Mon, 18 Nov 2019

How progressive voters can truly win in future Canadian elections

The Conversation
23 Oct 2019, 06:29 GMT+10

Justin Trudeau's Liberals have won a minority government. They hung on in Quebec, Atlantic Canada and Ontario sufficiently to forestall a Conservative government of any sort.

Sadly, for my home province of British Columbia, it was not one of those rare elections where our vote was decisive. On the whole, however, progressive Canadians like me have some reason for cautious optimism.

Read more: Justin Trudeau's job just got a lot more complicated

Although it's clear that the NDP was badly damaged in Quebec and are struggling to maintain their third-party status in that province against a resurgent Bloc Quebecois, it is also clear the party has not been nationally decimated.

It's equally evident that although the Greens did not have a major breakthrough, it will, like the NDP, have some influence over the new Liberal minority.

The projected results are probably somewhat of a relief for Jagmeet Singh, whose late campaign enthusiasm, debate performances and principled responses to hecklers make the case for him to remain as leader and perhaps run again in the next election.

Similarly, Elizabeth May's Green Party continued to draw national support and to make gains even within the confines of an electoral system inhospitable to it.

Whether she'll retain the support of her party and two-person caucus is uncertain.

Supporting the Liberal minority

Over the next several weeks and months however, everything will depend, for the NDP and Green leaders, on how influential they can make themselves and their parties in exchange for supporting a new Liberal minority.

The Bloc had an unprecedented breakthrough in Quebec. That's bad news for all Canadians, because it gives a boost to Quebec's controversial secularism law and emboldens other provinces to subvert Charter of Rights and Freedoms protections by invoking the notwithstanding clause.

Read more: The history of the notwithstanding clause

This backlash against principles of religious freedom and equality of individuals, regardless of religion, is equally reflected in the extreme anti-immigration politics of Maxime Bernier, who lost his seat.

Thankfully, the Conservative Party of Canada has not been infiltrated by ultra-nationalism or extreme-right politics in the same way as the Republican Party in the United States or the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom.

Although Andrew Scheer's days as leader are probably now numbered, the Conservative Party of Canada will have to remain vigilant if it's to avoid becoming a home for the far right. The longer it stays in opposition, the more difficult that will be.

It is difficult to imagine Trudeau's minority government relying on the Bloc to prop them up, and this makes it likely that the NDP will play that role. There is every reason to believe that the result might be a stable government that better reflects the contemporary values of Canadian voters than the previous Liberal majority.

However, what remains troubling about the outcome of this election is that Trudeau and his party managed to maintain the support it has.

Despite broken promises on nation-to-nation negotiations with Indigenous Peoples, proportional representation and the environment, Trudeau has only been lightly rebuked by voters. Even revelations of photos featuring a younger Trudeau dressed in brownface and blackface did not ultimately end his viability as the highest profile leader in the country.

Read more: Trudeau's blackface apology rings hollow and highlights anti-Arab stereotypes

There are many possible reasons for this.

One of them is that voters have simply forgiven Trudeau for his political conflicts of interest, broken campaign promises and history of racially insensitive costumes.

Another is that citizens simply no longer expect much of their politicians when it comes to personal integrity and ethical conduct. If accurate, that would demonstrate an alarming degree of voter cynicism.

More likely, however, is that the Liberal campaign strategy of scaring potential NDP and Green voters into a strategic vote for their party worked again, particularly in Ontario. This strikes me as a problem. Progressives should not have felt that they had no option but to vote again for Trudeau's Liberals, despite their disappointment with his leadership.

Another option

There might have been another option and there still might be next time.

The NDP and the Greens should change their behaviour as parties going forward. Specifically, before the next election, the leaders of both parties should agree not to run candidates against each other for the express purpose of avoiding future vote-splitting.

In order to do this, the leaders of both major left-leaning parties would have to negotiate a protocol, based on a combination of external and internal polling data, as to how the country's 338 ridings would be divided between the parties.

If neither Singh nor May were open to this, their leadership should be challenged by someone else within their party interested in forming a government in the next election. This is the only conceivable way for Canadians to see a genuine alternative to the left of the Liberals in the next election.

Dishearteningly, the current accommodation that appears to have been at least begrudgingly accepted by both the NDP and Greens, even before the first ballot was counted, was achieving king-maker status in a minority government led by the Liberals.

This might be a reasonable strategy under the circumstances, but it is hardly the stuff of visionary leadership. If May and Singh had held a leader's summit before the writ was dropped, things might have turned out differently.

Minority governments have much to recommend them. In the absence of a clear majority, a country needs leadership willing to negotiate and compromise to govern.

However, the progressive left should not content itself with aiming to be a junior partner in Liberal minority governments. In the next election, they should seek to propose a principled, but realistic, alternative to the Liberals - one that can truly compete for power.

[ You're smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation's authors and editors. You can read us daily by subscribing to our newsletter. ]

Author: Jeffrey B. Meyers - Lecturer, Faculty of Law, Thompson Rivers University The Conversation

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