05 October 2008


How left-wing Canada elects a right-wing government

We Canadians are having an election too, on October 14, a few weeks before our southern neighbours in the U.S.A. By the standards of most countries in the world, Canada's political climate is a social democratic one, particularly on social and moral issues. (By the somewhat skewed perspective of modern American politics, therefore, we probably all seem like we're Shining Path guerrillas.) In the last election in 2006, about 36% of the population voted for the Conservatives, the centre-right party that currently forms a minority government in Parliament.

What it means is that even when we elected a conservative (for us) government, 64% of Canadians still voted for parties more left-wing than that, from the centre-left Liberals to the democratic socialist New Democratic Party (NDP). Even the Bloc Québecois, whose primary platform is Québec independence (or sovereignty, in Canadian politispeak) are left-leaning in their other policies, while the environment-angled Green Party—a more significant force in 2008 than two years ago—is conservationist, rather than conservative.

Hidden coalitions

Unlike many other democracies, especially those with proportional representation systems that our British-style parliamentary system lacks, Canada really doesn't favour formal multi-party coalition governments. However, we often get them, in effect, by other means. That occurs when several left- or right-leaning parties merge to regain power after living in a vote-splitting wilderness for a few years.

I recall, for example, the early-’90s era when the federal Reform and Progressive Conservative ("Tory") parties split the vote on the right, so that even with the Bloc dominating in Quebec, the Liberals maintained power for a decade by winning a majority of seats elsewhere. At the same time, provincially here in British Columbia, the formerly dominant Social Credit Party, B.C. Reform (a brief experiment), and the Liberals all divided the centre-right and right vote, keeping the provincial NDP in power over a couple of election cycles.

Those situations ended a few years later when, respectively, Reform and the Tories merged into the current Canadian federal Conservative Party, and the various centre-right and right-wing parties in B.C. coalesced around the B.C. Liberals, who form our current provincial government. But that situation also ensures that no elected party can become too extreme: in the Conservative Party, for example, the far-right social conservatives (many of whom used to belong to the Reform Party) form only a fraction of the government's caucus, and if they tried to impose their views on the legislature as a whole, they could generate another schism that loses them the next election.

Flipping the split

And so we have a governing party whose members often disagree profoundly with many of the laws over which they preside. This is a country of legalized gay marriage, socialized medicine, no restrictions on abortion, minimal overt religious influence over politics, wealth redistribution among the provinces by the federal bureaucracy, institutionalized bilingualism and multiculturalism, and one of the larger immigration rates in the developed world. Yet our Conservative government dares not alter those tenets in any fundamental way.

Unfortunately for lefties like me, however, in this federal election it is the left wing that is split, among the NDP, Greens, Bloc, and Liberals. That is unusual in Canadian history—the Liberals are frequently nicknamed our "natural governing party" because they have won so often overall. But as further evidence of a general left-wing bias in the Canadian electorate, the left has always been split since the rise of the NDP and its predecessor the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) more than 60 years ago, and yet the centre-left Liberals have still been in power most of that time. However, in the 2008 election, the wider left split may have particularly dire, long-term real-world consequences.

The Conservatives are likely to win again, perhaps with a majority instead of a minority of seats in Parliament, but with only a minority of the overall vote. In general I could live with that. But critically, while the more socially regressive ideas of Prime Minister Stephen Harper (a former Reform Party MP) are reined in by his party's "big tent," his government is the worst option on environmental issues. Only the Liberals—not even the Greens!—have proposed a carbon tax, which I think will be necessary to shift our energy usage. But even that comes after more than ten years of inaction on climate change when it counted most, when the Liberals were actually in power in the '90s and early 2000s.

Strategy and environment

With our non-proportional parliamentary system, many Canadians vote strategically. I cast my ballot in the advance poll this weekend, but I’m in a bit of an unusual situation, living in the Burnaby-Douglas riding long represented by the NDP’s Svend Robinson and, since his theft-related retirement, by his former assistant Bill Siksay. Both have been heavily involved in the local community, outspoken in Parliament (Svend notoriously so), and elemental in their party’s platform decisions.

Voting NDP has been an easy choice for me ever since I became eligible 20 years ago in this riding—I know my vote is not “wasted” (NDP founder Tommy Douglas was an MP here too at one point, so his party has always been a strong contender), and as a lefty I agree with the party platform on many issues. Were I in a different riding, I might vote more strategically, choosing Green or Liberal. As it is, my decision was simple, because my riding and national interests align.

Yet because of our current political morass, I think we stand to make poor national policy decisions on climate change, when time is running short to make the right ones.

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Our election results are distorted because, under the current, winner-take-all voting system, most of us vote for people who don't get elected, and those votes have no effect on the outcome of the elections.

In the last election, more than 7.5 million voters cast their votes for candidates who did not get elected, and ended up "represented" by people they voted against.

Fair Vote Canada is holding a contest. www.OrphanVoters.ca

How many votes will be wasted this time? Your guess could win you cash prizes!
My cousin told me about vote pairing, where you sign up to swap votes with other people in swing ridings. I think it's www.votepair.ca, although I'm too lazy to check just now.

I always vote strategically. I'd rather not see the guys I dislike get in, so I always vote in a way that helps to meet that goal, rather than voting for a particular party.
According to voteforenvironment.ca, your vote for Bill Siksay is a strategic vote, in that it will reduce the changes of a conservative being elected in your (and my) riding.
Another point to remember in strategic voting is that, thanks to the Chretien Liberals, every vote a candidate receives results in a $1.00 payment to his or her party.
With Bill Siksay being so far ahead in the polls, it might be worthwhile to cast a few strategic votes for the Green candidate, as this will help fund the Greens' future ventures.