[Ed: The opinions expressed are those of the author.]
It’s not exactly the best of times to be a federal Liberal. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have the support of 40 per cent of Canadians, while Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals have plummeted to 27 per cent, a 13-percentage-point gap, according to a poll released last week. It is true that opinion polls represent merely a snapshot in time; however, in the previous week three independent public opinion polling firms have released figures that show the Harper Conservatives with a 12-15 point lead over the Opposition Liberals. The NDP trail far behind at just below 20 per cent.
Much of the blame for the Liberal stall has been laid at Mr. Ignatieff’s feet. But even with a more charismatic leader, the Liberals would gain, at best, only four or five points in popularity. Under Jack Layton, the NDP’s ceiling is also not related to leadership so much as some of its more left-leaning policies. Leadership is important in Canada, but it can no longer trump the drawback of a divided centre-left.
For anyone who follows federal politics intimately, the polling figures released last week were not particularly surprising. After all, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has remained comfortably in power for over five years; during this period he has transformed the modern day attack ad into an art form – and in doing so – has placed the once-unconquerable Liberal Party of Canada on life support for much of the previous five years.
But recent polling figures are not – for the most part – a result of the background political noise of the previous five years. It is true that the Liberals have changed leaders on three occasions in the past five years and that Harper has strengthened his hand at every change in leadership. It is also true that Harper has largely been the net beneficiary of the global synchronous recession resulting in a Conservative brand strongly associated with muscular economic stewardship.
However, Harper has also encountered several landmines in recent years; there was the Coalition Crisis of late 2008 and subsequent prorogation of Parliament, a second and highly controversial prorogation in early 2010, followed by the Census debacle in summer 2010. Over the previous five years, a litany of small but noteworthy scandals have transpired – the most recent among them – the Bev Oda affair which is currently consuming Ottawa. The Harper Conservatives have also staked out several highly controversial positions on issues ranging from foreign policy to domestic policy; moreover they have altered the manner in which MPs, Cabinet Ministers, and senior staff interact with the professional public service and members of the national media.
The developments of recent years, however, are mere background noise in the larger political narrative of the previous ten years. The real story here is a dramatically altered political landscape that has transformed the dynamics of Canadian politics. In fact, recent polls are illustrative of a party system that has been structurally realigned post-2002. In the previous ten years, an assortment of determining events have transpired: the legacy Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties united under one Conservative banner led by Stephen Harper, the Liberal Party was fatally wounded by the Quebec Sponsorship Scandal and chronic leadership divisions between the Chretien and Martin factions of the party; finally in recent years, the Bloc Quebecois, NDP, and Green Parties have all enjoyed a bolstered prominence on the national scene accompanied by electoral gains at the expense of the Liberal Party. The end result: a united right and resulting divide on the centre-left of the political spectrum.
For years the right was divided in this country between the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties. This spectacle was familiar to Jean Chretien who won three consecutive majority governments against a divided opposition; but it is also familiar to Stephen Harper who repaired the divisions that helped Chretien and is now working feverishly to aggravate divisions among Liberals and New Democrats. As national columnist Chantal Hebert points out, in Quebec, the NDP and Liberals are cannibalizing each other’s votes to the Bloc’s advantage. Moreover, this trend – while most acute in Quebec – is beginning to spiral out throughout the rest of the country. The solution is to formally merge Canada’s two centre-left federalist parties, as recently advocated by the likes of former Prime Minister Jean Chretien and former NDP leader Ed Broadbent.
The six most persuasive arguments in favour of a Liberal-NDP merger can be summarized as follows:
- Canada does have a progressive majority.
- If the goal is to defeat Harper, a structural realignment of the party system is the best strategy.
- The Liberal and NDP policies coincide on the key issues important to middle-class families. Many of their economic growth strategies are the same, and they agree on much about the federal role in health care, education, innovation, pension reform, environment and accountability in government.
- A merged party could win Quebec – electing a progressive majority government – building an important new bridge between English- and French- speaking Canadians and handing the Bloc Quebecois a useful defeat.
- A merged party would bring in new blood – youth, disaffected voters, Green Party supporters; in addition it could cleanse the Liberal and NDP parties of their more ideological wings.
- Canadians are not wed to the traditional parties – they are receptive to change.
In fact, a recent Canadian Press poll suggests more than half of Canadians favour some sort of cooperation between the federal Liberals and New Democrats. Twenty-eight per cent of those surveyed favoured a ‘non-compete’ compact between the two parties, wherein they would agree not to run candidates against each other in some ridings across the country. Fourteen per cent favoured a Liberal-NDP coalition government after the next election, while 13 per cent said they would prefer an outright merger of the two parties prior to an election. Another 30 per cent – including 50 per cent of Conservative supporters – said they would rather that the two parties not cooperate at all.
And while public opinion is certainly a useful indicator in this debate, history provides a persuasive case in favour of aligning Canada’s two centre-left federalist parties. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff recently mused to the national media that ‘politics is a game of inches,’ and yet in recent decades, Canadian politics has very rarely been a game of inches so to speak. Yes, political parties are well-advised to dominate the air waves and press to try to win each day’s news cycle, but the fact remains transformational changes in Canadian politics are more often the result of tectonic shifts on the political landscape.
Looking back to 2006, how did Stephen Harper become Prime Minister? Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells provides a useful analysis here. Wells argues that Harper won – not because he mastered political communications or pieced together the perfect platform – but because he was ultimately able to merge Canada’s two centre-right parties. And so ultimately, Harper’s 2006 victory hinged upon his ability to unite the disparate PC and Canadian Alliance parties under the Conservative Party of Canada, win the leadership of the new party, all while limiting the potential exodus of hard line Reformers and Red Tories from the new party. Having accomplished this, the advantages of incumbency immediately shifted to Harper in 2004 when he reduced the Martin Liberals to a fragile minority government. Two years later he was Prime Minister of Canada.
One only has to look back to 1993 to find a similar tectonic shift or structural realignment of the party system; however, this time Jean Chretien reaped the fruits of such a change. Chretien benefited from the collapse of the Mulroney coalition into three separate parties – the PC, Reform, and Bloc Quebecois – and formed a massive Liberal majority government as a direct result. In short, as Wells puts fourth, Chretien wins in 1993 because the Conservative coalition disintegrates, and Harper wins in 2006 when it is durably rebuilt. In fact, you have to go back to Mulroney’s election victory in 1984 to find an opposition party able to convincingly form government in the absence of a structural realignment of the party system.
The argument here is that Canada will not enjoy a progressive majority government in the foreseeable future without a structural realignment of the party system. If Stephen Harper is to remain in power, he must do all he can to keep the current party system in tact; that is to say he must ensure the Liberal and NDP parties remain divided in pursuit of the ‘progressive majority.’ As long as these two parties continue to claw back at the same pool of progressive voters, the Conservatives win. Moreover, a resilient Bloc Quebecois and Green Party further ‘crowd out’ the centre-left of the political spectrum allowing the Conservatives to come up the middle (with a minority of votes) and claim victory election after election.
It is true that the Liberals and NDP have always been separate parties, whereas Stephen Harper’s challenge was to reunify two parties that recently had been one. But this does not change the electoral dynamics of vote splitting; it only means that the challenges on the left are more daunting. At the end of the day, a united centre-left party would inevitably find itself in a strengthened position to coalesce the anti-Harper vote on the basis of a common, fiscally prudent, progressive platform. In fact, a unified party would see immediate electoral gains with a strong possibility of terminating Harper’s iron-grip on power.
At some point, the simple math of what it will take to win a convincing victory will dawn upon even those Liberals most reluctant to party re-alignment. Absent devastating wounds to the Conservative Party (note that two prorogations, a massive deficit, the Great Recession, and a handful of scandals have yet to dent their support) the Liberal Party will need to crush the Bloc Quebecois, NDP, and Green Parties if they are to return comfortably to power. Such a prospect is unlikely and further underlines the salience of formal cooperation between the Liberal and NDP parties.
Canadians ought to have two federalist options. They deserve two principled, robust, federalist parties operating competitively in every region of the country. To that end, a formal Liberal-NDP merger is the key ingredient to a rejuvenated political climate in this country. For progressives, time is on our side.
– By Andrew Perez