More on the Cullen plan #ndpldr

It’s always interesting when I post a piece that was mainly intended to give an extended response to one of my friends on Facebook, and then suddenly Macleans picks it up and I get responses from all over the internet. I hope to do my best here to respond to some of the comments raised on my piece about why joint nominations are still the wrong idea.

First, my criticisms aren’t directed at Leadnow.

Leadnow is an advocacy group, that I signed onto early and continue to support, which seeks to promote progressive politics and more engagement.

When I criticised their survey, it was more people using it for their own purposes. That poll is only useful for exactly what Leadnow is using it for: Deciding whether the organization should support cooperation. It clearly should.

What the poll doesn’t support is anything but what the members of Leadnow believe. It doesn’t tell us anything about Canadians in general, NDP/Liberal supporters, or even about progressives in Canada. Any extraction of those to a larger population (as Michael Wheeler did in his original post) is a fallacy. It’s like using a poll of a pro-life group to support the notion that all Conservative voters are anti-abortion.

There is nothing wrong with Leadnow (or any group) polling its members – in fact, it’s generally a great idea – but those numbers are only useful to that group.

Second, vote splitting doesn’t exist in Canada.

How can I say such an outlandish statement? Let’s even grant that the Liberals are a progressive party (which many would debate) for a minute. Isn’t it obvious that if we simply combined the Liberal and NDP votes that we would beat Harper’s Conservatives in enough ridings to install a progressive majority government?

Setting aside the fact those votes are not transferrable, this argument is still wrong.

In the vast majority of ridings in Canada, the number of non-voters is large enough to swing any election. This means if people who are not voting in the bluest riding in Calgary showed up and uniformly voted Orange (or Red or Green), they could toss out such horrible MPs as Rob Anders. Nearly 38,000 people didn’t vote in Calgary West in 2011. Anders only received 40,000 votes (11 000 for the Liberals and around 6000 for both the NDP and Greens). And Calgary West is an extreme example where Anders received over 60% of the vote, in most ridings we only need to inspire a few thousand more people to drastically alter the outcome of a vote.

We don’t need to eliminate choices to defeat the Conservatives, we need parties and candidates that inspire Canadians. Imagine a Canada where 80% of people voted.

Third, electoral reform is a losing campaign issue.

I am a strong supporter of elector reform. I believe we would be much better represented under either MMP (proposed by the NDP) or STV (as proposed under two BC referendums).

However, attempts to reform provincial electoral systems have repeatedly failed. The reasons are many but the fact remains. While students, academics, and many political geeks believe strongly in electoral reform, to a large number of Canadians it ranks well behind the economy, the environment, health care, and every other issue that affects our daily lives.

I have a strong suspicion that if we followed Nathan Cullen and Leadnow’s idea to put electoral reform front and centre as the single issue of a number of united campaigns that the media and Conservatives would tear it to shreds. Our progressive candidates will look like they are putting irrelevant issues ahead of the important issues of today.

Again, I see the anger coming for this, but I will offer an alternative path to reform. Most NDP leadership candidates recognize PR as necessary; however, I believe only Brian Topp so far has called for it to be passed as legislation instead of a referendum.

While referenda seem to be the preferred way to try to implement PR these days, it wasn’t always the case. Alberta had a proportional voting system for Calgary and Edmonton between 1921 and 1959. The system was implemented, reformed, and abolished all through legislative acts (by successive Liberal, UFA, and Social Credit governments). Passing such a reform through legislation will be seen as less democratic (because it is) but can be done in a consultative way to identify the strengths and weaknesses.

This path has several advantages. First, it saves money. A national referendum, even in conjunction with an election, would costs in the millions. Second, it’s more likely to be successful. Most of the provincial referendums in Canada have seen special interest groups (typical business groups that like FPTP for its ability to produce right-wing majorities with a minority of the votes) confuse the issue. Third, it will be faster. While I wouldn’t call for this legislation to be passed with Harper-esque closure, it can be done in under a year after a progressive government is sworn in. A bill would have to be passed to hold a referendum which would then take another few months to plan, count, and implement.

So let’s not lose focus. ER is important, but I don’t see it as a promising campaign to bring large chunks of Canadians back to the polls (feel free to prove me wrong).

Fourth, I am not opposed to cooperation.

I don’t mean to contradict my other piece at all with this point. In fact, as Jack Layton showed through his politics, one can be incredibly partisan (he likely bled orange) and still find ways to work across the hall. I support coalition governments and prefer minorities to majorities.

Jack won Quebec under the banner traivillier ensemble, working together. The appetite for cooperation is there, and I share it. That doesn’t mean we have to resort to cheap tricks to win elections.

Finally, it’s not the old way versus joint nominations, there are better ways.

Following directly from my last point, and in response to the few who seem to think I am advocating that we just keep doing the same things that haven’t worked in the past (the definition of insanity), we can do politics better. Jack laid the ground work while leader, reaped many of the rewards in the 2011 election, and the sentiment continued with his last letter and Steven Lewis’ eulogy.

Somewhere since then we’ve lost some steam. Rather than focussing on building a Canada that works together, we’re squabbling over the fastest path to victory. It doesn’t help that the media has been underplaying the race to replace Jack. Yet candidates like Paul Dewar are talking about building a “stronger, more caring Canada,” and Niki Ashton speaks about the need for a New Politics.

I like each of the candidates so far and was sad to see Romeo Saganash bow out. These women and men each represent a positive, progressive vision for Canada.


I don’t begrudge people for wanting to push this electoral cooperation plan. I can understand the frustration with our government and the fact that our electoral system is screwing the majority of voters out of having their voices heard. Nevertheless, I believe that this idea is born more out of an appeal to hipster post-partisanship. Similar to the calls for strategic voting in 2008, this argument is misguided at best, and potentially dangerous at worst (if it makes our candidates come off as single-issue opportunists).

If it all comes to pass that Nathan Cullen’s plan gains the support of the NDP and Liberals, I will get behind it, but I see far more successful paths to a progressive Canada, which don’t involve reducing our democratic choices.