The perils of being progressive

Thanks to our first past the post system — thanks, Justin — progressives in Halifax still face a Hobson’s choice when it comes to the federal election.

I get it. I even sympathize. You have only one vote and you don’t want to waste it. But how to choose? That is the question without easy answer this federal election. Let’s assume for the moment you see yourself as a moderate political progressive, likely more progressive than partisan. You know what you don’t want: Andrew Scheer to become prime minister.

Not because he didn’t pre-emptively fess up to the campaign media’s most recent nothing-better-to-cover sin-of-the-week. Scheer’s father was — gasp! — born in the United States, so Andrew is — oh, no! — a dual US-Canadian citizen. (Confession: many years ago, I too married out of my country; as a result, my children also qualify as citizens on both sides of the border… So, shoot me.)

There are many and better reasons not to want Andrew Scheer as our next prime minister.

Start with this: the only reason he is now Conservative party leader is because he has the support of his party’s Neanderthal social conservative wing. Scheer may be telling the politically correct truth when he says that, if elected, he won’t re-open the abortion debate or tolerate candidates who openly call LGBTQ citizens “perverted.” But there is also no question he still identifies as a social conservative and owes much to those who helped him become leader. What that might mean for what he would do as prime minister seems to me a risk not worth risking.

What else? Let’s circle back to that 2017 Tory leadership convention, which Scheer won by the sliver-iest of margins, only in the 13th round (and only with social conservative support) after having trailed on every previous ballot behind… wait for it: Maxime Bernier.

Yes, that Bernier — the libertarian, free-market-loving, climate-change-denying, Greta-bashing, immigrant-hating, no-government-is-good-government conservative now running his own party. On the final ballot in the 2017 leadership, Bernier claimed the support of 49.05 per cent of Conservative delegates. Which means…?


Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives represents the dark blue line in the sand most progressives hope voters won’t cross.

But how to make sure that doesn’t happen?

In the 2015 election, progressives were so desperate to get rid of Stephen Harper — Andrew Scheer without the dimples but with a track record — they stampeded past the NDP, the Greens and any other party or candidate that might muddy the outcome, allowing the dreaded Harper yet another chance to have his governing way with us.

Thanks to them, we instead got four years of Liberal majority government. The results of that have been, to be kind, mixed. Justin Trudeau has talked a good game — on equality, indigenous rights, the environment, immigration, you name it — (and his good-game talk is a significant advance over what we had before), but the fruits of all that talk have almost always been far less than advertised. On too many days, reality has rained on Justin’s “sunny ways.”

Although it will probably not go down in history as his government’s most egregious failure, Trudeau’s broken promise on electoral reform — “I’m proposing that we make every vote count,” he boldly declared in unveiling the last Liberal platform. “We are committed to ensuring that the 2015 election will be the last federal election using first-past-the-post…” — is the main reason we face our voting dilemma today.

During the 2015 election, the courting-our votes Liberals argued the winner-take-all voting system — in which a winning political party can claim an overwhelming majority of seats in the House of Commons while winning less than 40 per cent of all votes cast — is unfair and distorts the actual will of the people.

They were/are right.

But then, in 2015, the Liberals won 184 of 338 seats (55 per cent) in the House of Commons while earning only 39.5 per cent of all the votes cast.

Uh… Electoral reform, asked the victory-lap Liberals? Who said anything about electoral reform?

So, in 2019, our votes still will not count equally or fairly. And we are left with a bunch of Hobson’s choices.

The latest polls show the Liberals and Tories running neck-and-neck to the Oct. 21 electoral finish line.

Does that mean we should vote Liberal — even with all their failures and foibles — just to deny the Tories one more seat?

There are ridings in Canada where that sort of strategic calculation makes sense. There may even be constituencies in Nova Scotia — in traditionally Tory-turned-Liberal-turned-whatever-Bill-Casey-happened-to-be-that-election Cumberland Colchester where NDP-turned-Liberal candidate Lenore Zann is now trying to hold on to the seat for the Liberals, or in West Nova, a swing riding which has swung back and forth between Liberals and Conservatives almost since there were Grits and Tories — where a hold-your-nose vote for the Liberals in faint hopes of denying the Tories the seat may make progressive sense.

That’s certainly not the case in Halifax. This riding hasn’t sent a Conservative to Ottawa since 1984. Liberal Andy Fillmore won in 2015, defeating the popular veteran NDP MP and deputy party leader Megan Leslie. But that was less a personal victory for Fillmore and more a cautionary tale about what happens when we single-mindedly set out to rid the world of a government like Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. (Fillmore, it is worth noting, eventually served as parliamentary secretary to the minister for democratic institutions, who didn’t, it’s worth noting again, actually reform the electoral system.)

This time around, with the bloom off the Trudeau rose, Fillmore faces a more challenging electoral landscape — but still not from the Tories to his right.

When Irvine Carvery carried the Conservative colours in 2015, he managed to scrape less than 10 per cent from the bottom of the popular-vote barrel. This year’s Conservative candidate, Bruce Holland — a 1990s-era Halifax county councillor-turned-undistinguished-one-term Liberal MLA who eventually switched parties and emerged as failed provincial Tory candidate in 2017 — may win slightly more votes than Carvery, but he too is a sacrificial lamb.

So voting for Fillmore just to keep one more seat out of the grasp of Andrew Scheer is a waste of a good “X.”

Which brings us to the NDP and the Greens — and the conundrum that could very well re-elect Andy Fillmore anyway.

There is no question the NDP, Canada’s traditional social democratic alternative, has fallen from voter grace since Jack Layton’s Orange Wave of 2011. After belatedly winning a seat in parliament earlier this year, new leader Jagmeet Singh did impress in the cut-and-thrust of House of Commons debate and he has been the most personally persuasive of the party leaders during this election campaign. But that may be too little too late in this election to counter the party’s popularity slide.

Enter the Green Party, stage… well, that is a still-unanswered question. There are some significant ideological differences between the NDP and the Greens, and the Greens sometimes take more conservative positions. Still, the party has benefited in the competition between the two, both from a growing recognition of the urgency of the over-arching climate crisis and also from a growing pox-on-all-their-houses frustration with the traditional mainstream parties.

To complicate matters for voters in Halifax, both parties are running strong, smart, voter-worthy candidates: Jo-Ann Roberts, a retired broadcaster and current deputy party leader, represents the Greens, while Christine Saulnier, the Nova Scotia director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and a long-time social justice advocate, is running for the NDP.

One the one hand, you could comfortably vote for either candidate, and feel good about your choice.

But if the progressive vote splits, chances are it will only lead to Andy Fillmore’s return to Ottawa.

That may not be the worst outcome. But here’s the issue.

Remember electoral reform? Both the NDP and the Greens say they are committed to making it happen. And, as parties that would clearly benefit from a fairer system, they probably mean it.

The NDP: “A New Democrat government will bring in mixed-member proportional representation that works for Canada – and we will do it in our first mandate in government. We’ll establish an independent citizen’s assembly to recommend the best way to put it in place for the next election to ensure both local representation and a federal government that reflects the voters’ choice of parties.”

The Greens:“Ensure that the 2019 election is the last ‘first past the post’ election. By March 2020, we will launch a Citizens Assembly on Electoral Reform with the mandate to make recommendations to parliament on an electoral system that would ‘make every vote count.’ Legislative changes to implement the recommendations of the Citizens Assembly would be made in time for the 2023 federal election.”

Neither party is going to become our next government, of course, but one or both could hold the balance of power in a minority government. Again, both party leaders on how they would play their electoral reform card in a minority situation.

Jagmeet Singh: “I would make sure it would be a requirement… that if a government or a party wanted to work with me it would be one of my important values that we put in place — proportional representation. And I ‘d work for that, I’d say that would be a part of a negotiation.”

Elizabeth May: “The next [priority after climate action] would be to make sure we bring in electoral reform…. I don’t know exactly how we’ll negotiate; I don’t know what the cards are that we will be dealt, but of top priorities for the Green Party: electoral reform, climate action, reconciliation.”

If either local candidate won, she could help tip the balance in a minority situation, forcing any want-to-be government to actually, finally reform the electoral process as their party’s price of winning power.

If, on the other hand, the Greens and the NDP split the left-of-centre vote and Fillmore wins, the House of Commons will have one less strong voice for electoral reform.

It isn’t easy being progressive.

This column first appeared in the Halifax Examiner October 7, 2019.

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