When Third Parties Come Second

Yes, once again this “travelogue’ is involving me shooting my mouth off about a place I’ve not even visited yet. But yesterday’s Canadian election bears talking about.

The election was called a mere two and a half years after the most recent one (in contrast to the maximum term length of five years) for the same reason many Australians are paranoid: the instability associated with minority government in a nation which doesn’t yet know how to deal with them. To be fair, Canadians should be able to by now – their parliament largely follows the Anglospheric two-and-a-half party system, except in their case it’s two-and-two-halves (due to the presence of the Bloc Quebecois, of whom more in a later post) meaning it’s less likely that a single party can command more than 50% of the vote. Nevertheless, the minority Conservative government under Alberta neocon Stephen Harper was recently forced to an election by the chief opposition party, the Liberals. At the outset, it seemed like it would be just another election which would probably allow Harper to gain a majority. That happened, but the election was a real game-changer.

I mentioned before that the Canadian parliament was a two-and-two-half party system. One of those ‘halves’ is the Bloc Quebecois, the parliamentary wing of the Quebec sovereignty movement. As it is defined by what it sees as a national liberation movement rather than traditional philosophial bases for political parties such as liberalism, neoconservatism or social democracy its policies can change depending on a combination of the desires of the voting base and the style of the leader. Quebec, as arguably the most progressive province (a distinction many British Columbians would contest) and almost certainly the province with the greatest socialist tradition, reinforced by Pierre Trudeau’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, certainly has a voting base capable of making the BQ the most relevant party in the areas it campaigns in. The other ‘half’ is the New Democratic Party, and it is the NDP which concerns us today.

You may have noticed by the fact that the chief opposition party I mentioned was the Liberal party, but unlike in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, the labour movement never really had a parliamentary wing. The NDP are the party which represents social democratic thinking – the eventual modern conclusion of the labour movement, the form it takes in advanced democracies such as those found in northern Europe, and a form which is more relevant to the entirety of society – in Canada today. They grew from a localised west coast party to become perhaps Canada’s equivalent of the Greens in Australia – a party with areas of regional strength (British Columbia for the NDP, Victoria and Tasmania for the Greens) but which represents socially progressive views all over the nation. Canada, by the way, also has a Green party, which won its first seat in the House of Commons this election, but the NDP are probably the closer analogue for now.

The status quo, however, changed significantly this election. It appears that the ‘left’ in Canada, tired of getting its teeth kicked in by the Conservatives and tired of being unable to mount an effective opposition – due in part to the failings of classical liberal theory to be relevant to the modern world, but also due heavily to the sheer lack of charisma of party leader Michel Ignatieff – decided to do the unthinkable fear of parties across the Anglosphere and abandon the moderate, spineless ‘centre-left’ party for one which might struggle more to gain power in the short term but would surely do more in power when it comes to them.

In the short space – barely more than a month – between an election being called and the Canadian people going to the polls, the Liberals haemorrhaged voted heavily. A good deal of them went to the Conservative party, true – but even more of them went to the New Democratic Party. The NDP’s leader, the charismatic Jack Layton (he of the best political moustache the Western world has seen in years) doubled down on a relentless national campaign, and the opinion polls became self-fulfilling prophecies. The NDP began to gain on the Liberals, suggesting to more voters that the NDP were a viable chance to win seats instead of simply splitting the vote (Canada, remember, is one of only three first-world nations to still use the anachronistic first-past-the-post system so vote-splitting between parties with similar platforms or platforms perceived by the public to be similar is a genuine concern). As the NDP began to lead the Liberals in opinion polls, even long-time Liberal voters switched simply because they were the best option to keep the Conservatives out of power. Voters also began to abandon the Bloc Quebecois for the NDP; as mentioned, Quebec tends to have one of the most consistently progressive voter bases in the country, and seeing the NDP votes as the best device to build an efficient nationwide opposition to the Conservatives, along with the perception that in a more economically vulnerable, post-Global Financial Crisis Canada, Quebecois sovereignty was a luxury neither Quebec nor the rest of Canada could afford.

The tactic didn’t entirely pay off. The Conservatives, as mentioned, managed to gain their desired majority. And in Ontario, the second-largest province, the competition remained split largely between the Conservatives and the Liberals, with the NDP only making any real inroads in the Toronto area. But Canada now has a real opposition. The NDP now hold more than two and a half times the number of seats the Liberals do, and while it has reduced the Bloc Quebecois to a mere rump in the process it now forms the official opposition, and in Jack Layton there is finally a leader capable of mounting serious attacks on Prime Minister Harper from across the House of Commons. They will have plenty of options available to them – coalitions, accords, agreements with both or either of the BQ and the Liberals when Canada’s next election comes along.

A bad habit born of the cultural cringe it may be for me to try and find an Australian connection with everything, but I wouldn’t be of much use as an Australian political analyst if I didn’t. On one of the political discussion forums I frequent, there is a Labor member infamous for his desperate and obvious shilling of the party to anyone who will listen. His arguments unfortunately leave more than a bit to be desired, falling inevitably into the circular logic of “well yes the Greens have more “labour” policies than the modern Labor party does on all manner of issues but you shouldn’t vote for them because they’re not serious contenders for power because nobody votes for them because they’re not…” You can see what I’m getting at. For years the Liberals formed a weak and milquetoast opposition to Harper’s brand of Canadian neoconservatism. It was only when the NDP’s quiet growth accelerated exponentially that everyone realised that there really was an alternative. In Australia, the process will be different because of the different voting system. Preferential Voting – which is currently being fought against tooth-and-nail with misinformation and outright lies by the established powers in the UK in its guise as Alternative Voting – has the disadvantage of enshrining a two-party system by transferring everyone’s votes in a particular electorate to the two most popular parties, making those two parties appear more popular than they are – the Canadian Liberals would probably have had a longer shelf-life under a PV system because NDP votes would have reinforced their representation through grudging second preferences. But it has the significant advantage of not splitting the vote. Someone in a swinging seat in Australia can vote Green without the concern that one less vote for Labor would mean that the Coalition would gain that seat.

So consider Canada a suggestion of a possible future for the Australian Greens. Should their share of the vote continue to rise at the pace it is doing, more seats will go the direction of Melbourne at the Federal level or Balmain in the NSW House of Assembly. And unlike the risk in Canada, this growth can be achieved without giving swing seats to the Coalition. Rest assured, once seats begin to change, the Greens’ growth in the House of Representatives will be exponential, and a party which carries on the progressive and social democratic legacy of the great 20th century Labor governments can represent the ‘left’ in Australia.

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