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How Progressives Can Avoid Insanity

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In last month's Calgary Centre by-election, progressive voters experienced bitter heartbreak. Over 60% of votes cast went to "progressive" candidates, while Conservative Joan Crockatt got elected with only 37%. Such results are symptomatic of the Canada's first-past-the-post system, which tends to reward the party or candidate who is able to put together a voter coalition capable of obtaining a plurality, not a majority, of the votes. When the progressive vote is split between three candidates, as it was in Calgary Centre, the Conservatives win. Anyone looking for further proof of this argument can look at the overall federal electoral results of the past 6 years.

In the days since the by-election, there have been a number of proposals put forward to help remedy the dilemma facing progressives. These have ranged from renewed suggestions pushing for a change in Canada's electoral system, creating an electoral alliance through joint nominations, to a formal Liberal-Green-NDP party merger. While these are all novel and worthy suggestions, they also lack promise.

A change in Canada's electoral system would be welcome. After all, our current system has a tendency to award false majorities. Yet Canadians generally do not seem to be interested in electoral reform. If electoral reform was such a pressing issue, you would think that something would have been done to deal with it already. Further, making electoral reform a central pillar of an election campaign is a recipe for disaster. Voters are swayed by pocket book issues and other matters that directly impact their quality of life and/or standard of living. Talk of electoral reform may be appropriate for the ivory tower and the politically hyper-engaged, but to many it lacks an obtrusive connection to their everyday problems and worries. Progressives can attempt to band together and fight an election over electoral reform, but they do so only to the benefit of the Conservatives, who are guaranteed to lower the quality of debate to their advantage.

Holding joint progressive nominations also seems to be a fruitless endeavour. In a recent column, Andrew Coyne argued that a one-time progressive alliance could run on, and eventually implement, a platform of electoral reform. The problem is that, in order for such an alliance to occur, all three progressive parties would need to cooperate. It could be argued that the NDP can be written off with respect to any future talks of progressive electoral alliances. With Thomas Mulcair at the helm, the NDP see themselves on the verge of forming government in 2015. It is wishful thinking to suggest that they will turn their focus away from single-handedly forming government so that two other progressive parties can have a piece of the pie. Besides, the NDP are already styling themselves as the de-facto choice for progressives looking to defeat Harper. Alas, it is the conundrum of electoral alliances and electoral change: Everyone is for it, except when they have a shot at forming government alone.

To my mind, this leaves one option, that of a political merger. For reasons argued above, it is unlikely that the NDP will be willing to be part of a progressive merger given its current position. This leaves us with the Liberal and Green Parties. Theoretically, a Green-Liberal merger is not such a farfetched idea. Both parties are relatively centrist, and both find themselves in relatively similar positions: The Liberals are looking to rebuild, the Greens are looking to build, and both must do a certain amount of soul searching before they can compete for government. Each party would also benefit from the other's respective strengths. For the Liberals, a merger with the Greens could give the party a much needed grassroots injection, and a dose of the inclusive culture that accompanies it. On the other hand, a merged Liberal-Green Party would stand to benefit from the national organization the Liberal Party is currently rebuilding, as well as the Liberal's more sophisticated means of fundraising.

Much of this is wishful thinking. Both parties are a long way off from any type of formal cooperation, especially in Calgary Centre, where both the Harvey Locke and Chris Turner campaigns shared what at times seemed like a personal animosity towards each other. A lack of respect from both sides towards the differences in policy, brand, ideas, and political culture that the other embodies may ensure that a merger option stays off the table as talks progress on what needs to change for progressives in 2015. Not to mention that Green Party leader Elizabeth May recently suggested that Canada should rid itself of political parties (an entirely different blog post could be devoted to that topic), which could cause some to unfairly question her political credibility. Regardless, the post-partisan approach to politics held by the Greens, and the pride that many Liberals still have in their brand, could ensure that the possibility of such merger talks stays remote.

Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results each time. Progressives should consider this as words of advice. Clearly something needs to change in order for progressives to have a breakthrough, not just in Calgary Centre, but across Canada. This change also needs to be pragmatic and work within the current confines of Canada's electoral system, imperfect as it is. To reject this need for change, and to go into the 2015 election beating the same partisan drums, would be insanity on the part of progressives. Cooler heads must prevail, and all options must be considered for a more favourable outcome in 2015 -even those options that may require putting partisan and policy differences aside in the name of building a grander political entity of the centre.