VANCOUVER — Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Party’s media touted heir-apparent, hoisted a bold declarative flag during his keynote speech at the party’s "minivention" in Toronto last week. The event was the leadership aspirants’ last opportunity to make their case to about a thousand of the faithful in attendance, and the party’s reported 127,122 voters, the majority of whom it is believes are not card-carrying party members.
Trudeau stated that Canadians "want to vote for a long-term vision that embodies our values, our dreams and our aspirations." And then, this candidate who says he wants to do politics differently, and who doesn’t want to go negative, went on to say: "They will not get that vision from a Frankenstein’s monster at war with itself over fundamental issues like the constitution, natural resources and free trade."
On the surface, Trudeau’s words certainly sounded like a full-throated rebuke of NDP policy, which it was. But, it also carried the backdoor insinuation that those looking for inter-party cooperation in 2015 when fielding candidates in 57 key vote-splitting ridings can kiss that ‘monster’ goodbye.
Yet when one looks at the Environics poll released on April 4, Trudeau’s position seemed like a less-than-wise move. Some 70 per cent of people identifying themselves as Liberal said they’d vote for a single Liberal/Green/NDP candidate, as did 72 per cent of NDP identified respondents, as did 64 per cent of Green respondents. Those are pretty persuasive numbers and certainly not the kind any politician in his right mind would want to ignore.
To the surprise of many, the cooperation issue has become a watershed-question for the Liberal Party, one whose answer speaks to more than who it chooses as its next leader. It speaks to the party’s deeper existential yearn to figure out where its brand now fits within the larger Canadian political spectrum.
There are good people on each side of the cooperation issue; many holding fast to their convictions. Those who oppose are often vociferous, ridiculing cooperation as unworkable. Some go so far as to suggest that this kind of fraternization with the ‘enemy’ smacks of the worst kind of political expediency for which the party will be severely punished at the next election.
They worry that Murray’s formula might do more than force moderate-minded voters into an unsavoury polarized decision. It could help stampede a segment of voters who are Liberally-inclined, particularly in Ontario, to vote for a Conservative to prevent the Thomas Mulcair Party, as one Liberal leadership candidate put it, from gaining power.
Those who support cooperation point to the party’s continuously declining performance over the past four federal elections. Though the trend has been linked to a broad range of reasons, among them the lingering taint of the sponsorship scandal, the party’s choice of leaders, as well as some of its less popular policies (a proposed carbon tax being one such), cooperation advocates point to our first-past-the-post electoral system as the prime suspect.
They recall that Conservative electoral fortunes made a slow but sure return after the more conservative-minded realized they couldn’t continue splitting the vote between traditional Progressive Conservatives and the Reform/Canadian Alliance upstarts. In the end, their logic ultimately paid off. Pro-cooperation Liberals refer to similar supporting numbers.
During the 2011 federal election, the popular vote separating Liberals from the NDP in Ontario, the one province in which governments are usually won or lost, was a razor-thin 0.3 per cent. Despite that discomforting fact, Liberals only won 11 seats while the NDP won 22.
Some say the Liberal Party’s fall from political grace in Ontario represents a long overdue karmic payback. After all, it was they, who, under Jean Chrétien, profited most from the first-past’s distortive effects, winning three back-to-back-to-back majority governments.
Yet, even then, voter turnout was trending down. In 1988, it was 75.3 per cent under Brian Mulroney. But then with the election of Jean Chrétien in 1993, it dropped to 69.6 per cent. In 1997, it dropped still further to 67.0 per cent, and in 2000, it dropped yet again to 61.2 per cent. The question is: just who was staying at home?
In Ontario, many were conservative-minded voters, something that suited Liberals just fine. And when you’re giddy with power, who wants to correct that which helped give you power? Certainly not Liberals.
So between Conservatives staying at home, and those splitting their votes between the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives, the Liberal Party was already dancing on thin ice, for their majority governments were already something of a bubble.
This became clear when the Law Reform Commission of Canada tabled its report on electoral reform in 2004. It urged Parliament to replace our antiquated first-past system with a partially proportional system, akin to what was found in New Zealand and Germany. Had the Liberal Party chosen to heed their words then, the results of the past four elections would likely have been very different. Instead, their words were largely dismissed as the rantings of disembodied egg-heads, akin to Robin Williams’ portrayal of the King of the Moon in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.
It’s hard not to compare the voices pooh-poohing cooperation in the current leadership race to what occurred then. Given this fact, Liberals need to step back and look seriously at the bigger picture. The Liberal Party has long prided itself as being the party of cooler, more moderate heads — the steady middle-point axle that allowed the necessary whirling dynamic of oppositional left and right ideologies to unfold in a more or less stable way. And in doing so, they’ve not only helped keep the wheels on our nation’s political cart, they’ve helped to keep those wheels rolling smoothly.
This ability to balance the wheels on the national cart is a quality not only inherent in the coordination of oppositional forces, it is inherent in the notion of cooperation itself. In other words, cooperation is the Liberal brand — ‘twas ever so.
So to watch Liberal leadership aspirants then shrivel in fear, at the mere mention of the concept, is a curious sight, indeed!
Moreover, Liberals need to understand that by openly ridiculing such a concept, not only are they turning their backs on their own fine Sir Wilfrid Laurier tradition of striking workable compromises, they may actually alienate a huge constituency of unaffiliated swing voters in the middle of the political spectrum.
This segment of the electorate wants those whom they elect to cooperate more, not less. Hence, the one who wins the Liberal leadership by denigrating cooperation needs to be warned that entrenching one’s self in such a position — as Thomas Mulcair seems so keen to do — may not only result in the Liberal Party losing its traditional way, it could see them venture once more onto thin political ice. Just who will want to believe and trust them then?
Paul H. LeMay is an independent writer based in Vancouver with an academic background in psychology. He is the former special assistant to Liberal Senator Sheila Finestone, and as fate would have it, he’s a blood relation to Sir Wilfrid Laurier.