I've written a couple of columns recently making the case for more coalitions in Canadian politics. Not coalitions in the Stephane Dion circa-2008 sense, but coalition parties. Large, ideologically-driven outfits that seek to unite broad groups of like-minded Canadians in the pursuit of common goals. Basically, the exact opposite of what we have now: a myriad of middling, vague, redundant parties that often exist more for the self-aggrandizement of the people leading them than the constructive pursuit of any coherent philosophical agenda.
Olivia Chow's entry into the Toronto mayoral race this morning is an excellent case study.
Officially, Chow is running to become mayor of Toronto. More precisely, she's running to make Rob Ford the ex-mayor of Toronto. In this quest she joins three others with campaigns already in progress: John Tory, Karen Stintz, and David Soknacki.
Much as this quartet of candidates might profess otherwise, Ford is really the only issue in this election; his reputation as global laughingstock and right-wing rube the only policy anyone has an unequivocal agenda of repealing. To this end, the dissident four are all clamouring for essentially the same bloc of voters: urban-dwelling, higher-income, higher educated, higher status left-of-centre white sophisticados of the sort most likely to be most embarrassed by Ford today, having voted overwhelmingly for his liberal opponent in 2010.
As a result of their overlapping goals, for weeks the opposition candidates have been battling amongst themselves in a mad scramble to recruit top talent from the city's progressive political infrastructure. John Tory (who, despite his status as the ex-leader of the Ontario Conservatives, has been drifting ever leftward for quite some time) seems to have pulled in much of the provincial Liberal Party's brain trust, including Premier Wynne's deputy chief of staff, transport minister Brad Duguid, and prominent MPP Mitzie Hunter. Veteran Chretien-era Liberal insider Warren Kinsella, meanwhile, is backing Team Chow, along with 2010 Ford runner-up George Smitherman, and (predictably) many of the province's top New Democrats, including her late husband's right-hand man, Brian Topp.
No one of any importance seems to be backing the less high-profile Soknacki and Stintz, but they're still pulling a combined eight percent in the polls just the same.
Added up, all these divided loyalties are enough to put Ford in easy reach of re-election, according to the most recent Forum Research numbers. Chow, Tory, and Ford are basically locked in a three-way 30 per cent tie at the moment, meaning it's very possible Torontonians will wind up getting another trip to Ford Nation even after voting nearly two-thirds against him.
It doesn't have to be this way. Since I know Toronto is fond of fancying itself one of the world's great cities, I'll make a New York analogy.
In 2013, there was a broad consensus among Gotham liberals that the long reign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg had caused more harm than good. The heavy-handed agenda of the term limit-repealing, minority-frisking, Occupy Wall Street crushing, corporation-loving gazillionaire had cast a dark shadow over the Big Apple, and a new, progressive mayor was desperately needed to change course.
Several Democrats quickly declared themselves up to the task. They ran the gamut from council speaker Christine Quinn, who was viewed by many as little more than Bloomberg-lite, to moderate former comptroller Bill Thompson, to liberal current comptroller John Liu, to former Sandinista and far-left darling Bill de Blasio, to uh, Anthony Weiner. Bloomberg himself was not a candidate, but Republican Joe Lhota was widely seen as his preferred successor.
Had Quin, Thomspon, Liu, de Blasio, and Weiner all run in a free-for-all general election, it's likely the anti-Republican vote would have been split badly enough to give Lhota a decent shot at victory. Instead, the Democrats held a primary in September in which all of the city's self-identifying liberals were asked for an opinion, and de Blasio emerged most popular. As the left's unity candidate, he then cruised to a landslide 73% victory over Lhota in November.
The lesson for Toronto is obvious. If the city's progressives are serious about pooling their resources and mounting a strong challenge to Mayor Ford, then it behooves them to hold some sort of primary on par with the one New Yorkers used to pick de Blasio, rather than continuing to embark upon their present strategy of polarizing Toronto's Liberals and New Democrats (and let's be fair, some Tories, too) into unproductive rival camps.
Since no one doubts Chow or Tory's anti-Ford bona fides, and since there doesn't seem to be much evidence either candidate appeals to significantly different demographics or would pursue a significantly distinct agenda as mayor, anti-Ford voters should be given an opportunity to officially settle on one or the other before the general election, and thereby pre-emptively nip the otherwise inevitable doom of vote-splitting.
A formal primary would bring cohesion to the anti-Ford forces early, and would spare Torontonians a protracted Tory-Chow civil war over who's tent is bigger than whose, whose campaign is a more hopeless egotistical crusade, and which pathetic also-ran should just fold it up and drop out already sinceeveryone knows there's no way they can actually win at this point.
But it's not going to happen, of course.
It's quite revealing that Tory appears to be largely backed by Ontario's Liberal establishment, while Chow's circle is more New Democrat-dominated. These are the two factions who refuse to grasp the simple math that joining forces could have helped them defeat Stephen Harper long ago.
It would be naive to expect them to have a better strategy for defeating Rob Ford.
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