Operation Earful, part 2: What would Andy Dufresne do?

Andy's the one on the left.

For those a little rusty on their 90’s movies, Andy’s the one on the left. As in all things in life, this post will probably be more satisfying if you pretend it’s being narrated by his friend Red, on the right.

Last week I pitched the idea of #OperationEarful, an effort to encourage a letter-writing campaign directed at parliamentarians, particularly the Conservative ones, informing them that a) we citizens think the Fair Elections Act is awful, that b) we think it’ll be bad for everyone in the long run, including Conservatives, and that c) it ought to be fundamentally amended or withdrawn immediately. Continue reading

Operation Earful

What is to be done about the Fair Elections Act?

In an analysis published here at the Ottawa Citizen, I concluded that the Fair Elections Act could prove as costly for Conservatives as any other group in Canada. It is simply bad law, causing nothing but damage to our political system without benefiting anyone in the long run. If enacted, its legacy will be one of increased suspicion and polarization, decreased trust and legitimacy and ultimately, I argue, widespread resentment towards its architects, supporters, and perceived beneficiaries.

The Senate recommendations do not go nearly far enough to fix all that is wrong with the bill. What they have done however, is give us a window of opportunity to push government to reconsider the whole misbegotten scheme.

MPs (and Senators, who also matter in this debate) really do pay attention to feedback from constituents. Emails, letters and phone calls can cut through the clutter. If you have questions or doubts about the law, or are convinced that it is wrongheaded, I encourage you to tell your representatives about it. There are lots of other things you can do, depending on your level of outrage (and the flexibility of your work schedule, I suppose) but this is one clear, simple, and effective thing.

Call it #OperationEarful.

Look up your MP’s contact info here.

Senator contact info is accessible here (including information about province and party).

If you have friends or relatives living in Conservative ridings, consider reaching out to them as well. Explain why you don’t like the bill, why it’s so important to let MPs know what’s wrong with it now, before it passes and we all have to deal with the consequences.

As for what to say, there are resources all over the net to help. Here’s a list provided by UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions. If you’re pressed for time, I suppose you could do worse than the following (from my op-ed above):

From the soft disenfranchisement of voters, to changes in party finance rules that advantage the Conservatives, to the partisanization of elections officials, to restrictions on the chief electoral officer’s (CEO) ability to communicate with Canadians, the bill is replete with measures antithetical to the principles of democracy.

The Fair Elections Act is not yet a done deal. We can act now to help prevent its passing. Do so, and we’ll be doing all Canadians—including Conservative MPs and their supporters—a favour.

[UPDATE: Thanks for visiting, not to mention reading all the way to the end! A friendly reminder: if you agree with what you read here, and yet are clicking away from the site without contacting an elected and/or Senate representative (or at least making plans to do so soon), then that is not a 100% effective execution of Operation Earful, which includes four distinct phases: click, read, act, share. Have a great Easter long weekend!]

photo credit: x-ray delta one via photopin cc

Op-ed: Backbenchers’ calculus

New comment up at the Ottawa Citizen. It’s an attempt to lay out the political case against the proposed legislation, which is related to, but distinct from the principled case against it. Basically, it’s bad law that could easily come back to haunt the Conservative Party. Then the only question will be how much damage it does to the reputation of the party and its MPs. To wit:

Unless every one of the controversial elements are stripped out, C-23 will remain antidemocratic and, whether Conservatives realize it or not, an exceedingly risky political ploy.

Click here for the original. I have reproduced the original in full here as well:

Published on: April 16, 2014
Last Updated: May 20, 2014 6:12 AM EST

In tabling a set of nine unanimously endorsed amendments, the Conservative-dominated Senate committee examining the proposed Fair Elections Act has offered Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre a face-saving way to climb down from his previous position of intransigence. Given the minister’s initial reaction to the report, he may be inclined to use it.

Either way, action now shifts back to the House, where Conservative members of Parliament must soon decide whether to vote for, amend, or reject outright legislation denounced as antidemocratic in both content and process by experts throughout the media, academia, and in the public service.

Even if they accept all nine unanimous Senate amendments however, it will remain so.

Consider the principled case against bill C-23. From the soft disenfranchisement of voters, to changes in party finance rules that advantage the Conservatives, to the partisanization of elections officials, to restrictions on the chief electoral officer’s (CEO) ability to communicate with Canadians, the bill is replete with measures antithetical to the principles of democracy.

Many of the most controversial issues, including vouching, the use of Voter Identification Cards, and new financing loopholes remain unaddressed in the recommendations endorsed by the full Senate committee. The committee’s minority offered its own set of recommendations that go much further, but even they miss out some key problems with the nearly 250-page bill.

Unless every one of the controversial elements are stripped out, C-23 will remain antidemocratic and, whether Conservatives realize it or not, an exceedingly risky political ploy.

For one thing, it is a potent potential mobilizer for the opposition. Polling on the issue so far suggests that while most Canadians are not engaged on the issue, the more they know about C-23, the more they dislike it. A limited set of amendments will not change that calculus.

Should the bill’s opponents — a group including many voices that normally remain studiously nonpartisan, as well as those who had previously endorsed this government — break through to some of those disengaged Canadians with a simple message like “the Tories are stacking the deck,” it would be a powerful narrative for the next election, one that plays into an existing Conservative reputation for ruthlessness, even recklessness, in the pursuit of power.

Further, there is the lack of political cover to consider. Effectively, party and country alike have been put on notice that the bill is proceeding over the considered judgement of virtually every independent observer with expertise in the subject. If anything goes wrong because of this bill, the Conservatives alone will own the consequences.

That’s important, as things could go very wrong indeed. One slow-to-emerge narrative surrounding bill C-23 is the effect it would have on the nuts-and-bolts administration of elections. Former Auditor General Sheila Fraser, for instance, echoed concerns raised by current CEO Marc Mayrand regarding new barriers impairing the CEO’s ability to make decisions around the hiring of technical personnel. By making remuneration subject to Treasury Board approval, the act complicates the already complex process of election administration.

More outrageously, the bill injects incumbent members of Parliament directly into that administrative process, mandating that they or their representatives put together the lists from which key officials like the central poll supervisor are selected. This is one of the problems missed even by the Senate committee minority.

It is also one of the most puzzling aspects of the bill. Why any incumbent would want such power is quite simply beyond me, as it would make any victory potentially tainted simply because the possibility for mischief was there. If anything controversial were to happen at a polling station, the incumbent involved would come in for personal blame for whatever problems resulted — no matter if it was just an irregularity, no matter if someone were undertaking fraud on their behalf without their knowledge.

Finally, there is the impending spectacle of Canadians watching their fellow citizens turned away from voting. Even some Conservative supporters now talking a good game about the “reasonableness” of the bill’s identity and proof of residency requirements might waver a bit once they see and hear the stories of one friend’s aunt, of another’s son, who couldn’t vote, who were barred from exercising the most fundamental right of citizenship.

Whatever the shortcomings of the Senate committee’s recommendations, we must commend them for slowing momentum, allowing everyone to take a deep breath. In doing so, they have provided Canadians with a window of opportunity.

The one thing guaranteed to make parliamentarians take notice is an earful from constituents. Indeed, James Rajotte, a Conservative MP, has already signalled to the minister that his constituents have problems with the bill. If enough Canadians express concerns the Conservative caucus will have no choice but to finish the work that the Senate committee has started.

Stewart Prest is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of British Columbia. Twitter.com/StewartPrest

Op-ed: In defence of the Reform Act

I have a piece in today’s Ottawa Citizen. It’s a response to an essay written by Andrew Potter a couple of weeks back. He wrote in opposition to the Reform Act proposed by MP Michael Chong; I subsequently wrote in its defence. Here’s an excerpt:

Politics is not simply about the pursuit and exercise of power; it is about its regulation. Democracy is as concerned with the presence of effective checks on the use of political power as with the occasional elections that determine who wields it. It is his oversight of this fundamental point that in my view dooms Potter’s case.

You can read the whole thing here.

photo credit: Bust it Away Photography via photopin cc

Are the Greens an “issue based” party?

(Note: what follows is premised on the idea that Canada will not be adopting proportional representation any time soon. If Canada were to switch to PR, much of what follows would go out the window.)

In response to my recent op-ed in the Citizen, one of the negative responses I heard concerns the question whether the Green Party of Canada (GPC) is an “issue-based” party or not. Obviously, it’s an issue that’s been debated elsewhere; for my purposes, I think it important to to draw a line between two different ways to understand the assertion.

The strong version of that statement, that the Greens have positions on environmental issues and nothing else, is clearly false. The GPC have long shown a willingness and ability to stake out positions on issues other than the environment. However, a second understanding, the one that I am focusing on, concerns what I would refer to as the party’s core identity, particularly in the minds of voters.  Here I think the statement is true. That is, in the minds of voters, the Green Party remains associated with environmental issues, with no clear associations on other key issues.

To the extent that this is the case, it’s easy (and I would argue incorrect) to blame this on voters’ lack of understanding. Again, to me the base problem is structural: to win an election in a first past the post (FPTP) system like ours, the Greens essentially have to come to embody a distinct way of thinking about the world, one that is a) relatively easy for voters to grasp, giving them a clear idea of what the Greens would do on any given issue WITHOUT having to refer to the most recent platform, and b) relatively stable from election to election.

Not only that—and this is a key point—the identity they create must be viewed as better than that of existing competitive parties for all issues that concern would-be supporters. Electoral politics, particularly in FPTP, is zero-sum. Your success comes at the expense of (indeed is synonymous with) someone else’s failure. (For instance, it is no accident that the Reform Party emerged in the wake of a Conservative collapse, or that NDP’s current strength comes at a time of historic Liberal weakness. Even those cases are not great models for the Greens; despite its regional popularity, the Reform Party eventually felt compelled to merge with its competitor on the right, and the jury clearly remains out on the NDP-Liberal competition to become champion of the centre-left.)

Greens can’t do either of those things better than their direct competition for base voters (the Libs and the NDP). A typical voter who cares about the environment and a lot of other things isn’t likely to know what the Green Party is likely to do on health care, or day care, or treaty rights—or for that matter even on the environment—without checking their platform, and is equally unlikely to have a strong sense of the positions the Greens will adopt a similar position four years from now. For all she knows, a different leadership might take the party in a very different direction. So long as there are other options with longer track records that the voter feels more familiar with—and again, for the Greens’ target audience, that’s still the Libs or the NDP—she is going to prefer to stick with those parties more often than not, and hope they get more serious about the environment, rather than adopt a new party that clearly cares about the environment, but remains fuzzy to her on all the other issues that she care about, particularly the key questions of who gets what, and how.

Party identities and voter trust in them can change over time, but it’s a very slow process, with no guarantee of success. The NDP have been a party in waiting for two generations now, and still have not clearly become Canadians’ preferred non-Conservative option.  Given the current and mounting pressures on the environment, I don’t feel comfortable wait for the Greens’ turn, if it ever comes. Far better, to me, is to pursue a strategy that pushes all parties in the direction of a greener policy, and holds the possibility of immediate returns in the form of green-committed MPs, regardless of the party they represent. Given the choice between that, and a faint hope of a Green Party in government (or heck, even in Parliament with any significant presence) some time in the distant future, I’ll choose the former.

Green Network, Plan B

As I discussed in a recent op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen, I have an idea about how to change Canadian politics on the environment. The problem is that don’t have a lot of spare time on my hands. I’ve got two young sons to take care of, a PhD dissertation to finish, mercenary research-for-hire to conduct, and Guilder to frame for it. I’m swamped!

So I need some help. The original idea for the Green Party to shift in form and method from a formal party encouraging people to vote for an all-too-often marginal Green Party, to encouraging Canadians to vote for the greenest electable candidate.

Needless to say, I’m waiting by the phone for a call from high ranking Green Party officials to ask for advice on how best to wind down their party, and wind up the Green Network. Somewhat mysteriously however, no such call has come just yet.

Luckily, I have a Plan B, to tide us over until the Greens come around. The goals are still the same as that previous scheme, namely to mobilize “small-g” green voters to vote for candidates that can actually win, and send representatives to Parliament willing and able to change Canada’s unacceptable legislative and diplomatic record on the environment. The means are different, however: a little less institutionalization, a little more grass roots organization. This is how it goes (though obviously every step is open to debate):

Step 1: a national campaign, prior to the election, encouraging Canadians concerned about the environment to pledge to become “small-g voters.” It would be a commitment along the following lines:

“I am a small-g green voter. I will vote for a green champion in my riding, supporting the most competitive candidate that I believe will make a real difference in Canada’s approach to climate change.”

Step 2: a crowd-sourced effort—an obvious format for organizing this step would be a kind of wiki—to identify green champions in each riding in the run up to the election. The key question to answer is this: among candidates who can actually win (to my mind this generally means polling first or second, or perhaps third in close contests), who do we think has the most credible commitment to support strong federal government action on the environment? Put differently, who is the most environmentally conscious and committed candidate among those who are actually electable?

As election date grows closer, each riding could have its own page, on which contributors could debate the merits of the candidates. There would have to be some way to police overt partisanship, but this should be manageable with the right safeguards in place for contributor registration. There could also be separate discussions of each party platform, since the party’s positions are obviously an important consideration in assessing any given candidate’s environmental credibility. Candidates for some parties can claim to have credibility on environmental issues given previous actions and current positions; others cannot.

Step 3: Promotion of both the pledge and the consensus green champions prior to and especially during the next election. While the pledge is worded to empower each voter to select their champion themselves, obviously the more that every small-g voter agrees in a given riding on who that champion is, the more likely their votes are going to result in an environmentally friendly outcome.

This process should have a number of effects. First, simply by mobilizing green-conscious voters as an identifiable (and woo-able) group within the population, it incentivises all parties to compete for those votes by adopting more aggressive environmental policies. The result ought to be that all (or at least most) parties become more committed to quick and definitive action on climate change.

Second, the selection of “green champions” at the riding level helps to coordinate voters at the level that matters most for choosing our government. Elsewhere I discuss how in many places in the country, green voters actually hold the balance of power at the riding level.

That’s it, at least for now. Once the election is over, new tasks would emerge, such as keeping tabs on promises made, kept, and broken—information vital for determining whether incumbents elected with green network support have lived up to their commitments, and ought to be supported in subsequent elections.

I think this is doable. It requires is a bit of help to get started—most importantly in setting up some sort of web presence, and giving the idea some sort of push into the internetal ether—encouraging as many people as possible to commit to being a small g voter (#smallgvoter for those of you on the twitter) in the next election.

Then, as election time draws closer, additional tasks would include assembling research on candidate positions on the environment. This could be done passively by relatively few volunteers using means such as parsing of candidate statements on relevant subjects, reviewing results in previous elections, and collating riding level polling data where available. With more help, it could also be done actively through the administration of short questionnaires to candidates, asking questions about policies they would support, their stances on Kyoto and Copenhagen, their willingness to reach across the aisle to achieve action on climate change, etc.

Comments below are welcome. If you think this so crazy it just might work, I’d like to hear that; if it’s too crazy (or not crazy enough!) I want to hear that too. If you’re interested in helping see where an idea like this can go, well obviously I’d like to hear about that.

photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc

The Kenobi Option

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.[1]  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:

The Diagnosis:

  1. Let’s assume that Canada will retain a first-past-the-post system of government for the foreseeable future.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.[2] 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

[1] 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.

[2] 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.