Stalemate: On the By-Elections

Last night’s three by-elections produced…the status quo. The Conservatives held their two seats, and the NDP held their one.

Nonetheless, there’s good and bad news for every party in the results:

Conservatives
Good News: They held their 2 seats, winning convincingly in Durham, and still pulling 37% in Calgary-Centre with a controversial candidate.
Bad News: Their vote share dropped substantially in Calgary-Centre, supporting the idea that it could become competitive. They lost a significant share of votes in Victoria, as well, dropping to a distant third.

NDP
Good News: They held on to Victoria, and held their second place standing in Durham, gaining vote share to put further distance between them and the third place Liberals.
Bad News: Their vote share was down 13% in Victoria and they nearly lost what should have been a safe seat. They lost 11% in Calgary-Centre, finishing a distant fourth with less than 4% of the vote. Even though they were a clear second in Durham, they’re still nowhere near competing to win.

Liberals
Good News: They finished a strong second in Calgary-Centre, up 15% in vote share from 2011. The comments from David McGuinty and Justin Trudeau may have stalled their momentum, if they had any significant impact at all, but they didn’t cause the vote to crater. Harvey Locke finished on the high end of where the three polls conducted had him placed. Vote share-wise, they at least stopped their bleeding in Durham and Victoria.
Bad News: They got fewer votes cumulatively in the three ridings than the Greens, and were not a factor in either Durham or Victoria (where they finished third and fourth, respectively). There’s an argument to be made, as Colby did, that they simply turned out the loyal base in Calgary-Centre.

Greens
Good News: They finished a strong second in Victoria, nearly tripling their vote share from 2011, and a strong third in Calgary-Centre, where they more than doubled their share.
Bad News: Not much, actually. Both Donald Galloway (Victoria) and Chris Turner (Calgary-Centre) are strong candidates with local profile, so it would remain to be seen if they could hold their gains without these candidates running again in 2015.

3 Things We Might Have Learned
By-Elections Can Rarely Be Extrapolated for Broader Trends
It’s tempting to look for trends (A Green Wave in Western Canada? Stalled NDP growth? Liberals hit their ceiling? Conservatives drop votes?)

There may be local trends to watch, though. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that the Greens could be growing a beachhead on Vancouver Island (Liz May’s riding is next door), in Calgary, the Liberals still have life, and Chris Turner has local appeal, and Durham is rock solid Tory country.

The Political Climate is Still Unsettled
2011 may yet prove to be a realignment election, but further movement to solidify that was absent from last night’s result. The Liberals held their share in two ridings, and nearly doubled it in another. The Green Party saw the major growth last night, not the ascendant NDP. As mentioned, they themselves nearly lost an incumbent seat, and barely factored in another.

What I take this to mean is that we’re in an unsettled period, and while a two-party CPC-NDP system may be the end result, it’s still too fluid to call.

The Vote-Splitting and Unite-the-Left Arguments Miss the Point
In Calgary-Centre particularly, vote splitting was named as the cause of the Conservative Party victory. Let me be unequivocally clear: no party lost because of vote splitting. They lost because of a failure to appeal to and/or turn out enough voters. No party of the left will win unless they understand this.

As the Conservative Party experiment teaches us, 1+1 does not = 2. I put together a table of votes by party from 1984-2011, combining the ‘right’ and ‘left’ vote. For the latter, there’s a column for it with and without the Green Party. As you can see, it took three elections for the CPC to reach the combined vote of the PCs and Canadian Alliance from 2000. The party has never reached the vote share earned by the PCs in 1988. 1993, in fact, saw a major shift from the NDP to the Reform across Western Canada, which would seem incomprehensible if voters made decisions strictly on ideological grounds. This piece makes a good argument that last night, the Greens gained, more than anyone else, from Conservative losses. Rather than being seen as a third pillar of the progressive/left, the Greens, like the Bloc, probably pull from all across the spectrum, or at worst, being a safe place to park a protest vote.

There is some merit to the argument when examined another way. Rather than looking at votes in raw numbers, we need to examine voting coalitions. Our system, for better or worse, rewards brokerage parties – those that appeal to a broad spectrum of interests. When I have argued in previous posts that no progressive/left-centre party can form a majority government, it’s based on the fact that none of them have a broad enough coalition. Merger may bring this about, but it’s likely that voters from one or both previous parties would park their votes elsewhere, or stay home. The same would happen with attrition. Strategic voting, or dividing ridings won’t accomplish this, but brokerage will.

The way to a progressive government in this country is for one of the three current options to find a way to appeal to enough citizens and interests groups to form a coalition that can appeal to 40-45% of voters on a regular basis. The big lesson for me from last night is that the window for either the NDP, Liberals, or Greens to accomplish this is still wide open.

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The Left’s Calgary-Centre Challenge

Tomorrow, three by-elections occur across Canada. In two – the Conservative stronghold of Durham, and Victoria, where the NDP have won comfortably the past three elctions – the incumbent party is expected to win by a large margin. The third, Calgary-Centre, has unexpectedly turned into a hotly contested race.

Calgary, as a city, last elected a non-conservative MP (PC/Reform/Alliance/CPC) in 1968. The closest thing to a disruption occured in this riding in 2000, when the non-Canadian Alliance vote coalesced around Progressive Conservative Party leader Joe Clark, boosting him to victory.

Now, the riding appears to be close. The Conservatives opened the door to a challenge by nominating a controversial candidate in Joan Crockett, and exacerbated it by shielding her from most public forums. All three opposition parties nominated strong candidates in their own right – the Liberals with notable conservationist Harvey Locke, the NDP with Dan Meades, the Director of Vibrant Communities Calgary, and the Greens with notable author Chris Turner. (Personal disclosure: I have some acquaintance with Harvey Locke, and serve on a board with his wife).

Two polls from Forum Research show a potential three-way race with Crockett ahead, Locke just behind, and Turner as the stalking horse in third. A poll from Return on Insight shows Crockett just ahead of Locke, with Turner comfortably in third, but far behind.

While I would love to see Harvey Locke (or Chris Turner) win this seat, safe money is still on Crockett. While by-elections do often produce abnormal results, one has to figure the floor for a Conservative candidate in this riding is in the mid-30s even with a weaker candidate. If you have the third and fourth place candidates pulling in around 30% of the vote (in ROI) or higher (in Forum), that leaves about 30-35% of the vote, if the Conservatives hit their floor. In other words, not a lot of space for another candidate to pull ahead.

This is a problem that will continue to repeat itself, until the three left of centre parties sort themselves out. I expect this to happen over the next two election cycles through attrition or merger. If three survive as viable entities, it will be because at least one retreats to becoming a largely regional entity.

Win or lose tomorrow, the Calgary-Centre by-election points to some key challenges centre-left parties, no matter which ones survive or emerge, need to overcome to be a true threat to government.

Calgary Tower
Calgary-Centre is a bellwether for progressive hopes in the west.

The Need to Stop Beating Up Your Own
The most biting attack of this campaign was a Chris Turner mailer where…he attacked Harvey Locke. Echoing the Conservative “he didn’t come back for you!” attack on Michael Ignatieff, Turner chastises Locke for spending many years away from Calgary. These are far harsher words than he has for Crockett at any point. Reminiscent of the PC/Reform battles in Ontario through the ’90s, the centre-left is likely to continue beating itself up in order to try to become the alternative. In the meantime, the Conservatives will be able to largely coast into office until this is sorted out.

Someone suggested to me that Locke and Turner are drawing strengths from two different constituencies (more established liberals vs. young civic activists), and while this may be true, the broader point is that it is unlikely that any non-Conservative candidate can win regularly without the support of both.

The Need to Be Competitive Across the Country
To their credit, Liberal Party leadership candidates have grasped the need to reach out to the west, and Alberta in particular. The NDP have made inroads in Edmonton, winning one riding in 2008 and holding it in 2011. The province is not only influential because of its role in the economy, but because of its fast growing population. It will gain another 6 seats prior to the 2015 election.

It is still possible for a party to win a majority based on strength elsewhere in the country (Ontario, Quebec, and BC remain seat-rich), but it’s hard to see any party but the Conservatives winning a majority without at least some seats from the prairie provinces, Alberta in particular.

Another consideration is this – the need to simply make this area of the country more competitive. At the moment, the Conservatives can effectively bank at least 24 of 28 seats in Alberta prior to the writ drop (that’s being generous by including Calgary-Centre, along with NDP-held Edmonton-Strathcona, and once Liberal/NDP-held Edmonton Centre and Edmonton East). That means that the party can redirect advertising dollars and human resources elsewhere, both organizers and its leader (and leading cabinet ministers). While other parties need to defend their home turf, so to speak, the Conservatives can focus on swing ridings and areas of growth. Simply making at least Edmonton and Calgary more competitive would help centre-left parties across the country in that respect.

As an aside, it’s striking how few centre-left MPs of significance Alberta has produced in the past 80 years (if not longer), aside from Anne McLellan. While many prominent Liberals or CCF/NDPs have carved out notable careers at the provincial level or as Mayor of Calgary or Edmonton, none have made a successful breakthrough to the federal level. While the province gets labeled as a bastion of conservatism, that list of prominent centre-left politicians would include Laurence Decore, Grant Notley, Grant MacEwan, Nick Taylor, Ivor Dent, Jan Reimer, Al Duerr, and Dave Bronconnier, to name a few. Every other province can point to both prominent progressive and conservative politicians it has produced, even if it reliably supports one party (or ideology) over others.

The Need to Win Across the Country
Having said all that, Calgary-Centre is precisely the type of riding that a centre-left party will need to win in order to compete for and win government on a regular basis. It’s demographics largely resemble areas that support centre-left parties across the country, and provincially, it includes parts or all of ridings that have elected Liberals in recent elections, such as Calgary-Buffalo and Calgary-Currie.

Without a major realignment, it’s hard to see any centre-left party winning government except, as I said earlier this year, in case of a charismatic leader who disrupts voting patters or when scandal and voter fatigue catch up to government.

In figuring the road to a majority government for the NDP, Liberal Party, Green Party, or some combination thereof, it’s hard to see how that happens without winning 3-6 seats in each of the prairie provinces.

Some pundits are predicting a historic upset, and I do hope to see it change hands. However, what I think is more likely is that Calgary-Centre can the launching pad for progressive inroads in the west. In this respect, Edmonton-Strathcona is a model. While most remember “Liberals for Linda”, and how the progressive vote coalesced around her as she squeaked out a win in 2008, fewer seem to remember that she effectively kept campaigning from the 2006 election onward. The NDP also targeted that riding with regular mailings and appearances. If the Liberals, Greens, or NDP are serious about winning Calgary-Centre, they can’t give up after tomorrow night, should they be unsuccessful. If they do, it will start inching back towards the status quo. Tomorrow’s by-election should be the start of a consistent, steady campaign to build inroads and support so that it’s a true race come 2015, and if it doesn’t change hands then, that it’s poised to soon afterwards. Making the necessary inroads to win support in Western Canada is going to be a long process. Done right, tomorrow night can be a catalyst for that.

On Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau will announce his candidacy for Liberal leadership tonight. Since word leaked of the impending announcement, it has received what must be a record amount of attention for a candidate seeking leadership of the third party in the House of Commons. Without a word of his platform being leaked, he’s already being dismissed by some, while others have preached caution and a wait and see approach.

Justin Trudeau
Flickr/jbach

I don’t follow the business of the House of Commons closely enough to speak authoritatively on his record there. I have heard Justin speak a few times, and come away impressed. I think he’s being unfairly judged or sold short in some areas, even before he’s launched his campaign.

On Policy
I’ve previously written about the missing agenda I see for all centre-left parties (and progressives as a whole in Canada). Speaking to Trudeau specifically, I think he’s being unfairly maligned for having unclear positions, though perhaps this is the trade-off he has to accept in order to receive disproportionate attention.

In spite of their long resumes in politics, how many pundits could tell you clearly where Thomas Mulcair, Brian Topp, Peggy Nash, and Nathan Cullen stood on the 5-10 key issues at the start of the NDP leadership race? 6 months into his leadership, would Thomas Mulcair be strongly associated with any policy or idea but for the words “dutch disease“?

As others have said, at this point, it is simply too early to tell. Once launched, if Trudeau’s campaign is built around photo-ops and the “OMG Justin Trudeau” factor, it will then be fair to accuse him of being a lightweight. I suspect this won’t be the case, and that the policies and ideas he does put forward will be examined on their merits, no different than anyone else. Given his background, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Trudeau have a particular emphasis of environmental and youth issues, which – as far as I’m concerned – would be a very welcome addition to political discourse.

On Leadership
For me, a key part of leadership is getting people interested, engaged, and excited. Trudeau clearly accomplishes the first at this point, and should he accomplish the other two, what’s lacking on his paper resume won’t matter so much. Most of the hands-on, tactical management will be up to his Chief of Staff and the party executive director in any case. His biggest challenge will be to engage caucus, find meaningful roles, and get people interested and excited in the party. A key test I will be looking for, should he win, is whether or not he’s able to attract talented candidates who are also new faces to the party. Should he ever position the party as a serious contender to form government, then his executive decision-making style will be a much greater consideration.

On Experience
Yes, his resume is shorter than many other candidates. Legitimate contenders for 24 Sussex tend to take one of two approaches to build their resume. Let’s call them the establishment approach and the entrepreneurial approach.

The establishment approach sees candidates gain experience and rise through conventional institutions to get to higher office. Most likely, this is within government, working one’s way up through party positions, or in elected office from backbencher to a critic/cabinet minister, and so forth. Think Jean Chretien or John Turner. Alternately, one may eschew elected office for a time and build party credentials and alternative executive experience (such as Paul Martin and Brian Mulroney, who had real executive experience, though little to no experience in office prior to running for leadership the first time).

Alternately, there is the entrepreneurial approach, building a party from scratch, or taking a smaller one and building it into a big tent. This is where one gains meaningful experience, and demonstrates their credentials. Preston Manning had a fairly anonymous career prior to founding the Reform Party; Jack Layton was an academic turned long-time legislator on Toronto City Council, but the closest he came to being an executive would be as President (Chair of the Board) at FCM. Stephen Harper’s career outside of politics consists of leading a small office at the National Citizens’ Coalition. All three showed their credentials by building effective political parties. Once they had done that, it was irrelevant that they’d never spent time in the executive suite at Canada Steam Lines or the Iron Ore company.

Bringing this back to Justin Trudeau, should be elected leader, he will inherit a party in distant third place, and is, quite frankly, not competitive in enough parts of the country to form government, and virtually non-existent in some. If he ever becomes a serious contender for Prime Minister, it will be because he has led a team and organization that took a party and brand in disarray, and engineered a successful turnaround. In other words, at such point in time he’d be no less qualified than the sitting Prime Minister and two recent leaders of the opposition who were not dismissed as having thin resumes.

I have higher hopes for Trudeau than most. I’m not about to anoint him as Prime Minister-in-waiting, but am excited to see him jumping into the leadership race tonight.

The Battle for Alberta

Monday is election day in Alberta. Normally, this is a ho-hum affair, the suspense being not about who will win, but about by how much the governing Progressive Conservative party will win. The PCs first won government in 1971. Starting with their first re-election campaign, they have won more than 60 seats in every campaign (the total number of seats available growing over that time from 75 to 87 today). The lone exception, 1993, is seen as the high water mark for competitive elections in this province. Even then, once the dust settled on election day, the PCs had won 51 seats, 19 more than the opposition.

All this back story is a way of saying that exciting provincial campaigns, where the outcome is truly in doubt, are extremely rare in Alberta. The upstart Wildrose Party is leading in all the polls, and it’s a realistic possibility that they will form the next government. If nothing else, it has been encouraging, and exciting, to see a truly contested election happen. It has also, however, been in many ways a disappointing election. The absence of debate on important issues, and focus instead of namecalling and fear-mongering, doesn’t fill me with confidence for the future, regardless of who forms government. An election is an important milestone in politics and government, but it’s not the only thing that matters. If we can’t have a rational discussion of candidates, parties, and ideas during a campaign, I don’t know if it’s going to get better after the fact.

Danielle Smith
Danielle Smith, possibly our Premier-designate after Monday’s vote.

In the hysteria, some important things have been lost. Energy, the foundation of Alberta’s economy, has received scarce attention. Critique of Wildrose has focused on a few extremist candidates who would likely never get into cabinet, rather than the policies and people who may actually be central to their government. People have embraced the PCs as a positive alternative, without critically analyzing how similar the two parties are in terms of some of their members’ beliefs, and the likely outcomes. It’s also received scant attention from the public that Premier Redford is unlikely to survive even if she wins another (slim) majority government. If she does, it will likely be by making compromises with the party establishment, moving it back towards the “conservative” side, and further away from what “strategic” PC voters think they’re getting – or avoiding by defeating the Wildrose.

We’ve also ignored the fact that almost every government moves towards the centre upon taking office, whether they campaign on the right or left. In terms of ideology, the Saskatchewan Party and federal Conservative Party are likely better comparisons for anticipating a Wildrose government than assuming a throwback to the Social Credit or Klein PC days. Whether or not this is a good thing is a matter of one’s view, but it’s the frame through which they should be examined. Truth is, like with the PCs, almost every Albertan would find some outcomes they like, and some they don’t (the balance of good vs. bad would vary greatly depending on your view). But the sky will not fall Tuesday morning if they’re elected. If they are as extreme in government as some fear, they’ll get tossed out next election. That’s how politics works.

Now, I do hope people get out and vote, regardless of who it’s for. More importantly, though, is for people to own their votes. If voters hold their nose and vote PC because they’re scared of Wildrose, they should be prepared to live with, and own the fact that they will still be getting a conservative government (one more so than they may expect). I won’t have any sympathy for the Aviva Zimmermans of the world if they’re unhappy with what they’d get out of four more years of PC government. If you vote for the Wildrose, it’s important that, as a supporter, you hold them to their pledges, especially the one on accountability, as that’s one of the fundamental tenets of their argument for change. If you support the Liberals, NDP, or Alberta Party, it’s important to ensure that the MLAs who are elected are being a positive force for change in the Legislature, rather than just hecklers and conspiracy theorists, as opposition MLAs often have been in this province.

No matter who you support, however, the most important thing is to not disappear for four years, but to keep working in your community, and through the political system, to help realize the change you want to see happen.

Alison Redford, campaign stop
Alison Redford during the campaign. Her time as Premier has brought forward a lot of positive initiatives, but she’s weighed down by her party’s record.
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

Now, I have mixed feelings on every party. I think the PCs have brought in some legitimately good policies and initiatives in recent years. In this respect, the governments of Premiers Stelmach and Redford have been a notable improvement over their predecessors. That said, inheriting a government more than 30 years old comes with inherent drawbacks. A culture has developed around government that promotes cronyism, a lack of transparency, and bullying the opposition. Were Premier Redford building a party from the ground up, I suspect I’d quite like the product. Her time in office, however, speaks to just how hard it is, despite her best efforts, to reform a party – and government – that is so entrenched. Should she continue on, there’s no guarantee the task will get easier.

As for the Wildrose, it’s probably clear to most readers that I don’t see eye to eye on many policy issues with them. I do, however, support most of their accountability pledge. I also have a lot of time for Danielle Smith. She’s a policy-minded leader, and I think that a Wildrose government under her leadership will surprise many with how they’d approach some issues.

The Alberta Liberal Party looks like a group that’s run out of steam, politically-speaking. That said, I respect the fact that they’ve put forward some controversial ideas in their platform, like raising taxes, and eliminating post-secondary tuition (the latter I disagree with, by the way). It’s important to have parties willing to push the boundaries, and encourage debate on important issues, no matter how unpopular they may be.

The NDP has proven to be an effective opposition, always raising important perspectives and flagging key issues to hold the government to account on. Losing this contribution would be a bad thing.

Finally, it’s no secret to many that I’ve been an Alberta Party supporter for the past year and a half. My endorsement for a party is for them. Despite running candidates in fewer than half the ridings province-wide, a vote for the Alberta Party would be an endorsement of community-driven politics, and a message that we can do politics in a better, more inclusive and collegial manner. My support is driven in large part by the genuine commitment I see to citizen engagement, and a more collaborative approach to politics, as well as the high regard I have for many of the people involved in the party. Nonetheless, I feel like the party will need a more defined (or better articulated) set of values and policies going forward in order to be a true competitor for government.

Glenn Taylor - Alberta Party leadership candidates
Glenn Taylor, leader of the Alberta Party, hopefully an MLA-elect tomorrow night.
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

There are also good candidates running for every party. On the PC side, losing bright minds like Dave Hancock and Doug Griffiths would be a bad thing. Whether or not Wildrose forms government, I hope Danielle Smith wins her seat, as she’d bring an important perspective to the Legislature. I’ve also gotten to know Shannon Stubbs through mutual friends and involvements over the years, and have a tremendous amount of respect for her. In a Wildrose government or opposition, she’d be a strong contributor.

Incumbent Liberal MLAs like Laurie Blakeman, David Swann, and Kent Hehr would be valuable members in opposition, contributing to debate and representing their constituents well. In a minority government, I’d be optimistic about their ability to affect change, and support reasonable legislation.

On the NDP side, Rachel Notley is a lock to hold her seat, which is a good thing, and I hope David Eggen is returned to the Legislature as well. He was a strong performer in his first term from 2004-08, and has demonstrated his ability as an advocate in leading Friends of Medicare since. I’ve always been impressed with Shannon Phillips, in the almost 10 years since we’ve known each other. While we haven’t always agreed, I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for both her ability and conviction. She’s the kind of person we need more of in politics, and I hope voters in Lethbridge-West agree.

I’m also hoping for an Alberta Party breakthrough, as there are a number of candidates who would be assets to their constituents and the province as a whole in the Legislature. Both Michael Walters and Sue Huff are true community-oriented leaders, and would bring a collaborative, positive approach to politics. Michael’s history as a community organizer and Sue’s work on the Edmonton Public School Board bear witness to the quality of work they’d do as MLAs. I consider both of them friends, and have been proud to support their respective campaigns over the past several months.

Glenn Taylor, the party leader, is a respected former Mayor of Hinton, and in the time I’ve gotten to know him, has proven to be a thoughtful leader with an eye for bringing people together. Tim Osborne, who I know more by reputation than personally, would be a great addition to the Legislature. His background in the social sector, and passion for helping people at risk and in need, is important to have, especially with a government who has an eye on balancing the budget (which will almost certainly involve spending cuts). Having people like Tim in the legislature would be important to balance this out.

On the whole, I’d be happiest with a minority government – whether it’s led by the PCs or Wildrose – that has representation from all five parties. It would give us a chance to see which parties and MLAs are seriously committed to working together, and getting results for Albertans. In other words, which ones are true representatives, and which ones are just politicians. I also hope the outcome provides opportunity for all five parties to engage in some self-reflection and growth. For the established parties – PC and Liberal – a chance to reflect on what they stand for and why they exist (especially in the former’s case, since they are no longer the automatic ‘governing’ party). For the NDP, to consider whether they want to occupy a more moderate space, like their federal cousins, or pursue their traditional path of being the conscience of government. For the new parties – Wildrose and Alberta – to prove themselves to voters, and define where exactly they stand when they have to make the tough decisions of being in elected office. If this can all happen in a majority government setting, great. But I think it’s much less likely to happen should that be the result.

We’re in the midst of a transition period in Alberta politics. Whatever comes out of it, I hope we see a truly competitive political arena with two viable governing parties emerge, not one where dynasties rule for a generation or two before crumbling and giving way to another. I hope we move towards a more civil and collaborative approach, where citizen engagement isn’t a token effort, but a bedrock for politics. I hope tomorrow’s election is another step towards the Alberta 3.0 I wrote about two years ago, and still believe we will move towards – whether we embrace it or not. Most important of all, I hope everyone who votes doesn’t assume their work is done for the next four years once they’ve cast their ballot, and continues to work hard to build a stronger province. Whoever wins, we’ll get the government we deserve – either through or action or our inaction. I hope it’s through the former.

The Missing Progressive Agenda (and Other Thoughts on the Eve of the NDP Leadership Vote)

The NDP leadership convention begins today. It appears that Thomas Mulcair is the undisputed front-runner, judging from his tremendous lead in support from MPs and other officials, as well as the recent arguments from Brian Topp’s surrogates. This also may mean that Topp is struggling to separate himself from a second tier of candidates that would include some, or all, of Peggy Nash, Paul Dewar, and Nathan Cullen (who himself is showing strong fundraising numbers, at least).

The prospect of a Mulcair victory is causing angst amongst some NDP stalwarts, fearing that he plans to move the party to the dreaded “centre”. Meanwhile, pundits are pointing out that the much revered, late Jack Layton, already did that. Cullen joins him on the “change” front, explicitly calling for cooperation with the Liberals in ridings won by the Conservatives last election. The candidates are disagreeing more on process than policy. Topp argues for a more traditional social democratic approach, and to “bring the centre” to the party. Nash and Dewar focus instead on tactics to increase the party’s base of support.

Thomas Mulcair
NDP frontrunner Thomas Mulcair.
Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

Granted, I haven’t paid close attention to the contest, but what seems to be missing is a discussion on what the NDP agenda will look like, or who the voters are that will rally around that and form the core of a majority government, regardless of how aggressively the party moves to the centre (or not). This criticism applies to the Liberals (and Greens) as well, so from here on out, I’ll simply use the term ‘progressive’ as a proxy for any one of these parties. Whoever leads those parties (or whatever progressive parties may emerge through merger/attrition/split from existing ones) will face this challenge.

Brokerage Politics and the Minimum Winning Coalition
Any party that wishes to form and hold a majority government must be a ‘brokerage’ party of some sorts, encompassing identifiable constituencies of voters that are somewhat disparate, but have enough in common. Conservative organizers have understood this in recent years, advancing a strategy to build a minimum winning coalition of voters throughout the country. Progressive parties are lagging here. They understand on the surface that they must, for example, win more seats in the western provinces. Yet, the agenda and tactics to do so in sufficient numbers is missing.

The Missing Progressive Agenda
I understand that parties must occupy the “centre’ to win and hold office, and that it’s better to implement some of your agenda, rather than getting to implement none of it. Nevertheless, while a party must broaden its appeal to win (regularly), successful parties start from a foundation of principles and beliefs that can be easily distilled into an agenda for supporters. Yes, every party has principles it theoretically start from, but how many can explain in a few key themes what they stand for?

In the practical arena of politics, the conservative agenda has been ascendant for some time. It can be roughly distilled into the following ideas:

– lower taxes and regulation (for individuals and business)
– tougher sentences for criminals
– more individual choice in programs, instead of centralized, state-run initiatives
– an overall reduction of the state and its activities (reorienting towards its traditional functions)

Conversely, the contemporary progressive agenda has been in decline, in part because it has been difficult to pin down. Certainly, this camp is not short on ideas, but has struggled for decades to put them into a clear, coherent agenda. Progressive parties have tended to put forward an agenda seen as reactionary (defaulting to limits on trade/globalization, and a knee-jerk instinct to solve every problem with a centralized government program) or neo-liberal (embracing smaller government, and essentially conceding the argument to conservatives that the state is not the vehicle for social good).

I believe it’s a lack of a clear progressive agenda that in large part holds back a potential movement. Anecdotally, I see many of the progressive-minded people I know channeling their efforts into international issues, or politics on a local level. It’s not that they view the federal government as irrelevant, rather I believe there’s nothing engaging them in a meaningful way. They may show up to vote for the NDP (or Liberals or Greens), and in some cases may volunteer time and money, but are not engaged in the same way they are on the aforementioned issues. You can’t build a movement on irregular participation.

Until such time that a progressive agenda can be articulated, and attract a minimum winning coalition, progressives will find themselves in the position conservatives did for much of the 20th century, forming government only when one or both of the following happened – they found a charismatic, popular leader, and/or the dominant party lost support due to poor performance/scandal/voter fatigue, effectively forming government by default. History points to neither strategy being sustainable.

Key Questions
One of the key challenges is that some progressives are still framing issues around paradigms of their post-World War II heyday. Contemporary responses to the following issues, taking into account globalization, deindustrialization, demographic changes, and other phenomena, are long overdue:

– The role of a workforce, in particular unions, vis a vis both the private and public sector.
– The role of the state in funding social programs
– The importance of economic growth versus social and/or environmental costs that may be incurred.

Looking Up at the Calgary Tower
How can progressives win seats in places like downtown Calgary?

Towards a Progressive Agenda
What might a contemporary progressive agenda look like? Here are a few themes, and ideas off the top of my head:

1. Supporting a Triple-Bottom Line Economy
Advancing an economy and strategy for growth that accounts for environmental concerns and stewardship, as well as quality of life.

2. Equity and Opportunity for All
Ensuring equity – fairness and justice – especially in terms of opportunity for everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background. In particular, it would focus on protection of workers with low job security, people experiencing poverty, New Canadians, and Aboriginal peoples. It would also pursue measures that protect workers, enhance skills of marginalized populations, and ensures fairness in terms of taxation and regulation between citizens and businesses.

3. Federally-Minded, But Community-Oriented
Supporting an agenda that doesn’t retreat from involvement, but does grant more authority and ability to effectively exercise power to local communities – especially municipal and Aboriginal governments. It would also advance greater local authority (but not autonomy) in terms of delivering social programs, recognizing that our federation is heterogeneous, and that needs and best practices may vary from place to place. The federal government’s role would be to lead, but also to set broad targets, strategies, and foster collaboration, rather than retreating to its “traditional” areas of responsibility under the British North America Act.

(For my provincially-oriented progressive views, read this).

Mildred Lake Mine
A balanced approach to the oil sands, and resource extraction, is needed, should progressive want success in the west.

With an agenda along these lines, what would a minimum winning coalition of progressives have to look like? It would lean heavily towards urban environments, winning support in and around Canada’s biggest cities – not just Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, but Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Quebec City, and Halifax, among others. It would win heavily on both the Pacific and Atlantic coast, and amongst federally and community-oriented central Canadians. Urban and Aboriginal voters would form its core in the west and north. (For a good primer on different ‘cultures’, read Colin Woodward’s ‘American Nations’. And yes, readers, I’m firmly a disciple of Yankeedom).

Progressives may (correctly in some cases) argue that they already advance causes along these lines, but I’ve yet to see it articulated as a clear, concise agenda. Until a progressive agenda for Canada in the 21st century can be articulated in 3-5 themes, or 30 seconds, supporters like myself can look forward to spending more time in opposition than government.

Stephen Marche said it best, in his assessment of Jack Layton’s legacy:

And yet despite the marked improvement in the numbers, the left has never been in a worse state by the simplest and most meaningful gauge there is: its effect on the lives of Canadians.

While I disagree with aspects of his critique of Jack Layton, on this point, he is absolutely right. Barring a reorientation, and stronger focus on a clear agenda and constituency, progressives can look forward to more of this in years to come.

My Election 41 Rant

A story from my childhood that’s stuck with me is one my dad told me of first moving to Montreal in the 1970s. Fresh out of university, unsure of what to do next, and just settling into a big(ger) city, he took a job working in a factory. He was promoted from the floor about a week later. Many of his co-workers that week had been in the same positions for years, if not decades. The key difference was not my dad’s Bachelor of Sciences degree, it was that he spoke English, and his co-workers didn’t.

A generation later, in the wake of a revived sovereigntist movement, and second referendum, my late grandmother – a resident of the west island suburb of Lachine, told me a story of how a neighbour hoisted a Canadian flag on the veranda, only to see it burned. Linguistic and cultural tensions were already high because Lachine had elected an Anglophone mayor, owing to a vote-split amongst the Francophone candidates.

This is all to say that, while I was raised and live in Alberta, I’m not unaware of – or insensitive to – the politics of Quebec, and the long-time disadvantages most Quebecois faced. I studied political science in university, focusing mostly on contemporary Canadian politics. In my experience – theoretical and practical – I’ve yet to see any indication that another round of constitutional negotiations is what’s going to settle historical grievances or federal imbalances (that, likely, would get worse) or any other tensions between two of our founding peoples.

In a very different context (the assination of Martin Luther King Jr.), Robert F. Kennedy implored an audience simmering on racial tension to “understand. We have to make an effort to understand”. Those words strike me as apt in almost any situation where there’s great tension. We have to understand both sides – not just our own, and attempt to reconcile the two. I’ve never been convinced that increasingly assymetrical federalism, and/or economic concessions, will settle this issue. But an effort to understand our own country, what makes regions and peoples different, and more importantly what binds us as a country – and a nation – is a pretty significant first step.

It’s my opinion that another round of constitutional talks – even just raising the prospect of it – will lead to no good. In the worst case scenario, it becomes another broken promise from English Canada that will make Quebecois nationhood a more enticing concept. I really hope we don’t go down this road.

With that being said, here are some abridged, largely stream-of-consciousness thoughts before the polls start closing in Atlantic Canada.

Le Ciel est Orange
The NDP looks set to make a historic breakthrough in Quebec, giving them the boost to become the official opposition, or – if crazy things happen, and who’s to say they won’t – the government, for the first time in their history, pushing the Liberal Party into third place standing (again, a first). They’re drawing support from all corners – the soft national/sovereigntist one being the concern – but one way or another, they could win anywhere from 25-55 seats, depending on which numbers you believe. Which will be a big jump from their previous record of 1.

Add in their standing as the most prominent alternative to the Conservatives in most places west of Ontario, and their slow growth in Atlantic Canada over the past dozen years, it’s hard to see the NDP failing to supplant the Liberals, and having a pretty good chance of making this a permanent situation.

And while I am more often than not a Liberal voter, this wouldn’t bother me, except for their position and actions on reopening the constitution. Frankly, I think that 1) in government, they’d govern no different than the Liberals (as history at the provincial level shows), and 2) having a unified centre-left option in a true 2 party system would be a positive development for Canada (brokerage parties FTW). An even NDP-Liberal split, where they spend a few cycles beating each other up (like the PCs/Reform Alliance did) will probably bring this merger about. Or the Liberals will implode, and it will happen by attrition regardless. In any case, whatever centre-left alternative emerges in the next couple of election cycles is unlikely to be an affront to moderate voters. My apologies to the few people who still think the NDP are a social democratic party. The fact is you’re miles away from the Regina Manifesto.

What’s Good for the Liberal Party is Good for Canada
The giant of the 20th century in federal politics looks poised to hit a record low in at least 2 of 3 categories – popular vote % and standing in the House of Commons look assured, but they have a good chance of staying above the record low 40 seats they won in 1984 (which was good for second place against the Mulroney landslide).

Nonetheless, few would disagree that this represents a political all-time low for Canada’s Natural Governing Party, one that they will have a difficult time recovering from (unless they default back into second place due to a NDP implosion). Michael Ignatieff hasn’t excelled as leader, but he will take an unfair burden of the blame, as the leader who happens to be at the helm at this point in time.

The Liberal Party has been in decline for 50 years. Electorally, they lost their base in the west to Diefenbaker in the late ’50s. They benefitted for 60 years from a toxic Conservative party in Quebec, but lost that advantage when Mulroney took over as Tory leader, then after his party’s implosion, to the Bloc Quebecois. Their Ontario base is receding, and the polls are showing stagnation and NDP growth in the Atlantic. Save for the historical quirk of the PC/Reform-Alliance vote split in Ontario, this is a party that is incapable of winning a majority, and has been for 30 years now.

More worrisome is the fact that nobody seems clear what the Liberal Party stands for. The progressive strain of Liberalism (not neo-Liberalism) has failed to fashion a response to the changes in our society over the past 40 years, namely declining industrialization, and increasing globalization. Even politically successful centre-left leaders (Chretien in Canada, Clinton in the US, Blair in the UK) achieved their success by following neo-liberal/neo-conservative agendas. Unless you see social issues as wedge (and practically, they’re not in Canada), there’s not much to distinguish a liberal identity from a small-c conservative one.

Specific to the Liberal Party in Canada, beginning with the “nation” vote in 2006, they’ve shied away from their traditional, strong defense of federalism. It was with utter disappointment that I watched them fail to take a strong stand against the NDP’s approach to Quebec and the constitution this election. Another piece of their traditional agenda seemed to have passed on.

Without a clear agenda, it’s hard to say why a political party should exist. History at the provincial level shows that a centre-left government – whether it’s Liberal or NDP – will be fairly similar. Partisans of both the orange and red variety will surely bristle at this notion, but I’d be interested to see them explain how the governments of Romanow or Doer or Dexter fundamentally differ from those of McKenna, Charest, or McGuinty. For most voters in that ideological ballpark, they want to see a coherent centre-left agenda, and they don’t care under whose umbrella they find it.

My advice, then, to Liberals is that if the party is worth saving, it needs a contemporary ideological foundation to be built on. You’re not being punished for bad behaviour, you’re being punished for irrelevance.

An Electoral Majority, Not a Political Majority
Ryan McNutt made a good point yesterday about Prime Minister Harper seeking an electoral majority, not the broad, consensus-based majorities we’re used to. Should the election night results match the polls, it will be well worth asking whether this is a realistic goal. To take nothing away from the NDP – who have run an excellent campaign, and Jack Layton – who has done well connecting with voters and staying on message – an element of their surge has to owe to a frustration voters are feeling with the Conservatives and Liberals. There has to be a point where the Conservatives ask themselves how far this approach can take them.

With that said, I think they’ll move incrementally closer to a majority, and we’ll see the NDP-Liberal flip the polls are indicating. The BQ, who like the Liberals seem to be searching for an identity, will hit a new low as well. Duceppe will lose his seat, May will fall short of winning hers as well.

Prediction: Conservatives 146, NDP 79, Liberals 61, Bloc 22. Voter turnout will tick up, but I think the surge in the advanced polls owed more to them being on a long weekend than renewed interest from the public.

Enjoy the results, go vote if you haven’t and still can, and stay just as involved and active as a citizen after the election ends. Democracy is a regular function, not something that happens for 36 days after a non-confidence vote. We as Canadians will get the parliament we vote for, and the government we deserve.