Op-ed: On Canada’s “Progressive Primary”

My latest in the National Post. Click here to read. For archival purposes the full text is below the fold…

Stewart Prest: Winning Canada’s ‘progressive primary’

Are the Liberals in trouble with progressive voters? Recent developments — including not only the recent NDP win in Alberta, but also the continuing opposition to Bill C-51 — suggest it’s a question worth asking.

In the present era of Canadian federal politics it is convenient, if over-simplistic, to think of elections as consisting of two simultaneous competitions: the progressive primary and the main event.

With the Conservatives seemingly able to capture a sturdy but limited 30-40% share of the vote, a big win in the progressive primary is a necessary prerequisite for either the Liberals or the NDP to have a shot at winning an election. That is, one or the other must convince progressives who dislike the incumbent that they stand the better chance of unseating the government. If neither does so decisively, then the Conservatives stand a good chance of winning re-election in the main event.

There was a time when the Liberals won in a walk, but the NDP’s rise to Official Opposition during the 2011 federal election demonstrated that strategic votes could flow in the other direction as well.

Despite that outcome, there are signs that Justin Trudeau and the Liberals have gotten ahead of themselves in 2015, taking the progressive primary for granted. With a comfortable lead over the NDP in the polls at the start of the year, the Liberals appear to have pivoted rightward in anticipation of a main event showdown with the Conservatives.

Among other initiatives, the pivot included a vote in favour of the government’s Bill C-51, overhauling the country’s intelligence apparatus. The Liberals cast that vote despite blunt and severe warnings about the legislation from a broad coalition of experts, and in the face of reports of growing unpopularity among voters. One April poll found a majority of Canadians opposed.

Had they truly won the progressive primary outright, it might have been a sound strategy, a way to target winnable votes currently leaning Conservative. A new poll has come out with the NDP narrowly in front, however. While caution is in order when interpreting any single poll, particularly one so dramatically different, the result does suggest that Canadians remain very much undecided who to support in the upcoming election. In consequence, that Liberal yea vote on C-51 leaves the party vulnerable among anti-incumbent voters.

To understand why, it helps to take a step back for a moment. Politics combines considerations of rationally calculated interest with deeply felt issues of identity, squeezed through a co-ordination game. Political scientists and public policy experts often prefer to focus on the more rational elements: party platforms, specific positions on key issues, and so on. Those things matter, but a huge part of politics is about identity. Voters often focus less on what parties do, and more on what they seem to “be.” Whether it’s on a conscious or subconscious level, many appear to ask themselves, “Does this party or that one seem to share my worldview? Which seems most like me?”

The Liberals in the last generation have been about a variety of things, but a core component throughout has been to portray themselves as protectors of Canada’s most cherished institutions, guardians of this unlikely political experiment: staunch supporters of federalism and a bulwark against separatism, the defender of publicly funded health care, and of course, the party of the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The C-51 vote thus goes right to the heart of that part of the Liberal identity. Having seen the party support a bill that, among other things, appears to clearly override Canadians’ Charter rights, voters may begin to question the Liberal identity, and doubt its particular brand of “progressive bonafides.”

That is not the only problem the Liberals have at present, either. The Alberta election continues to reverberate. Normally, the links between federal and provincial elections are quite limited: provincial and federal politics are different systems, with different issues, and even different parties. There is no Wildrose equivalent to split the federal conservative vote after all, and federal Liberal Party shows no sign of imploding like its Albertan counterpart.

Yet such caveats aside, what that election showed quite clearly is that when they decided to throw out the Progressive Conservatives, a plurality of Albertans trusted the province’s version of the NDP to win and govern.

Suddenly, we have a push and a pull factor acting on the progressive primary. Principled opponents of C-51 won’t vote for the Liberals, even as strategic progressives are being nudged to take another look at the NDP.

Time will tell whether either factor, or both, produces a minor blip or a significant shift among voters. If the election is now a competitive three-way race however, C-51 becomes problematic for the Liberals. It hands the NDP a big club with which to bludgeon them as the progressive primary unfolds. Liberal promises to change the law if elected pale in comparison with the clear signal sent out by a “No” vote.

Moreover, there are signs the NDP is aware of this advantage, and looking to press it. Just this weekend, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair announced at a rally in Surrey that an NDP government would repeal the bill outright.

If that message resonates with anti-incumbent voters, then Liberals are going to have to work hard to get back into the progressive primary in the coming weeks and months, or risk ending up spectators for the main event.

Prest is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at the University of British Columbia.

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