A PR Problem
For many progressives in Canada—particularly those without membership in an actual political party—the Holy Grail of Canadian political reform remains proportional representation. When unaffiliated progressives are sitting around on a Thursday night at their local tiki bar, whatever the conversation to that point, one of them invariably drains their craft IPA, looks around at the others, and declares, “of course, we wouldn’t have to worry about any of this if we could just get PR.” (Before you accuse me of picking on a certain demographic, let me say that as often as not I’ve been the guy holding the IPA in this particular vignette. It’s a 150 IBU ale, called Velhopciraptor, from a small Oregon brewery you probably haven’t heard of.)
The others solemnly nod their heads in agreement. “So true,” another says sadly, before flagging down the waitress to order a third ironic Mai Tai.
The problem, of course, is that Canadians thus far have stubbornly refused to embrace any form of PR, at any level. To date at least, it has been a non-starter each time it got onto a ballot.
“But the campaigns were handled badly!” shouts the progressive hipster in the corner, spilling a bit of his PBR in the process. “The BC Liberals totally didn’t give it a chance!” Loud and angry calls of agreement threaten to drown out the Tegan and Sara’s newest. “McGuinty totally undermined the campaign’s education effort. It never had a prayer in Ontario!”
Hope continues that one day, Canadians will have the chance to vote on PR, without the influence of politicians (or, to be more specific, with exactly the right kind and right amount of influence from them). After that inevitable moment, Canadians will finally be able to vote their conscience, without having to squeeze their complex, nuanced political positions into the tiny boxes currently available under Canada’s majoritarian first-past-the-post (FPTP) partisan politics.
Until that happy day, progressive Canadians do the best they can. Some vote for the NDP, some for the Greens, some for the Liberals, and in Quebec, a some for the Bloc. Many others eschew the practice of voting altogether, channeling their considerable passion and knowledge in other directions entirely, opting out of the formal political process entirely until they can make a choice that reflects what they truly believe.
The problem with this kind of make-due/wait-it-out strategy is actually twofold. First, Canadians, by and large, really do seem to like their system the way it is. On issues of radical change, at this point in time at least, it’s probably fair to say Canadians really are small-c conservatives; the surprisingly strong (to me at least) disapproval of a coalition among so many Canadians provides some evidence of that. There are always those willing to tinker, and more who would go along with whatever system we end up with, but for many the question is, “why mess with a good thing? Our system has served us relatively well so far; we’ve fared better than most other countries have around the world. Sure it has its quirks, but who’s to say that a change would be a change for the better?” There’s no guarantee that Canadians will ever agree to make such a profound change, even if they get all the information they could use, and get it presented in a sufficiently impartial, yet authoritative manner.
Second, it’s no accident that parties with a strong chance of winning or holding a majority to-date have been less than enthusiastic about promoting a change that would render future majorities virtually unobtainable. Why settle for a lifetime of tedious negotiation and coalition-building, when it’s possible to win it all? The complaint that sitting governments do less than they could to promote a switch to PR may be valid, but it misses the point that it’s actually unreasonable to expect them to do otherwise. They’ve won; why would they do anything to make it harder to win in the future? Even parties that lost might think along similar lines: if they have (or even think they have) a reasonable chance of forming a government some day in the near future, why make life harder on themselves? Why make compromise inevitable, when the possibility of winning outright remains?
There may even be an aspect of political culture at work here. Professional Canadian politicians know no other system than the majoritarian first-past-the-post model. That’s a confrontational style of government. Parties are rewarded for sharply disagreeing with each other, and generally enjoy little or no benefit—indeed, among ardent supporters they may even be penalized—for any act of compromise or conciliation with respect to the opposition. The very idea of moving from such a system to a new and unknown one that demands constant interparty cooperation to function must be a daunting one.
Worse, even if it does arrive, proportional representation might not provide the solutions so many hope for. While a PR system would give a new lease on life to the Greens and the presently stuck-in-third-place Liberals, there’s no guarantee we would end up with more workable system of government as a whole.
The Belgian example is an instructive one. Like Canada, it has a majority and a minority region, with the minority French population routinely returning separatist representatives to Brussels. Unlike Canada, its electoral system routinely forces different parties to forge governing coalitions, a common feature of virtually all PR systems. This has created significant instability in government; in 2010 and 2011, following one particularly contentious election, the country’s leaders took 541 days to form a new government. A significant sticking point was that no party could form a coalition without working with a separatist party, and no party was willing to take such a step. Sound familiar?
Simply put, separatist parties and PR systems can be a dangerous mix. Belgium was to some extent bailed out of this situation by its strong civil service, as well as the additional stability that comes to small states deeply integrated into the broader European governance networks. In that unique situation it has proven possible for a country to exist with little or no national political leadership for an extended period of time. Canada, conversely, has no such safeguards.
Taking all the above into consideration, maybe it’s time to stop waiting for the system to change, and find ways to make the current system work better.
So, what now? My proposal is to stop focusing on parties, whether new or existing, as the agents of change, and turn our attention to the creation of issue-based cross-party political networks that can influence all parties. Specifically, I would like to see the Green Party transform itself into a “Green Network,” one encompassing voters from every party.
I’ve written about this before, but I think the idea is sufficiently important to warrant another treatment, so here goes. Stop me in the comments if you disagree with any point of the argument:
- Let’s assume that Canada will retain a first-past-the-post system of government for the foreseeable future.
- Theory and empirical research on the subject suggests that over the long run, FPTP systems tend to support no more than two major parties capable of forming a government, along with at most one anti-system party. The finely balanced nature of the two main parties often results in a collapse towards the middle of the political system, as both parties compete to capture decisive centrist voters. A deviation from that centrist position is inevitably punished at the polls. (Think Tea Party here. The Republicans could have won back control of the Senate last year in the US elections; however, the radicalness of some of the candidates pushed through by the more radical Tea Party wing of the GOP were rejected by many Americans, even those inclined to oppose the Democrats during this particular electoral cycle.)
- Meanwhile, Canada currently features no less than four national parties, along with a fifth regionally based one. The result has been a series of short-lived minority governments, stability achieved only with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s successful consolidation of right-leaning parties and voters. All other national level parties these parties tend to draw their support from the centre or centre-left of the political spectrum. The Conservatives sit alone on the right.
- With the inexorable effects of vote splitting (trust me, they’re real, and they’re
spectacular significant), the Conservatives inevitably win many ridings where the majority of residents actually oppose their policies, leading to a kind of political inefficiency insofar as the government Canadians get is significantly to the right of the one that the typical (more precisely, the median) Canadian desires, a situation different than what one expects in such a FPTP system, with its typical two-parties-collapsing towards-the-median structure.
- Historically in Canada and elsewhere, this situation is eventually resolved through the consolidation of parties on the non-dominant side either through mergers or the outright victory of one over the others; once a two-party system is re-established, the collapse towards the median resumes.
- However, a constellation of factors seems to be preventing such a process from occurring among centre-left parties at the moment. the deeply entrenched mutual opposition of committed Liberal and NDP supporters prevents sustained cooperation between the country’s second and third biggest national parties. The presence of the separatism issue prevents cooperation between progressives in that province, and the unusual salience of environmental issues maintains the Green party’s existence, despite that party’s inability to win, rather than simply compete, in the vast majority of ridings across the country.
- Unless and until such a consolidation occurs, the Conservatives will not face a unified opposition capable of punishing them at the polls for deviating from the centrist position, and will be free to “govern to the right”, in closer accord with the true preferences of leading Conservatives and their strongest supporters than with wishes of the median Canadian voter.
So far, so good. There’s a logjam on the centre-left of the spectrum, and the Conservatives, so long as they are not gripped by scandal, get a free pass to go govern significantly to the right of centre because of it. So, how to break the logjam? This requires another bit of analysis:
- Again looking at the history of majoritarian systems in Canada and elsewhere, it’s fair to say that most successful parties are “answer-based” parties. They espouse a particular philosophy of governance, one that makes it easy for voters—most of whom lack both the time and the inclination to thoroughly read each platforms, (a perfectly defensible position incidentally, given how bad platforms are at predicting how a party will actually govern)—to figure out what that party would do on any one of a range of issues. This makes it easy to create and maintain a bond of identity between voter and party. There’s a reason that so many countries have a more “conservative” party, and a more “liberal” party.
- The Liberals, NDP, and Conservatives are all “answer parties.” Each has a reasonably coherent philosophy of governance, and if one includes provincial politics, all parties have some track record to provide bonafides for their adherence (or at times the lack thereof) to that philosophy. Indeed, they have been sufficiently successful in crafting an independent identity that leaders and party faithful in both Liberal and the NDP camps remain extremely resistant to any kind of long-term cooperation, much less a merger, despite the fact that for virtually all of them such a merger would give them a far greater chance of forming a government of the centre-left, one much closer to their respective ideals than the current rightist Conservative one.
- The Bloc and the Greens are different. The Bloc is actually something of a hybrid. It exists only because of a single issue, but it has managed to craft a reasonably stable identity as a leftist, progressive party. However, barring some significant change in the sentiment of most English Canadians, so long as it continues to espouse a separatist agenda, it will remain impossible for other progressive parties to work with in any kind of formal alliance type of arrangement, particularly one that rhymes with pole position.
That leaves the Green party. It is not an answer party. It remains difficult to ascertain exactly what the governing philosophy of the Greens would be, scaring away all but the most passionate environmentally-motivated voters. Worse, it remains difficult to even say what the Greens would do on environmental issues. It’s clear they would do something, if elected, but there’s no clear guide to what that something would be, beyond the party’s electoral platform (again, worth paper it’s printed on), and the positions adopted by the leader (subject to change the next time the leader does.) So, if I’m an environmental voter, but feel strongly that a Carbon tax is a terrible idea, I don’t actually know whether to vote for the Greens or not. Basically, the way the party is constituted is virtually unelectable in large numbers within the context of a majoritarian FPTP system.
The Obi-Wan Solution
To some extent this may look like it’s leading to a call for the Green Party of Canada (GPC) to disband. The fact that my last piece began with the sentence, “it’s times like this I wished the Green Party would disband,” probably does little to dispel the impression.
So, it’s a fair cop. The initial burden of what I’m about to propose falls heaviest on the GPC. Even so, I think it’s also fair to characterize my impending proposal as a step away from the quest for power, in favour of a quest for real influence over the way our country is governed.
Obi-Wan Kenobi provides a useful comparison. (Bet you were wondering when I’d get around to that! It’s what they refer to in “the business” as a tease.) Stay with me… you’ve made it this far. In the Star Wars movies, Obi-Wan died, and in so doing, gave up his earthly form. However, he saw his death as serving a greater purpose. He recognized that with his own personal flaws (i.e. advanced age), he could never accomplish his goal of defeating Vader and the Emperor, and generally saving the galaxy. In dying however, he gained a new and greater power to influence — to work with, to reason with, to teach — another who had a real chance at accomplishing Kenobi’s ultimate objective.
This is analogous to what I think the Green Party should do: recognize the inherent limitations of its current structure and agree to abandon its party form. In exchange however, I think it can become the backbone of a powerful new kind of entity in Canadian politics: a network of supporters committed to action on issues related to the environment. Green party candidates and supporters essentially remain connected with one another and committed to coordinating on issues of environmental action, but would move to support whichever “answer party” aligns most closely with their own political philosophy.
The Green Network, which would retain a formal structure and central decision-making ability, would then work with its members in each riding in the run-up to each election to 1) push all candidates to more progressive environmental positions and 2) anoint one candidate in each riding the “Green candidate” based on a) their own, and their party’s, commitments to environmental action, and b) the candidate’s own intrinsic electability, independent of Green support.
This would have a number of effects:
First, it would immediately reduce the likelihood of vote splitting. The recent by-election in Calgary Centre is instructive. The Liberal candidate finished second to the Conservative, who gained about 36% of the vote, supported by roughly 1 in 3 voters. The Liberal lost by less than 1200 votes, out of a total of more than 27,000 casts. The Green Candidate, author Chris Turner, finished a strong third, with more than 7,000 votes cast. Had the Liberal candidate attracted one Green supporter in five, he would have won.
Second, it would make it more likely that the candidates who are elected—particularly among progressive parties already nominally committed to action on environmental policies—will actively pursue a green agenda in office. Imagine that by-election happened, but instead of a Green candidate, there had been a Green Network. The network would have worked hard to extract commitments from all candidates made strong and clear commitments to take action on environmental issues. They then would have picked one; it probably would have been Locke, given his own very convincing bonafides on environmental issues, combined with his strong support in the polls prior to Election Day.
That signal then gives all progressive voters, including not only Green Network members, but potentially all voters torn between Liberal and NDP candidates, a way to coordinate their votes. In this case, they know that Locke would be getting the “Green Bump,” and could vote accordingly.
Had he been elected, Locke would have owed a portion of his success to the Green Network, which could then use that fact, combined with Locke’s own prior commitments on the issue, to push him to support strong action on green issues. If he fails, the Network can always make that fact well known in the next election.
Third, it would push all parties to make stronger commitments on environmental issues. It would do this through both an electoral mechanism, and an organizational one. The electoral mechanism works as follows: currently, there is a strong disincentive to take too strong a stance on the environment for all parties without the word “Green” in their name. The presence of a Green candidate ensures that voters who care about the environment will likely not be convinced to switch allegiance; there is thus little payoff to make an appeal to them. Conversely, there remain many voters (a clear minority in Canada, but a significant one) who are suspicious of action on climate change, and any strong commitment to such action threatens to alienate those voters. There is thus little to win, and much to lose, in staking out a strong environmental position. Obviously, this effect disappears in the absence of a Green party.
The organizational effect is a little more subtle, but possibly even more important. The Green Party is currently the political home to the majority—possibly the vast majority—of politically active Canadians who care about environmental issues. They are currently pushing for political change in a party that is, as we have already discussed, unelectable. There is a cost to that concentration. If the Green Party stopped competing for votes, each of those politically active Canadians, committed to seeing the country take stronger action on environmental issues, would be free to join another party, one that matches their own political philosophy. They could strengthen whatever environmental caucus exists among long-time members, and push their adopted political home to stake out stronger positions on the environment, and follow through on those commitments if elected.
Fourth, the move would help move the discussion from “whether Canada should do something about climate change,” to “what should Canada do?” We are currently still largely stuck on the former position, despite the fact that polls consistently show that a majority of Canadians believe we should be doing more, indeed that they are “embarrassed” by our country’s current position on the issue. As discussed above, the Green Party is very good at forcing Canadians to think about whether we should do more, but is ill equipped to take part in a discussion about what should be done. Conversely, this is a form of debate that comes naturally to Canada’s traditional “answer parties.” After an election in which the parties have been forced, through the above mechanisms, to stake out clear positions on the environment, the winner will be in a much stronger position to follow through on the specific commitments they made; and if they do not, the Green Network will be there to follow up, and ask them publicly, “why not?”
Fifth and finally, the presence of a network crossing party lines, one that encompasses grassroots members along with elected MPs, would open up new avenues of communication and cooperation in our stubbornly confrontation, anti-cooperative political system. To quote from my previous article, “Many commentators bemoan the lack of collegiality in contemporary Canadian politics. The establishment of a pan-party network, committed to finding the most effective solution to shared problems, could prove a powerful mechanism to counteract this trend, and a possible model to deal with other thorny problems confronting Canadians today.” Our system currently rewards intransigence, and punishes cooperation; a Green Network could be a powerful force reversing those incentives, at least on issues related to the environment.
So come on, Obi-Green Kenobi! Do the right thing. Strike yourselves from the ballot, and become more powerful than you (or we) could possibly imagine.
photo credit: mac_filko via photopin cc
 This does not even consider the long-running debates regarding the relative advantages of PR and majoritarian systems with regard to government effectiveness. It’s at lease conceivable that a PR-governed Canada would have a more representative, but ultimately less-effective government, one hamstrung by the efforts to build and maintain coalitions among the many fractious fault lines in this unique country.
 As an aside, I think this has actually both helped and hindered their quest for sovereignty. On the one hand, it has made both them and the Parti Quebecois much more electable; on the other, to the extent that they are a reliable party of government, it has been difficult at times for them to claim that their support is support for sovereignty. Even when they have been successful, to many Quebecois they have simply represented the best progressive option available.