Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Hope, possibility, unity, and reality for Canadian progressives

Jamey Heath's new book, Dead Centre: Hope, Possibility, and Unity for Canadian Progressives, makes five important points that every centre-left or left-wing Canadian needs to internalize:

1. Liberals tend to present the voters with laudable centre-left policies in their Red Books. But once elected with a majority--or, in Paul Martin's case, even with a minority--they veer right and refuse to deliver on most of their own best ideas. This has happened over and over again, and is undeniable.

2. When Canadian progressives are feeling anxious about the Conservatives, they tend to forget about the fact that they don't like what Liberal governments actually do, and vote Liberal indiscriminately.

3. Even worse, this tendency extends to ridings where the New Democrat has a better chance of winning than the Liberal, and so-called "strategic" voters end up electing scores of Tories in ridings that are actually Tory-NDP races.

4. Ontario is a region within Canada, not a microcosm of it--and while the Liberals may be the dominant choice of progressives there, this is not the case either in Québec or in the growing west. When we hear about the Liberals being Canada's sole natural governing party, forever and ever amen, that's Ontariocentrism talking, not reality.

5. Progressive voters who refuse to recognize these essential facts end up trying to exist in some warped universe in which Jack Layton is personally responsible for the Liberals' loss of their hegemonic grip on the country. This idea is not only demonstrably false, but because of #1, it actually perpetuates a situation that prevents progressives from getting what we want out of our government.
It's hard to argue with any of this, and by tracing progressive Canada's recent history through to the present, Heath makes his case quite convincingly. And it's a fine book in other ways, as well: it's a brisk, tightly-paced read, and packed with enough facts and insider information to tantalize political junkies of all stripes. Which makes it all the more tragic that Heath's central thesis--that the only way out of this muddle is for centre-left Liberal voters to abandon a party that doesn't actually match with their ideals and join with the NDP to fight for progressive values--misses the mark by a bare inch and sails off into the brush somewhere.

I'll admit that as a New Democrat, there's a part of me that finds Heath's "realignment" scenario appealing. But eventually my inner pragmatist kicks in, and I have to recognize that succeeding at that game would depend on three factors. First, the left wing of the Liberal Party would have to collectively see the light and be lured away by the power of Jack Layton's moustache. Second, the right wing of the Liberal Party would need to be willing to remain marginalized in a much leaner centre-right party instead of joining up with the Conservatives and giving them a majority. And third, the brand-new, big-tent NDP would have to maintain its lefty integrity despite a sudden dearth of pressure from its left flank and a pile of potential votes on its right.

Now, I'm not going to say this is impossible--this is Canadian politics, after all, and if the last few years have taught us anything, it's that we should never dub anything impossible. But even the unabashed idealists among us have to admit that it's not very likely. One of the three, maybe. Two of them, possibly. But to actually get the progressive policies we want, all three of them would have to happen, and as far as I know, there's no precedent for that in Canada or anywhere else. But there is another way, one that Heath doesn't mention even once in 296 pages of glorious political geekery. The Liberals and the NDP could decide right now to do what parties that can't get majorities on their own do in every other parliamentary democracy across the globe: signal to the voters that they would be interested in forming a coalition government after the next election. Not a minority government with one party "propping up" the other, but a genuine, stable government coalition.

Take a moment, if you would, to let that idea sink in. Now envision what it would mean. Loyal Liberals would be able to vote Liberal, committed New Democrats would be able to vote NDP, and the swing voters would be able to cast their votes based on policy preferences for the first time in their lives. After the election, then, if the Liberals ended up with the most votes, Dion would be prime minister and his party would have more cabinet positions, and if the NDP ended up with the most votes, Layton would be prime minister and his party would have more cabinet positions. But either way, the makeup of the government--and the compromises that would form its policy--would be pretty darn similar, so the country's progressive future wouldn't depend on which way the dominoes fell. Heath's point #1 above means that we can't trust the Liberals to implement progressive policies when they govern alone, but a coalition government with the NDP would force their hands.

A coalition government would also mean diversity within unity--a Canadian value if there ever was one. Both parties would keep their respective identities, party structures, constitutions, traditions. Both parties would have their caucuses--and their ideas--represented in a centre-left government borne of cooperation and compromise. And during the campaign, both parties would be able to campaign on the policies they really believed in, rather than strategically attempting to best position themselves to poach votes from each other.

"It'll never happen," the naysayers among you will inevitably be saying. Well, I'll tell you what: it's a heck of a lot more likely to happen than either what Jamey Heath is proposing or what his counterparts in the Liberal Party are proposing--crowding the other guy into electoral irrelevance. And it's certainly more likely to happen than an outright merger under the Liberal banner, which, given that the NDP is set up as a federation of provincial parties, would require the longstanding provincial governments of Saskatchewan and Manitoba to disband. If we really want unity among progressives, this is the only realistic solution. The time to try it is now, since we finally have a Liberal leader and an NDP leader who actually respect each other. And remember, we're not talking about some nobody blogger's crazy idea, here, but about the status quo in the vast majority of the world's parliamentary democracies.

Stephen Harper's worst nightmare is staring us right in the face, people. All we have to do is open our eyes.


JG said...

I agree with everything you wrote. Not surprisingly.

However, I wonder if electoral reform is not something of a precondition for a coalition government, simply because it otherwise seems unlikely that the numbers will add up correctly to a functioning majority coalition. What do you think?

Greg said...

I would love to believe you IP, but it won't happen. The Liberals are in it for the power. They don't play well in groups. Such an alliance would be seen as an admission of weakness by the Liberal elites and that is not something they would willingly do. I think the only way your scenario would play out is if we get electoral reform. Otherwise, as long as there remains a possibility (no mater how remote) that the Liberals could squeeze a majority out of 37% support, they will go for it.

Anonymous said...

I would continue to agree with the above comments as well. If we are going to have coalition governments we need electoral reform to have the institutions that encourage this. Whereas our current institutional structure encourages all the present sillyiness involved.

To have coalition gov'ts first is kind of putting the cart before the horse. But I agree with the premise, multi-party coalition gov'ts are the way to go. Better than majority gov'ts, and much better than one party trying to rule like a majority with a minority.

Thor said...

Hear hear! What you said. Yes, it would be great if it could happen. But the Liberals would have to see the light first. And yes, Proportional Representation couldn't hurt.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I actually don't think that's at all true. We were almost there in 2004--if even two of the Tory-NDP races where the Tory won by a fraction of the vote had gone NDP, the NDP and the Liberals could have formed a coalition government. It could absolutely happen in the next election, if both Layton and Dion run smart campaigns.

I'm actually beginning to come around to the opposite position, i.e., that a coalition government may be a precondition for (federal) electoral reform. What I mean by that is that the Liberals will soon need to recognize the current multiparty configuration of Canadian politics for what it is--the new normal--at which point proportional representation will seem a lot more attractive to them. That's a lot more likely to happen within the context of a coalition government.


I admit that the true partisan Liberals won't like the idea. However, I still maintain that of the models for progressive unity and success that have been presented, this is the one that demands the least suspension of disbelief. The others simply will not happen. This one actually could.

Where you are, of course, right, is that it's my personal fantasy that Layton and Dion could sit down right now and announce an intended coalition before the election begins. Dion's far too busy chasing the pipedream of a majority for that. But it could still happen by accident if the numbers add up after the next election. If the Liberals win, say, 130 seats in the next election and the NDP the balance of power, you better believe there will be talks. And that could well be the best thing to happen to progressive politics in Canada...well, ever.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


To have coalition gov'ts first is kind of putting the cart before the horse.

Not if the numbers work out. If the Liberals and the NDP can, together, add up to a majority after the next election, there is no reason why there should be another minority government. None.

Besides, our own country's history tells us otherwise. There's been a coalition government at the federal level before, and there's never been proportional representation. It's not impossible.

Anonymous said...

Sort of related, i guess...

Do you think if some form of PR was ever adopted at the federal level, it might lead to something akin to what you outline in the paragraph that starts with "Take a moment...", in that PR would allow parties like the Libs and Cons to split into more "ideologically purer" parties - i.e. the lefties in the Libs might join the NDP, while the more right-wing libs might join with the more socially progressive Cons, while the socially retarted Cons would form their own party of idiots, etc.?

I know people tend to say PR is evil because it would (maybe) let a bunch of fringe parties win seats, but might it not also have an even bigger impact on the big parties?

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I wouldn't frame it in "ideological" terms, but I do think the party landscape would change if proportional representation were instituted at the federal level, yes. New Democrats are fond of saying that Liberals don't stand for anything, but the real problem is that they stand for too many conflicting things at once, which is why it's so easy for them to run left and govern right. The tent is just too big to come up with any sort of cohesive policy framework, and the federal Tories are no different in that respect, these days. Under PR, it's quite likely that both big-tent parties would split into different entities that would be able to more easily stand for something in particular. I suspect we'd end up with three midsized parties where there are now two big ones, which would make the possibilities for coalitions a lot more colourful.

Oh, and on the "fringe parties would get more seats" issue, any of the models that have been advanced for Canada would include thresholds that would prevent that. So that, at least, is nothing to worry about.

Politicagrll said...

The electoral system needs to come before the coalition. Saying two parties will work together (before the election) is too close to saying they are joining for my comfort.

As for ridings going Tory in strategical times. I lived in a riding where we did best when the PC's were doing well. More of the Liberal vote went to the PC's then, but never enough to win the which case we did. Paul Dewar (NDP) won the seat in that riding in the last election. Which seems to suggest there is some merit to those types of differences.

I don't how much of that was an anomoly or if it's possible that riding politics can be more complicated than a one way view of what happens given this or that situation

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


The electoral system needs to come before the coalition.

Okay. How do you respond to the points I made to Josh, Greg, and bza about that, then?

Saying two parties will work together (before the election) is too close to saying they are joining for my comfort.

I respectfully submit that you only feel this way because you've never seen it in action. I have, while I was living in Germany, and trust me--"telegraphing" the desired coalition to the voters is how it's done. It's not about a merger, it's about telling the voters that the government they'd be voting for would be a coalition. When parties do this, they still run candidates against each other in the ridings, and still argue with each other about the issues when they disagree in debates. But if you don't telegraph your intentions to the voters, it can lead to lots of unpleasantness after the election. It's only fair that people know what they're voting for.

Just as an example: the German Social Democrats and the Greens formed a coalition together through two elections, and telegraphed their intentions to the voters both times. When the math didn't work out for a third election, the Greens left government and went over to opposition, and the Social Democrats now have a coalition government together with the conservative Christian Democrats. This suggestion really isn't a merger in sheep's clothing, trust me.

The JF said...

I'm not sure this was addressed in the comments, and this might be what you were talking about with telegraphing your intentions, but what about the risk of Conservatives coming up the middle? I suppose it would be up to Libs and NDPs on the ground to consider which is more likely to win, and then vote for the most likely candidate in the coalition to win.

I wonder if the Conservatives would attack the coalition, or the parties themselves.

Either way, I'm all for the idea, naturally. And I say rather than debating on the likeliness of this happening, we make this a reality, starting from the blogosphere and the web, and then expand into having a real presence in both parties. Because if this is to happen, it will have to be pushed up the hill by the grassroots at first.

I obviously have not enough influence to start something like this, plus I tend to be horribly divisive, but I think you could get the ball rolling. If Scott Tribe over on the Liberals' side is willing to help with this (which I'm rather sure he would), he could push to get things moving there.

Personally, I'm putting myself at your disposal for this. I can provide you with a server (that can host a web site, a wiki, promotional stuff, whatever you want), communications infrastructure (e-mail, forum, instant messaging, VoIP conferencing, podcasts, vodcasts, blogrolls, shared calendars, you name it), web application coding skills (HTML, XML, XSL, CSS, WML, JavaScript, PHP, ASP.NET [if I have to], SQL), okay but not stellar graphic design skills, 10 years of experience in online projects (that's right, since I was 13... It was a roleplaying game with a graphical chat client called Furcadia, it still exists at But enough bragging, heh), an overactive imagination and a willingness to believe that change is possible. The only thing I ask is to not be the leader of the project, because whenever I'm project leader, there's lots of growth and dynamism from the team but also lots of conflict, and also because I am master at procrastination and I have rarely ever actually finished a project.

So what do you say? Are you serious about making this happen?

Alex said...

But the reason that German parties have desired pre-election partners is that they aren't running candidates against each other in SMDs (well, they are, but it's not particularly relevant in the big picture).

In Canada it is zero-sum (entirely SMD). So if the parties can agree to run only one candidate, okay, but which candidate? And then... will all the Liberal voters follow to the NDP? How many would rather vote Conservative or Green?

And then if the parties can't agree, but still "progressive" voters think they have more of a choice and can vote NDP OR Liberal... well... that just means the Conservatives win 40-25-25 races (1988?). Then, the Liberals and NDP engage in lots of mutual recrimination. And the Liberals who don't like the NDP or the NDPers who don't like the Libs STILL are alienated when they go to the ballot box.

And finally, there's that issue of financing based on vote totals...

All of which is to say that MMP is great and should be adopted, but until then the coordination mechanisms don't really exist to make pre-election coalitions a reality. (Post-election coalitions could happen, but that's a different question).

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I'm not sure what you mean by the Conservatives "coming up the middle." If the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition didn't get enough seats to win, then of course it wouldn't form government. The winning party would form another minority, I suppose, or there could be a different coalition. That's how it works wherever this is done--the parties "telegraph" their preferred coalitions, but if it doesn't work out on the voter level, the parties have to figure out some other sort of configuration to form government.

You're going to slap me for saying this, but I really don't think this is a matter for local politics. This isn't something unwieldy and complex that needs to be built from the ground up in order to function--it could happen tomorrow, if the powers that be wanted to make it so. And either they want that, or they don't. My guess is that they don't now, but may well change their minds if the math adds up after the next election. I'll certainly have my fingers crossed.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


So if the parties can agree to run only one candidate, okay, but which candidate?

Heh. Well, that's where my support for this idea would stop, anyway. Every Canadian voter deserves to have a full range of options to vote for, not an artificially engineered set of them.

All of which is to say that MMP is great and should be adopted, but until then the coordination mechanisms don't really exist to make pre-election coalitions a reality.

Yeah, you're probably right about that.

What that means is that if they do decide to run with a coalition after the next election, there will be some pissed-off voters who don't feel like they got what they voted for. I suppose we could live with that to get a little more stability in our government, but it's definitely suboptimal.

We have such a stupid electoral system! I know of no one who's actually experienced one of alternatives who doesn't agree.

The JF said...

In the sense that if you have a tight race between Liberals and NDP in one riding, you end up with a Conservative coming up in the middle... For example, if you have, 28% Liberal, 28% NDP, 30% Conservative, 14% Green. The Conservatives "came up in the middle", because if 3% of Liberals had voted NDP, or 3% of the NDPs had voted Liberal, you would have a Liberal or NDP MP instead. Now, this happens right now, but in the context of a possible coalition to govern, you still would need people to strategically vote because of FPTP.

And it's unfortunate that you don't think people need to mobilize around the idea of coalition governments. It's true that it's not complicated in any way, but basically the idea is to lobby the party leaderships to think in coalition terms. It's also to lobby the party grassroots to be okay with the idea and to educate the Canadian population on what coalitions are. But, pardon my following snarky remark, but I suppose we'll just... Sit around, talk about it academically (which I do enjoy doing but that's besides the point) and cross our fingers like you do, basically hoping, very paradoxally, that the next election Dippers and Liberals get so thoroughly pounded that we have no choice than to adopt a more pluralistic method of governance.

The JF said...

In a way, it would be to deradicalize the idea, to make it mainstream. As in, it would be normal to think that the Liberals and NDP would form a coalition if the conditions were right, rather than just this idea among the pool of ideas.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Yeah, we definitely disagree about how to handle this. This can't come from the public at large--the public at large doesn't know what coalition governments are. If somebody tried to start a grassroots movement, it would get radically misunderstood not only by the media, but by most of the people involved in the movement. The best case scenario is that people just think it's about a merger, and the worst case scenario is that it actually becomes about a merger. No, if this is going to happen, it needs to come directly from the leadership.

I did talk about the idea with Dion when I interviewed him, by the way, and you can read the results of that discussion back here. The next time I have a chance to talk to Layton, I will plan to pose a similar question.

The JF said...

Well, Dion wasn't exactly open to the idea, and I don't see why he would suddenly change his mind unless the Liberals brutally plummets to marginal status which I'm willing to bet isn't going to happen. Layton has also rejected coalitions in the two minority parliaments he's been in, so I don't think he's so positive on the idea either.

I might be incredibly naive, but I have faith that Canadians (journalists included!) are smart and given a properly articulated idea will understand it, and I'm not talking about just political geeks, I mean everyone.

But I'll leave it at that.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Well, I think it's possible Dion might change his tune if confronted with a situation where he had to choose between a precarious minority government that could fall at any time, and a stable coalition with one other party that would last years. But I suppose we will see. Anything could happen, at this point.

Canadian Tar Heel said...

Hi IP,

A coalition government?

Well, it worked in 1925. It could work now.

And technically, the coalition wouldn't even need to wait for an election to change the government. The GG appoints a MP who "enjoys the support of the Commons" as the PM. And then at the behest of the PM, the GG appoints the Cabinet. This is all theoretical, but interesting just the same.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

P.S. to JF,

This sort of thinking just demonstrates what I mean. If a smart, educated, political geek like NBC Dipper--someone who reads my blog regularly and has read what I've said about coalition governments in excruciating detail--can still equate coalition governments with "propping up" a minority government, then there's absolutely no way people would be able to wrap their minds around it enough for any sort of grassroots campaign to do anything but harm.

Candace said...

IP, if you read Jamey's book and somehow got that a coalition gov't was the answer, did we read the same book? Or am I just so hopelessly right-thinking (politically, in your opinion, versus universally in mine) that I don't get it?

HOW is Harper, with a defined abortion stand or his watered down 'vote on whether or not to revisit SSM' scarier than either Martin or Dion with their continuous dithering?

Would you rather 12 years of inaction on the climate or one, with the end result that something actually GETS DONE?

Furthermore, if the left side of the spectrum is all about minority rights, why is it okay to write of the >30% of voting Canadians that NEVER VOTE LIBERAL OR NDP? Or is that just an 'inconvenient' minority that it's okay for the majority to trample on?

What I'm hearing is that, in essence, if a minority is visible or sexual (female, although we're technically, at 51%, no longer a minority, are we? Are you going to push for a Status of Men Commission?) or handicapped in some way, their rights are sacrosanct. IF, however, that minority disagrees politically with the majority, that's just too damn bad?

WTF kind of equality is that?

Forgive me if I'm coming across antagonistically, but I really don't get the argument here.

The JF said...

Fair enough, I concede.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


A few things that will hopefully clear up some misconceptions:

1. It is my firm belief--and it seems that this is supported by the facts--that a shift in political culture to include coalition governments is eventually inevitable in Canada. It isn't very likely that either the Bloc or the NDP will disappear anytime soon, which means that there is no longer a two-party structure in Canada, and this multiparty system is permanent. With this new normal comes the unlikelihood of any single party forming a majority on its own. The only two other options are endless unstable minority governments, which would mean yearly elections that would get old VERY quickly, and coalition governments. The latter is the way it's done in most of the world, and it's coming to Canada sooner or later.

2. This doesn't mean that I envision a Liberal-NDP (or NDP-Liberal) coalition government permanently installed and ignoring 30% of the electorate. I think if you read the post I wrote immediately after this one, it will be clear that that's not what I'm saying. Trust me, it's clear to me that anything that smacked of installing a government in perpetuity would be bad, bad, bad for Canada. But that isn't what would happen--a coalition government would last until the next election, and that's it.

3. On the other hand, I do think that it's entirely appropriate for a government that got a majority of the vote--coalition or no--to ignore what its political opponents want for the duration of its time in power. If the people don't like what they do, they can vote for different parties next time and force them into a different configuration. That's how representative democracies work. And it would be a heck of a lot more representative of how people voted than what we have now, in which one party that gets a minority of the vote gets to call the shots all on its own. (All-party cooperation over the Clean Air Act and the NDP intervention in the Liberals' 2005 budget notwithstanding.)

4. Jamey Heath argues, essentially, that the NDP should try to win over lefty Liberals and become the new "big tent" party. I disagree with him, just as I disagree with the people in the Liberal Party who want to take over the centre-left of the NDP. The reasons for this disagreement are in the paragraph starting "I'll admit" and in the one that follows it. I would much rather each of the parties get to keep their political identities by forming temporary coalition governments, than keep trying to merge each other out of existence.

5. I don't find Harper scary, I find him wrong. Liberals are also wrong...when they govern alone. A government that included multiple parties would be an entirely different kettle of fish from anything we've seen before.

Does that help? This post might also help a's where I went into some detail about how coalition governments work in practice. Let me know if you have any other questions.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

P.S. to Candace,

Um, do "let me know if you have any other questions," but as I'm going out of town through the end of the weekend, it might be a bit before I have a chance to answer them. *grin*

Jay said...

I would definitely support a coalition government between the Liberals and NDP. Coalition at first , and maybe down the road maybe merging if the conditions were right and people supported it. Could have the Liberal Democrats as a name.

Not sure if I have anything to offer with regards to getting this idea pushed. I'd be interested in helping though.

Candace said...

Thanks, IP, I'll re-read your posts & hopefully the book by the time you're back.

Note that I doubt you will ever convince me, but I'll be quite happy to understand the reasons behind your viewpoints.

As for the 2-party state, the NDP have been around since, I think, before I was born, so I've never seen Canada as a 2-party state. I get a little concerned when I see the Cdn Communist Party getting votes in elections, but take comfort in the fact that they are always minimal, at best.

I wouldn't want a 2-party state, and frankly, wish the Rhino party would come back. I miss the ability to give a real, honest to God protest vote that EVERYONE recognizes as such.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

(stopping in briefly from California)


I couldn't disagree with you more, and it's a little frustrating to me that this is how you read my post. The advantage of coalition governments is that they allow each party to maintain their own political identity while temporarily compromising with another party within government. They are NOT a precursor to mergers, which are a TERRIBLE idea that only reduce the number of perspectives on the political scene.


I actually think we may be more in agreement than you think. I know you're sympathetic to the idea of proportional representation, and appreciate the diversity it would bring. Well, coalition governments are a part of how parliamentary systems work when they're voted in by PR. And with them come more, not less political diversity.