Micah Goldberg is one of my favourite people (he has guest blogged for me on a number of occasions.) One of our first conversations together was an argument about some electoral reform proposals I had put forward when I was Education & Government Commissioner on the University of St. Michael’s College Students’ Union.
He is a committed Liberal, but above all he is committed to Canadian democracy. After the NDP convention we decided to write a point/counterpoint discussion on the prospect of Liberal-NDP cooperation. Please read, share on facebook/the twitter and comment if you feel so inclined.
We should never be afraid of ideas. We should never be afraid of a conversation.
These two sentences, spoken by Nathan Cullen, an NDP Leadership candidate who fell off on the third ballot really exemplify why I joined his campaign team. Although I consider myself a center/center- left voter and thus a Liberal, Mr. Cullen’s call for cooperation in the form of joint nomination meetings between Canadian progressive policies were something, I felt, transcended party lines entirely, and effectively promoted what was best for Canada as a whole. I decided to attend the convention to be on the front lines of the movement, albeit without voting rights. It was the first time I had ever been involved in something so much larger than myself. I really did feel as though Nathan’s team was fighting to remove an arcane tradition, working together to move Canada forward towards a progressive future.
I fear many people do not fully understand what Cullen’s cooperation plan was, and their ignorance fuelled fear. Voluntary joint nomination meetings in Conservative-held ridings are not a merger. It only occurs if NDP and Liberal party members in the Tory constituency are willing to vote for one candidate, and only members would be eligible to elect one candidate to run under their own partisan banner, with the intention of turning a Conservative seat into a progressive one.
There are some New Democrats and Liberals who feel as though an ocean of difference between the parties will block any path to cooperation. This may be a good argument against a merger, but I don’t see it as an effective one against cooperation. I freely admit the union influence within the NDP, the adherence to the Sherbrooke Declaration, aggressive tax policies the NDP supports (just to name three) illustrate why I did not want to join the party; however if we remove party titles, and focus on individual members and average Canadians the common ground far outweighs the areas of difference. Progressives want clean energy, a better standing in foreign relations, better conditions for the impoverished and seniors, better schools and empowered Canadian youth. When parties move past their partisan instincts and work together in parliament, Canadians reward their cooperation, because it matches their values. If Liberals and New Democrats are willing to think about what kind of government they are currently enjoying, I strongly believe they will accept a progressive solution.
To those that say there is no interest on either side, or that this idea will never work, allow me to say this: First, a quarter of those who voted in the New Democrat leadership race believed in Nathan Cullen and his cooperation idea. It makes me optimistic that among the grassroots of at least one party, his idea has momentum. Second, it seems as though people believe it will never work purely out of mistrust for the other side. I am told there is a history of politicians abusing the trust of the other side. Let me phrase a question to members of both parties: if you had the option to make 15 Conservative members New Democrats or Liberals (depending on your affiliation) would you? I’d bet that most would, and further, I’ll argue that both parties will take joint nominations seriously. If they don’t the political system can always return to how things were: a candidate in every riding.
After following the NDP leadership race fairly closely I believe we are in “violent agreement” that Nathan Cullen is an excellent and inspiring politician. Though I am a proud member of the Liberal Party of Canada, I cheered for Cullen because his election as NDP leader would have forced the Liberal Party, Green Party and NDP to have the co-operation conversation that we have been avoiding since the ill-fated coalition of 2008. However, although I like Nathan Cullen personally, I disagree with many of the assumptions that lead him to suggest cooperation as a solution. I would/will argue that the specific kind of cooperation he suggested would not work logistically and would fail due to a number of issues within our electoral system and the NDP/LPC/GPC. I also believe that the various policy differences and the gulf in trust between the Liberals and the NDP are a valid argument against cooperation. We cannot run our political parties with the purpose of solving the problem of “how can we remove Conservatives from office?” The question “How can we best serve Canadians?” should be the underlying principle of the Liberal Party and the wider-progressive movement.
Some problems with Nathan Cullen’s underlying assumptions:
Though I have cited Alice Funke’s excellent article “Why the Conservatives Love the “Strategic” Voting Sites” in my blog post “After a jump to the left, the Liberal Party needs to take a step to the right.” There is one paragraph that really addresses the fundamental premise that leads to calls for cooperation. That premise is that “if only progressives worked together we would win all 308 ridings.” Here is what Ms. Funke has to say:
“The sites’ entire raison d’être validates the concept that people who voted for the Conservative Party in 2008 can’t be appealed to further to change their vote now, and thus discourages people from even trying. This is a fundamentally defeatist proposition for the sites’ founders to take, one that also underlies the decision by the Liberal Party not to bother making appeals in that marketplace, but to turn its attention towards other competitors instead. It also implicitly discourages people from voting at all where things seem “hopeless” based on previous election results, which feeds precisely into a vote suppression strategy for the Conservatives, and in fact does at least part of that suppression for them.
The sites’ obsession with who can win has virtually eliminated issue-based politics from either election coverage or debate at the riding level. This is a perfect state of affairs for a party such as the Conservatives which is consciously trying to move the ideological centre of the country a few inches to the right.“
The operative words in you opening sentence are “we should never be afraid to have the conversation.” That is the core problem with the centre-left parties in Canada, not vote splitting. What has been glossed over with his death and subsequent beatification is how tepid/cautious as leader Jack Layton really was. Sure, his buzz words were “bold” and “inspiring” but, in my opinion, the bases of his argument for why he was a “visionary” leader was mainly in the fact that the NDP have never formed federal government. Jack Layton didn’t argue in favour of legalization of cannabis during the last election, his party even joined in with the Conservatives in bashing Stephane Dion’s green shift. Stephen Harper wins because he has, to quote Andrew Coyne, “brought the centre to himself.” When we debate crime, we debate how long a 16 year old should be put in jail because they have 6 pot plants, not over the very nature of our justice system. Same goes for taxes (and the Liberal Party is guilty of this), no one wants to discuss raising taxes for fear of losing votes, even though some taxes should be raised. Jack Layton’s caution got the NDP into opposition but the only real way to defeat Stephen Harper is by putting forward bold ideas. When the Liberal Party adopted the policy motion to legalize and regulate marijuana I was ecstatic because it was the first time a major political party had taken that position. This allowed Bob Rae to make the argument for legalization in his closing speech of the convention and helped shift the crime debate in Canada.
I somewhat agree with Brian Topp’s scaremongering statement above. I would also argue that if there are two NDP parties running in the next election, Canadians will vote for the real one. With so much talk about the death of the Liberal Party after the 2011 election, what message would it send Canadians if we didn’t run candidates in every riding? As someone who worked every day of the last federal election for a Liberal candidate, I can just imagine how volunteers of every progressive party would feel if they were asked to volunteer for someone they worked against 4 years earlier. I know that I would go to a different riding with a Liberal candidate, which would take my experience/knowledge of Whitby to a totally different area. Ask Scott Brison to define what “progressivism” is and his definition would be way different than Charlie Angus. A joint nomination meeting between the Liberals, New Democrats and Greens in my riding would be an extremely divisive event because of the large trust deficit between the Liberals and NDP. Months would be spent repairing any rifts and that time would be way better spent going after Harper and laying out what our vision is. The Liberal Party needs to get better at community organizing if we are to stay alive as a political party and if we are to grow in the next election and eventually form government.
Policy Differences Matter:
You mention the Sherbrooke declaration in your initial argument. I find that document so repugnant that it could be placed as the main reason that I could not see myself joining the NDP. There are many policy differences between the Liberals and the NDP but our stances on federalism are a deal breaker. If you believe that the federal government should do large projects (like high-speed rail, universal health care or national house/day care strategies) then you need a strong federal government. The NDP’s cognitive dissonance on this was on full display during the leadership race. Peggy Nash laid out her views on health care in English and was unequivocally in favour of universal health care, she was then asked (in French) about Quebec bringing in user fees and she said she would respect Quebec’s jurisdiction. As Stephane Dion laid out in this op-ed, it’s not just support for 50% + 1 that separates the Liberals and the NDP. Federalism is just one issue and though it is probable issue #1 for me, there are many other Liberals and New Democrats who are in fierce disagreement with the other party’s platform. If cooperation was based upon the Liberals and the NDP abandoning some of their core beliefs/policy proposals, then that very cooperation would be based upon the notion that winning is more important that a political party’s values which would make both parties into Stephen Harper-style Conservative Parties. If there are three Conservative parties running in the next election…
The Trust Deficit:
In 2005, Jack Layton had the opportunity to work with Paul Martin and get progressive results for Canadians, he choose to side with Stephen Harper and bring down the government. Fast forward to today, where in the House of Commons I see NDP MPs bashing the Liberal record as much as they do that of the current government. I have heard it said a countless number of times at Liberal events and online that “the NDP hates the Liberals more than they hate the Conservatives.” I am sure that New Democrats feel the same way about us. The problem seems to be that we don’t trust each other enough to work together and we can’t work together because we don’t trust each other enough.
This reminds me of the “Tit-for-Tat” strategy from studying Game Theory in International Relations class. The Liberals and the NDP need the opportunity to work together so we can build that trust (the last best hope for that was the 2008 coalition.) With the NDP at its greatest strength there are enough within the party who believe that they don’t need to cooperate with the Liberals, or that cooperation would be a means to an NDP majority government.Though I am cynical on the prospect of cooperation, there is an experiment currently taking place. If you look at Ontario, there’s the NDP opposition that have the opportunity to work with a Liberal minority, and Premier McGuinty has created a committee to reach out to them. We get to see, in real time, if the NDP will work with the Ontario Liberals or if they believe, like Jack Layton did, that more seats in parliament is more important that progressive policies being implemented.
I do not believe that cooperation is the answer as I differ with Mr. Cullen on what the question is. If the Liberals, the Green and the NDP are able to form a coalition government, or Canadians elect a non-Conservative majority, and they change Canada’s electoral system (which is Green, NDP and Liberal policy) then political parties will be forced to work together. The largest flaw in Nathan Cullen’s plan is that it is based on voluntary cooperation when our political system is designed in such a way that parties have only cooperated when they are forced to.
In advocating for cooperation, the stiffest resistance I’ve faced is where it seems Joseph is driving his main argument: the ocean of difference between Liberal and NDP members. To some it seems unlikely that NDP members would ever vote for Liberal members let alone work on their campaigns. For many people like Joseph, it might simply become impossible to work on a New Democratic campaign, but according to a recent poll (http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/politics/article/1153428–poll-new-democrats-riding-mulcair-wave) fifty percent of both parties’ memberships are willing to cooperate. To me it seems like the memberships realize this ocean, is more like a river.
Divisive issues like the Sherbrooke declaration are enough to keep me from advocating for a merger; however, when it comes to environmental degradation, poverty, aboriginal issues and many others, I find the New Democrats to be stalwart allies. There are differences, but if we can cooperate to get Prime Minister Harper’s government out of power then we can at least start a discussion on child poverty, education and healthcare, because there is no back-and-forth in Ottawa, only a stream of ideological demagoguery. I think after New Democrats and Liberals consider the current condition of the country, they will agree to run 330 candidates, instead of 338 in the next election – hardly what I would consider an indication of weakness.
While a perceived notion of difference is the most common form of rebuttal I’ve come up against, the most difficult argument to answer to is what Joseph concluded with: the parties simply do not trust each other. This issue was not raised in a single NDP leadership debate. The truth of the matter is, there is no way trust can spontaneously be created. If both parties actually want to stop the Conservatives from a second majority, they will have to do something differently. Stephane Dion did not run a candidate against Elizabeth May when he was the Opposition Leader, why could we trust her not to run a candidate against us?
This road is the more difficult one to traverse, but I am a stalwart defender of its utility. It would not be a perfect marriage, and it would come with certain detractions, but if Liberals and New Democrats can agree to end the vote split where their local organizers deem it is acceptable, then the parties ought to take back progressive seats that sit in ideologically opposing hands. If not for our own party, or for us as individuals, then for the greater good: for the citizens that want their country put back on track.
I agree that running 330 candidates out of 338 is entirely reasonable.
However, Nathan Cullen is not the leader of the NDP, Thomas Mulcair is. Earlier in our discussion you referenced how Nathan Cullen had received 25% of the vote during the convention. You inferred that at least 1/4 of the NDP supports cooperation. I would just like to draw attention to the fact(s) that 75% of the NDP rejected cooperation (by your thinking) and on the final ballot 42.8% of NDP voters supported Brian Topp who was the most emphatically anti-cooperation candidate in the running to replace Jack Layton.
In researching and considering the topic of cooperation, I have come to a very different conclusion (on the topic of how Mulcair won the NDP leadership) than the one I had reached on March 25th. After Mulcair won, I thought that NDP voters had repudiated the so-called “party establishment.” However, if you look at caucus endorsements (of which Nathan Cullen received 4, tied with Niki Ashton) Mulcair received way more than Brian Topp (who got a paltry 13.) Mulcair’s victory wasn’t a defeat for the New Democratic party establishment, it merely revealed that there is a new set of party elites in the post-Layton era. I believe this is confirmed by the fact that Nathan Cullen won a plurality of the vote during the convention, but Mulcair owned the pre-convention vote. Even if 50% of NDP supporters polled say they want to see cooperation (and who doesn’t) only 4 NDP MPs (+ Nathan Cullen) were willing to advocate for the idea.