The Case for NDP, Liberal, Green Cooperation

Political and electoral reform are amongst the most critical issues on the Canadian agenda. How can we achieve better governance, ramp down zero-sum, hyper-partisan, wedge politics that polarizes society and fails spectacularly in developing solutions to critical social, environmental, and political issues? How can Canadian democracy, crumbling at the edges and under assault from various directions, be improved through the development of constructive mechanisms of cooperation between parties, and through electoral reform? Could political cooperation work? Could it make a substantive difference in the composition of the House of Commons?

Are progressive Canadians interested in political cooperation that could address these issues? According to a new survey by the answer is a resounding "yes". Of a total of 9,173 respondents, 22% agreed, and 73% strongly agreed, with a proposition calling on the NDP, Liberal, and Green parties to cooperate to defeat the Conservative government, introduce electoral reform and "… make sure our government better reflects the values and priorities of all Canadians." A whopping 95% of respondents agreed that 'there's trouble in River City' and they want the politicos to work together to fix it.

Let's be clear: the Leadnow survey was not a poll. It was circulated largely to their database of 80,000+ members (who, one might expect, are of a progressive and activist inclination) and responding to the survey (or not) is self-selecting. Thus, these findings are not necessarily an accurate representation of this sentiment amongst progressive Canadians as a whole. It is not a statistically valid poll, and it makes no claim to be so. Nevertheless, it is a strong indication that a large proportion of progressive voters are strongly interested in political cooperation leading to electoral reform.

Bill Tieleman's "The Case Against an NDP, Liberal, Green Coalition" examines this proposition, but unfortunately misses the boat in a number of important respects. In examining Leadnow's "Cooperate for Canada" initiative, and Nathan' Cullen's proposal to conduct primaries amongst opposition parties in select ridings in the country, Tieleman's asserts, "It's undemocratic. And it won't work." Let's take a closer look at these claims.


Is political cooperation democratic?

The present government of Canada has the support of a minority (39%) of Canadians and the first-past-the post (FPTP) electoral system is an archaic, dysfunctional system that produces erratic and unrepresentative governments, encourages a zero-sum approach to conducting politics, discouraging cooperation between political parties. It has been jettisoned by virtually every country in the developed world save for Canada, the USA, and Great Britain. We're in the company of Afghanistan, Congo, Ethipoia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and Yemen when it comes to our voting system.

The resulting "democratic deficit" in Canada has been widely noted and discussed by politicians, political scientists, pundits, and the public. There can be no more dramatic illustration of the Canadian democratic crisis than the abysmal turnout in the 2011 federal election in which nearly 40% of all voters, and over 50% of those under 50 years of age, failed to show up at the polls – a graphic illustration of how ill the Canadian body politic is. Given this serious situation, and the complete logjam in finding solutions, creative thinking and novel approaches are not only desirable, but indispensable.

Tieleman calls the Cooperate for Canada initiative and Nathan' Cullen's proposal "draconian" and says "using dubious scare tactics to force Canadians to accept lowest common denominator politics is reprehensible." This would be troubling if true – fortunately it's not. Both Leadnow and Nathan Cullen are clear that such a proposed cooperative arrangement is not intended as a permanent re-casting of Canadian politics, but rather a one-time strategic arrangement to bring more representative governance to Canada and introduce electoral reform. One may or may not support political cooperation and electoral reform, but to call them "draconian" and "reprehensible" is surely wildly hyperbolic.

Tieleman adduces little evidence to his assertion that cooperation is "undemocratic" beyond a personal example of a Liberal politician that he couldn't bring himself to vote for. There is nothing undemocratic about a primary contest between NDP, Liberal, and Green candidates. Nathan Cullen has been clear that he would leave the determination of whether to cooperate with other political parties entirely in the hands of the local riding association. All members would have an opportunity to democratically express their views on whether they wished to entertain the idea. If they didn't, it wouldn't happen. Full stop. Furthermore, if political cooperation did take place, then all NDP, Liberal, and Green supporters would have the opportunity to vote democratically in the primary contest that would select a candidate for that riding.


Can cooperation work?

I've recently conducted a statistical analysis of the potential impact of political cooperation for Project Democracy entitled "Do Canadians want political cooperation?" In a nutshell:

1. In the 2011 election, the Conservatives won 166 seats. In 109 of these, their candidates received an absolute majority of 50% or more of the total ballots cast. In those ridings, cooperation between opposition parties would make no difference to the outcome.

2. In the remaining 57 ridings, cooperation could tip the balance. However, not all supporters of Green, Liberal, and New Democratic parties will vote for a candidate from one of the other opposition parties. To determine this accurately one needs to factor in the party-by-party, second choice voting preferences, information that is available from the 2011 election as a result of polling conducted by Ekos Research.

This data shows that 13.5% of NDP supporters would cast their ballot for the Conservative party if no NDP candidate was available, 37.7% would support the Liberals, 19% the Green party, and 17.4% have no second choice (i.e., they would not vote for another party). For Liberal supporters, 12.6% would vote for the Conservatives, 54.1% the NDP, 12.0% the Green party, and 17.1% have no second choice. Finally, 11% of Green voters would support the Conservatives, 40.3% the NDP, 17.4% the Liberals, and 27.4% have no second choice.

3. Based on these ratios, and assuming that the opposition party that polled highest in each of the 57 Conservative ridings is the one that fields the joint candidate, and that support for other parties (i.e., the Bloc Québécois and others) remains unchanged, what are the results in these 57 ridings? Conservatives retain 17 seats whereas opposition candidates win the remaining 40 — 29 by the Liberals and 11 by the New Democrats. The electoral breakdown in such a scenario is Conservative 126; NDP 114; Liberal 63; BQ 4; Green 1.

4. In such a Parliament, if Conservatives were to be unable to form a government that had the confidence of the House of Commons, the NDP, Liberal, and Green parties would be in a position to form a stable, majority, coalition government with 178 seats. Such a government would reflect the support of 53.4% of Canadian voters.

An important point: this analysis is not intended as an exercise in alternate history. In the 2011 election, no such cooperative arrangement existed and the election did not take place on this basis. The analysis is intended to shed some light on what political cooperation between Green, Liberal, and New Democratic parties could yield based on the 2011 electoral data. Thus, the point is not to try and re-run the 2011 election based on different premises, but rather to shine a light towards the 2015 federal election and what fruit political cooperation could bear.

Nathan Cullen at the Halifax leadership debate.

Bearing this in mind, it's worthwhile examining some of Tieleman's claims. He writes "It's as if these groups effectively want to create a new centrist political party out of the three existing and quite different ones." This, however is precisely what Nathan Cullen and Project Democracy do not advocate. In his guest editorial "Joint nominations and electoral reform: defending Canadian values" Cullen is clear that his proposal does not entail any sort of a merger. Democracy is well served by a political landscape that reflects the diversity of Canadian political opinion. "A new centrist political party" (i.e., a merger of the NDP, Liberal, and Green parties) would not only be a step backwards for representative democracy in Canada, but would also, in my estimation, be completely unachievable. In large measure members of all three of these parties have not the slightest interest in merging — nor should they. A two-party political landscape such as that in the United States, would not be a step forward for Canadian democracy — rather the opposite.

Tieleman also writes: "… electoral cooperation plans have always failed miserably" and then goes on to discuss the Project Democracy and Catch 22 campaigns in the 2011 federal election. However, what Project Democracy and Catch 22 were conducting was a campaign based on "informed strategic voting." There was no electoral cooperation between parties of the kind that is advocating, nor a cooperative electoral primary approach that Nathan Cullen has proposed.

From every perspective, political cooperation between parties (whether via a primary system as proposed by Cullen, or through some other arrangement) would be far preferable and much more effective than the informed strategic voting that Project Democracy was able to offer. Thus, electoral cooperation plans have never failed miserably — they have never been attempted.

Tieleman continues "Interestingly, Project Democracy admits it endorsed the "wrong" candidate in 11 ridings, meaning they promoted the candidate who it turned out had less of a chance to defeat a Conservative than another opposition candidate. Oops."

Oops indeed. He was perhaps expecting perfection? Tieleman fails to note, that while Project Democracy's voting recommendations were 87% correct (see Project Democracy: 2011 Electoral Analysis- Part 1), those of, arguably the pre-eminent Canadian electoral forecasting organization, had an accuracy rate of only 76.0%. One hundred percent accuracy is not readily achievable in the real world.

Tieleman continues "… it's highly unlikely that the NDP or Liberal parties will agree to the joint nomination proposal. Aside from it requiring party constitutional changes, a majority of members would probably reject the idea." Would opposition parties (NDP, Liberal, and Green) agree to a joint nomination proposal? Who knows. Cullen's proposal is (at this stage) simply a proposal. Given the very sizeable appetitive amongst progressive voters for political cooperation, it is certainly an idea that merits discussion, both within political parties, and on the larger Canadian stage. What is clear, however, is that Tieleman's blanket assertion that such approach will not work is simply an unwarranted and unsupported assertion. No die has been cast, no Rubicon crossed, and it ain't necessarily so.

Tieleman is absolutely correct in saying that "… you can't simply add up Liberal, Green and NDP votes in any riding and presume they will all go to a "unity" candidate against the Conservative." This would be a foolish assumption - and for this reason, no one that I am aware of is making it. Indeed, to understand in detail how political cooperation might play out, it is essential to know the second choice vote preferences of electors ( see above). Instead, Tieleman relies on vague generalities such as "Right of centre Liberal supporters would likely rather vote Conservative than NDP or Green if a candidate from either of those parties was jointly nominated instead of a Liberal, or simply not vote." In fact the polling data show that only 12.6% of Liberals would support the Conservative party and 17.1% would not vote, whereas 54.1% would support an NDP candidate. Oops. Evaluating the efficacy of political cooperation requires a more precise approach than subjective hunches.

Thus, political cooperation can unquestionably "work" and have a significant electoral impact.


Electoral Reform

Finally, Tieleman is correct in pointing out that referenda conducted to date on electoral reform in Canada have not been successful (although in the 2005 referendum in British Columbia, which was supported by 57.7% of the populace and was carried in 97.5% of districts, the "Yes" side clearly won a majority of support. It failed to pass, however, since it did not garner the 60% supermajority required by the terms of the referendum). My own, albeit limited, experience with the Prince Edward Island referendum was that the process was designed to fail, with next to no information on what electoral reform entailed being available to voters, very little promotion of the initiative, and too few polling stations, frequently situated in awkward locations.

Be that as it may, 81 countries currently employ various systems of proportional representation, and Canada, the United States, and Great Britain are amongst a small number of nations in the developed world that still use the antiquated first-past-the post (FPTP) electoral system. FPTP produces erratic and undemocratic results in elections with more than two parties, and the more political parties there are — the worse the results.

There's no question that implementing electoral reform would be a complex process with strongly held views on both sides weighing in.  And that's precisely as it should be. We need a vigorous discussion on democracy in Canada. and Nathan Cullen have both proposed a public discussion on this. What should be done? STV, MMP, Alternative Vote, FPTP?  Let's discuss their respective strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, should we abolish the Senate or retain it? Leave it alone or reform it? If so, how? Should we lower the voting age to better engage youth?  Let's have an reasoned, adult discussion about these democratic issues. That in itself would be a significant step in finding solutions.

If we are in any doubt of the critical importance of this issue we need only to pay attention to the conclusions of Ekos pollster-meister, Frank Graves in his post-electoral essay "Accurate polling, Flawed Forecast":

Frank Graves

 "If there is a widening gulf between the voting and non-voting populations, where do we hear the voice of the non-voter? Can we just say that this large group — nearly 40 per cent of all voters and over half of under 50 Canada can be safely ignored? What if the factors producing non-voting are not simply "laziness and apathy"? What if the lack of voting is linked to alienation and conscious political strategies designed to suppress the interest of those voters? What if there is a mutually reinforcing tendency to further weaken "next Canada's" interest in federal government by virtue of a federal agenda which systematically undervalues and deemphasises their interests and values and emphasises the interests and values of its constituency? Does this become a particularly troubling problem at a point where our highly unusual demographics have produced a voter whose median age is around 60? Are we fashioning the future Canada in the image of those who are disengaging or those poised to inherit the positions of authority and influence in short order?"

Christopher Majka, Project Democracy


Christopher Majka is a team member of Project Democracy and the chair of the Nova Scotia Arts Cultural Action Network. He is also an ecologist who conducts research on the ecology and biodiversity of invertebrates. He writes regularly on the environment, climate change, politics, and electoral reform. He is the co-author of several books and the review editor of four international periodicals.