Electoral reform not the only antidote to the Conservatives

There are now less than four months until the October 19 federal General Election and Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing has nearly a full slate of candidates with the selection, less than two weeks ago, of André Robichaud of Kapuskasing as the Conservative candidate. He will join Liberal Heather Wilson, who secured her party’s nomination last summer, and incumbent NDP MP Carol Hughes, who was re-nominated by her party earlier this spring. No doubt the Green Party of Canada will once again also field a local candidate.

Those four months will fly by and we’ll suddenly be facing a ballot box. By that time, we’ll have been inundated with commitments from every political quarter that will range from staying the course to major changes in the governance model.

This past week gave us some hints as both the New Democratic party and the Liberal Party of Canada rolled out (or re-rolled, in some cases) promises and changes Canadians can expect if particular parties are chosen to form the government.

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s promise to rearrange the voting process if he becomes prime minster (which, ironically, is an office he would achieve by way of the process he plans on changing) came as an interesting surprise in the early stages of the campaign period where NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has been talking about the economy and the Conservative leader, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is the one who is largely committing to stay the course.

Mr. Trudeau promised to reform the voting process, using the preferential ballot on which voters would rank the candidates running in their riding according to who is their preferred candidate and then their choice for runner-up.

Mr. Trudeau’s choice of this particular change in the election process, rather than the mixed member proportional option Ontarians rejected in a plebiscite held together with the election before last, is interesting because it very much has the effect of blurring party lines.

If a voter’s first choice is, say, the NDP candidate and their second choice was the Liberal, the Liberal (or Conservative or Green) candidate could amass sufficient second-place votes to surpass other candidates’ first place rankings and so come from behind to win. That is to say, a concentration of second choice votes could easily surmount a scattered array of first choice votes to source a win.

Polls this far ahead of an election are not particularly representative of what is likely to happen on election day, but they do hint at trends.

Just now, the NDP’s Tom Mulcair is riding high in opinion polls and this may be due, in part, to reflected glory from the recent outstanding win of his party’s provincial counterpart in Alberta (that also ended the political career of a former Conservative cabinet minister, a high ranking one, who had parachuted in to save the fortunes of the previously venerable Alberta Progressive Conservative party).

It could also mean dangerous ground for politicians, that Mr. Mulcair and his federal NDP are peaking too soon.

Mr. Trudeau’s proposed choice of a change to a preferential ballot (and away from the traditional ‘first past the post’ model) is an interesting one for it is a fairly safe bet that the majority of those who put the NDP candidate as their first choice would choose the Liberal as their runner-up (and vice versa) and the same might be true of the old “progressive” or “red Tory” electors faced with a choice between the NDP and the traditionally more centrist Liberals.

This can be seen, coming from the Liberal leader, as a roundabout way of beginning to unite the progressive vote, lining up the NDP, Liberals and Greens to come together against the Conservatives.

So far, Prime Minister Harper’s Conservative strategists have been concentrating their attack ads on Mr. Trudeau and have, by and large, been ignoring Mr. Mulcair and the NDP. This may change but, clearly, the Conservative planners are betting on the Liberals to be their primary adversary in Ontario with all of its seats, possibly in British Columbia too and likely in the Maritime provinces and Newfoundland and Labrador as well.

Mr. Trudeau has been rolling out, early on, a great many policy/platform issues but the suggestion to radically alter the fundamental process of electing members of Parliament came, seemingly, on a direct trajectory from left field.

But it may also be seen as an offer, especially directed to the NDP, that cooperation is necessary among centre left parties to overtake the Conservatives, particularly when they are being led by Mr. Harper, who remains a very popular prime minister among the party’s committed base.

Earlier this month, observations in this space suggested that coming together in some way or form would be the only way for progressives to overtake the Conservatives.

A preferential ballot that consistently ranked the NDP on the Liberal candidate one and two among progressive voters would, at the very least, be a logical first step to these two parties coming together in some way to form a government if the Conservatives ended up on a minority position following a particular election.

This would not have to take the form of a coalition, that was offered to Canadians by the Liberals (when Mr. Dion was their leader), the late Jack Layton’s NDP and Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Quebecois as an alternative to the minority Conservative government in the mid term prior to the second last election.

In this model, the participating members parties would have each contributed members to the cabinet and Mr. Harper was deft at convincing Canadians that such a move was decidedly un-Canadian. He managed to convince the Governor General of the day, Michelle Jean, of the same thing as she granted him his wish to abruptly prorogue Parliament before the other parties subjected his government to a vote of confidence, thus creating a crisis that they would have been pleased to remedy, coalition style. (The odd inclusion of Mr. Duceppe’s separatist Bloc Quebecois MPs in this mix made Ms. Jean’s decision to grant the prime minister his wish and so avoid the Conservatives being overtaken by a vote of no-confidence and the ensuing offer of a coalition a very simple one for her to make.)

Another model that did work, at least for a while, was the one in Ontario that then-Liberal leader David Peterson and then-NDP leader Bob Rae quickly came up with following the election, in the mid 1980s, of what would have become a minority Progressive Conservative government under the late Frank Miller’s leadership.

Mr. Miller never had the opportunity to form a government because the Liberals, supported by the NDP, agreed to cooperate (but not to form a coalition) to give the progressives at Queen’s Park the majority of seats. This worked for a couple of years until the NDP decided not to support the Liberal on a particular issue and an election ensued.

These are some of the tricks that political parties that are roughly aligned on the same end of the political spectrum have up their sleeves and it would appear that Mr. Trudeau, in making his announcement, is giving notice that he and his Liberals are prepared to make some compromises in order to eventually defeat the Tories and are inviting their friends to help out the process.