Three Party Splits: The only lesson from Durham, Victoria and Calgary Centre

 “The truth is that although a large majority of Canadians voted against the Conservatives in 2011, and dislike the extreme pro-corporate, anti-environment policies of the current government, Stephen Harper is on track for another majority. Harper won the last election with less than 40 per cent of the vote, and even if his party’s share drops by a few points in 2015, he could easily gain a further mandate.

The problem is the split opposition. Look at what happened on Monday in Calgary Centre. The Conservative candidate, Joan Crockatt, scraped by with just 37 per cent of the vote. Together, the Greens and the Liberals outpolled her by far. In Durham, the NDP would have had a fighting chance of unseating the Tories if they had enjoyed support from Liberals and Greens.

  • Opinion: United left only way to unseat Tories, By Mark Abley, The Montreal Gazette November 27, 2012


So it has started again: the calls for merger and co-operation. With no change in seat totals and increases in the Liberal and Green Vote, some are arguing that the “left” is shooting itself in the foot. The left needs to merge, just like the right did in the 1990s. Or so the adage goes. In the wake of incumbent wins, how can anyone argue against the need for a merger?

This is the challenge that I have taken up in the past and it is one that I will address here. For, does anyone remember that Pierre Trudeau and Joe Clark won elections in the 1972, 1974 and 1979; even though, there were four political parties in Parliament? At the time, the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives had to deal with two smaller parties (the Social Credits/Créditiste and the NDP). In fact, if one does some research, one will find that between 1962 and 1980, the Federal Parliament had a minimum of four parties. However, the diversity does not end there; for in some of those Parliaments, independent MPs were also elected. While, the world has changed since the 1960’s and 70’s, one truth has remained: Canada has had more than two political parties for most of its history.

Progressives, if one needs to be reminded, held the second most amount of seats in the twenties; thereby turning the Conservatives into the Third Party for the first time. The Conservatives though bounced back. I will argue here that the Liberal Party can do the same. The question is how? My argument is simple: Liberals should not talk against our political foes but we should talk about and develop our policies. We need to talk about our vision and how we will implement our values. We need to talk about what it means to be Liberal. We need to talk about Pragmatism, Objectivity and Care of the “Other”. Like George Brown, we need to talk about how we want to reform our system for the advantage of all. Accordingly, being Liberal means talking about the policies we want.

Why those values? Well, those values will provide a society where the most benefit will accrue to the greatest number. For, if one does not remember, this is the foundation of Liberal Democratic Thought. In the 15th and the 16th Century, British Philosophers, in trying to describe the ideal system, came up with a few principles. They believed that a stable system was important. Instead of Kings and Monarchs using force, British Philosophers postulated that citizens could accept a system if that same system understood their interests. Accordingly, if the majority of citizens derived benefit from the system, then they would not revolt against powerful interests like Kings and Nobility.

However, another interesting thing happened. When more people were included, people began to care about the interests of those that matter to them. People do not want to see their loved ones suffer. Friends want to take care of Friends. Family Members want to do the same. Additionally, in a few situations, individuals begin to understand that caring for their friends, colleagues or neighbours is akin to caring for themselves. As an example, when my friends and neighbours get a flu shot, I have less of a chance of getting sick. While, Scientists call it Herd Immunity, I call it looking after one’s self. When my neighbours and I pay taxes toward the fire fighter, then there is less of a chance that my house will get burned down. Or by the same logic, if we all pay a little bit towards a police department or an ambulance services, both crime and death are decreased. Or if we put a little bit of our incomes toward roads and transit, we get around in faster, cheaper and more efficient manner. Therefore, while a bit cliché, as a society, we are stronger, when we work together.

Consequently, by Caring for the “Other”, we are in fact, caring for ourselves. While, I have never used the Employment Insurance System, I know it is there if I should ever need it. By making sure that the system exists for a neighbour, friend or citizen who is now out of work, I am ensuring that I have it, if I am ever out of work.

This pragmatic approach uses evidence and objectivity to come to an answer. In that way, it is unlike our friends in the Conservative, New Democratic or Green Parties. For example, present day Conservatives – as has been mentioned before – have a strong antipathy toward all government actions. For example, a NDP bill was defeated because “seven members of the Conservative caucus voted against it.” No one societal interest opposed it. Canada’s brand-name drug manufacturers didn’t oppose it. Foreign aid workers did not oppose it. Only Conservatives opposed it.

“Supporters of the proposed legislation said the government had engaged in a prolonged campaign of misinformation and intimidation of its members to ensure that the proposed legislation was defeated. Conservative MPs gave speeches in the Commons saying the bill would leave Canada in contravention of its obligations under World Trade Organization rules. But international legal experts have said that is not the case.” (Tories block bid to make cheaper medicines for poor nations, By Gloria Galloway, Globe and, November 28, 2012)

While different philosophically, our New Democratic and Green colleagues are also ideological. Elizabeth May along with her candidates for Calgary Centre and Victoria – Chris Turner and Donald Galloway, respectively – have argued that Green Energy can replace our Oil Industry. Or in their own words: “These pipelines would facilitate a massive and unsustainable expansion of the tar sands. The Green Party is dedicated to transitioning towards an economy that fulfills the economic, social and environmental demands of today without preventing our children from meeting their own needs.” (Donald Galloway’s Website) The question though is how. Alberta’s GDP is about $287 billion and most of it is dedicated to Oil and Natural Gas Production. In fact, 87% of Alberta’s exports/productions go to the States. As most Canadians know, almost all of those exports are hydrocarbons (i.e. bitumen, oil or natural gas). While green energy might produce some economic activity, the real question is what or which industry will replace the $287 billion worth of annual revenue that the Oil Sands brings in. The Greens have not suggested an answer.

A Liberal policy approach would have a different answer. We would ask: “how can we mitigate the harm in the short term; and how can we monetize Alberta’s skills in the long run”? Over a number of years, for example, the Dutch retooled and refined their commodity extraction knowledge. By turning their engineers from one type of engineering to another, they were able to become the engineering power house of Europe. Such a Pragmatic and Objective Approach is a Liberal Approach: continue to drill today, while planning and moving toward a better tomorrow.

If you don’t believe me, just look at our Party’s history. Sir John A. MacDonald was dragged to Confederation because of the big vision provided by a Liberal, George Brown. Mr. Brown was a key Liberal and he crossed the floor to preserve John A. MacDonald’s Government. However, in exchange for that action, MacDonald had to start a conversation on the federation of British North America.

Liberals brought forth the Canadian Navy and the St. Lawrence Seaway. We were able to repatriate the Constitution and create the Trans-Canada Highway. Liberals have consistently reformed our Government to ensure its continuation. That is why Bilingualism, Biculturalism and Multiculturalism became a part of Canadian parlance. This is our history and this is our story.

The problem for us in most elections is that we have not shared a vision of both Pragmatism and Care of the “Other”. We have not shared our pragmatic and objective vision; however, people want to hear it. In the Toronto-Danforth By-Election in March, we came in second and grew our vote by 10%.  We lost Calgary Centre by 3%. Too often, we have turned away from policy to attack our opponents. Rather, we should explain to people the solutions that an effective and objective government can provide.

By explaining our vision, we can attract people to our side. Joe Clark did this in 1979. Trudeau, in talking about the Just Society, did so in 1980. In 1980, Trudeau made a radical proposal: He brought forth a Charter and an Amending formula. This was the most far-reaching change since the initial acceptance of the BNA Act in 1867. Or put differently, he brought a Vision to life. This Vision was evident in fighting with the Gang of Eight. Trudeau’s proposal was based on Pragmatism and Objectivity and various social movements loved it. For, those same social movements had been making similar proposal for years. This reform –the Charter and its years of enforcement – has allowed the “Other” to protect themselves from government intrusion; while at the same time, bring the most benefit to the most amount of people. This Canada – ‘this world’- is one that the Liberal Party has created, why would others not want to follow?

So to those in my Party who fear vote splitting, I would argue that the splits provide us with an opportunity to talk directly to Canadians about our message, our vision and our history. The multiple party format gives our pragmatic viewpoint a chance to be compared against other points of view. Previously, in a four or five party universe, we consistently formed Government. We succeeded because we have had a vision. Our leaders had to understand what they stood. They have to find their “Just Society” or their “National Policy”. Our Party has to find and encapsulate its raison d’être and describe our purpose once more. Pearson did it. Trudeau did it. Chrétien did it. Why can’t we do it again?

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