and Canada to the numbing stupidity of two-party politics for the foreseeable future.

Canadians need much more diversity of choice and political representation, and far more accountability from politicians, rather than much less. (Can we imagine less?). The Harper Conservative government shows no intention of jeopardizing its peculiar and shaky voting coalition by democratizing the voting system. Only Liberal/NDP cooperation is likely to deliver the system of democratic choice Canadians want, need and deserve.

Citizens should do what they can to help the Liberal Party catch the democracy bug and position itself for serious discussions with the other opposition parties.

The opposition parties should cooperate a bit more than usual just once -- it works for parliamentary pay and pensions and political party subsidies –- to get Canadians a democratic voting system. After that, voters will be able to make the parties compete hard to keep each other honest, clean and democratic -- as surely they want to be.

There’s still time for Canadians to demand representative democracy from those political parties which are familiar with the concept -- but not much. The reckoning of 2015 is coming fast.

* John Deverell has reported on labour, business and politics for the Toronto Star for 25 years. He is founding treasurer of Fair Vote Canada and an executive member of the Pickering-Scarborough East Federal Liberal Association.