Monday, July 23, 2012

Voting Morally, Not Strategically in Melbourne and Etobicoke Centre

Ahhh…the summertime! Long days spent pushing the stroller through my community. Hot nights spent drinking beer on the front porch. What better time to think / talk politics? Well, maybe if there were an election going on…but there’s not, at least not yet. Certainly, we know that federally, there will be at least two by-elections called in the near future (Durham, where Conservative cabinet minister Bev Oda has resigned from parliament; and Calgary Centre, where long-serving Conservative backbencher Lee Richardson has stepped down to pursue a job as Alberta PC Premier Alison Redford’s principal secretary). And, there might be another by-election called in Etobicoke Centre, where defeated Liberal candidate and former MP, Borys Wrzesnewskyj, initiated a court challenge after voting irregularities were identified in that riding. After a lower court ordered a new election, that court’s decision was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada by Conservative MP Ted Opitz; the Supreme Court’s decision will issue soon.

Etobicoke Centre

What happens in Etobicoke Centre really matters to all Canadians, that much is clear. Lawyers for Wrzesnewskyj and Opitz both argued that Canadian’s faith in our electoral system would be shaken if there was no new election, and if there was one. Interestingly, in my opinion, they’re both correct, as our faith in our electoral system has already been shaken, in part due to what’s happened in Etobicoke Centre, and in part due to a lack of action on Elections Canada’s part regarding election-day calls directing voters to incorrect polling stations. And of course, before that, we had the In-and-Out scandal, in which the Conservative Party of Canada was determined to have spent more than it was legally allowed to do so during an election campaign. So sure, voters faith in our system has clearly been shaken, and in some cases, the very legitimacy of our current government is being questioned.

In part, because what happens in Etobicoke Centre matters to Canada, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May last week called on her own party not to run a candidate in that riding, should the Supreme Court uphold the lower court’s decision authorizing a by-election. Not only did May call on the Green Party to sit out a by-election, she also called on the NDP to consider not running a candidate, ostensibly so that Wrzsenewskyj and Opitz can go head-to-head to determine which MP (the former or the current one) gets to represent the riding. However, May’s call is actually in keeping with a much broader desire on the part of May and the Green Party to work with other political parties in the interests of Canadians. Given that May and many in the Green Party view the Conservative Party of Canada as a threat to Canada, the values of Canadians, and our democratic institutions, her call for a Liberal-Conservative head to head makes sense, especially since Green and NDP participation will likely end up working in favour of the Conservatives. Neither the Green Party nor the NDP candidates were contenders in Etobicoke Centre in the last election, and although one should never base future results on past results, the fact is that with fewer candidates running, there is a less of a chance of splitting votes.

Strategic Decisions

I wrote about May’s call for sitting out a hypothetical by-election in Etobicoke Centre last week, in my blogpost, “Greens Doing Politics Differently: A Smart Play by Elizabeth May in Etobicoke Centre”. As a result of last week’s piece, I’ve come under a little friendly fire for what appears to be my own endorsement of strategic voting. Let me be clear: Elizabeth May has not endorsed strategic voting by suggesting that her Party, who has the final say, opt out of a by-election there. In fact, by not running a candidate, there will be no need for strategic voting to happen, which is why, in part, May has also suggested that the NDP sit that by-election out.

Strategic voting arises when voters are faced with making a tough decision, usually based on their dislike of a candidate who they fear will win. As a result, they end up casting their ballot for a candidate whom they think can defeat the candidate they fear, and thus end up voting not for their candidate of choice, but rather against the candidate they fear.

Often, it ends up being strategic for a political Party to opt out of a particular contest, for many reasons. As I indicated in my earlier post, there are certainly problems when this occurs, mostly amongst party supporters at the local level, who may view the Party’s decision not to run a candidate as problematic. Sometimes, the negatives resonate outside of a riding, should the Party itself come under scrutiny by regional or national media, who might publicly wonder why the Party is not running a candidate, and perhaps determine that the Party is having internal issues (personality/economic) which has led to their opting out of a particular contest.

Unfortunately, a political party can’t control the media narrative, and there will always be those in the media who have their own personal pet theories or axes to grind. What a political party can do, however, is attempt to get out in front of a story, tell the facts as they see it, and hope that the public understands why decisions are being made about certain matters. And although the Green Party of Canada has not to my knowledge decided whether to heed May’s advice regarding Etobicoke Centre (and likely they haven’t, because the Supreme Court of Canada has yet to rule), but should the Green Party choose to listen to May, it could very well be that Green supporters in Etobicoke Centre will have a better understanding than any others in Canada have ever had about why their Party is choosing to sit out a particular by-election.

It could even be a possibility that the Green Party takes the extraordinary step of endorsing another Party’s candidate in Etobicoke Centre. I’m not saying that will happen, but it could. And in my opinion, it probably should, if the Party decides to sit out the by-election. As I wrote last week, although I am a rabid Green partisan, the needs of my nation have to outweigh what’s good for my Party. Electing a Conservative in Etobicoke Centre will prove to be a bad thing for Canada. Sure, a Green candidate could repeat the 2011 general election’s result, gathering in almost 1,000 votes, but if ultimately a Conservative is elected there, that’s not a victory by any means for Canada.

Electoral Outcomes

When I wrote about Etobicoke Centre last week, I cast around looking for an interesting example where the absence of a political party’s candidate may have led to an unexpected outcome in a particular riding. Of course, we all know that Elizabeth May and then-Liberal Leader Stephane Dion had a no-compete agreement in their respective ridings of Central Nova and Saint Laurent-Cartierville, during the 2008 General Election. Dion won his seat easily; for May, however, the absence of a Liberal candidate did not stop he re-election of Conservative MP Peter McKay. In neither case could the absence of a candidate be said to have influenced the outcome.

Yes, there was the interesting case involving the NDP in Saanich-Gulf Islands during the 2008 general election. Julian West, the NDP’s nominated candidate, resigned during the election, but it was too late to remove his name from the ballot. West still ended up with about 3,000 votes. Interestingly, in the days leading up to the election, SGI voters received a robocall from a phone number belonging to the NDP riding association’s President. Bill Graham, the local NDP President, insisted that the calls were not coming from the NDP. More details about the story are offered at, “Automated phone calls urge vote for B.C. candidate who withdrew”, from the Victoria Times Colonist, October 14, 2008, reprinted by What is interesting, however, is the origin of the calls was never determined. And of course, when the RoboCalls voter-suppression scandal involving multiple-ridings in the 2011 general election hit the news, people began to recall what had happened in SGI, and publicly wondered what Elections Canada had found out. The answer, of course, is nothing. Which isn’t very reassuring to Canadians.

But what happened in SGI in 2008 is not a good example of how an election’s outcome might be influenced by the absence of a candidate, for although candidate West had absented himself from the contest, his name still appeared on the ballot. That his name remained on the ballot might have ultimately influenced the election’s outcome, as less than 2,000 votes separated the winning Conservatives from the second-place Liberals.

The Melbourne By-Election, Victoria State

An interesting (and very current) electoral contest was brought to my attention this past weekend, thanks to Nova Scotia’s SkyGods vs. Earthlings blogger, Michael Marshall (who wrote about this by-election in his blogpost, “Greens lead in Australian by-election because Australian socialists are to the right of Stephen Harper”). Apparently, in a by-election held in the Melbourne riding of the Australian State of Victoria this past weekend, the right-wing Liberal Party did not run a candidate, which forced the left-wing Labor Party to court the ultra-right-wing Family First Party (which wants to discriminate against same sex couples, amongst other social conservative policies). What reason could the generally-progressive Labor Party have had for courting socially conservative voters? Well, there were two reasons: one, the Australian electoral system; and two, to prevent the Greens Party from winning.

In Australia, voters cast ballots which include preferences. Unless a candidate gains 50% of the vote outright, second place preferences are counted until the 50% goal is reached. In the Melbourne by-election, the Greens candidate obtained 36.4% of the popular vote, but after “preferences” were added, the Greens were defeated by Labor. Many pundits speculate this was because of Labor aggressively courting the votes of the fourth place finishing Family First Party. And because the Liberal Party did not run a candidate, as Family First voters may have “preferred” the Liberals to Labor. Interestingly, the third-place finishing Sex Party of Australia appears not to have worked with either Labor or the Greens on preferences, although Greens and Sex had worked together in the past. 

(For more coverage, please see: “Labor claims victory in Melborne by-election”, ABC News)

Winning At All Cost

Now, I don’t share Michael Marshall’s view that the Australian Labor Party is to the right of the Conservative Party of Canada. Instead, it’s clear that Labor’s courting of social conservatives had more to do with playing a political game in an attempt to win the election. That the Greens and Labor are in a coalition of sorts at the federal level in Australia is indicative that the two parties can, and do, work together, and have overlapping policy interests. It’s also fair to say that the Australian Greens may be a little more to the left of Canada’s Green Party, and Labor a little more to the right of Canada’s NDP. But it’s probably best to say neither, as there are significant nuanced differences between Australian and Canadian politics that make direct comparisons quite problematic.

What does appear similar to me, though, is Labor’s desire to do whatever it must in order to win. In that, I see a direct comparison between Australian Labor and Canada’s NDP. And frankly, it disgusts me. When politics becomes about winning at all cost, instead of about advancing good public policy and doing what’s right for people, I have to shake my head. Yet, that’s largely where things are at throughout Canada (and apparently Australia) today.

In Canada, we have the NDP, a party which has recently launched attack ads directed against the Prime Minister, even though an election won’t be held until 2015. Party whips forced two sitting NDP members to remain silent for the better part of a year because they voted against the Party’s preferred position on the long gun registry. And apparently, if comments appended to my earlier blogpost are to be believed, the NDP has an inflexible policy of always running candidates in each and every riding and in every electoral contest. Such a policy clearly goes against any potential for electoral co-operation with other parties, and could be the reason why the NDP has shown so little desire to do so, despite the fact that many of its own supporters have called for a significant degree of co-operation.

Sure, I’m still bitter about former NDP Leader Jack Layton’s calls for keeping Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from attending the 2008 televised Leader’s debate, despite the Green Party having met the media consortium’s previous threshold for attendance: having a sitting MP in parliament. When the media consortium first decided to exclude May, Layton offered his clear support to the media consortium. It was only an outcry from Canadians (many of whom were NDP supporters) which led Layton to reconsider his position. In 2011, of course, Layton did nothing when the consortium successfully excluded May from participating.

What's Good for Democracy Does Not Always Equal What's Good for the NDP

The NDP may talk a good game when it comes to democracy, but when push comes to shove, it seems that the NDP always puts its own interests ahead of any other interests. Now, it’s true: that’s a prerogative of a political party, and more likely than not, it’s a strategy for political success. But with voters growing increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo, how long will it be now before NDP supporters come to the realization that the NDP offers little substantive change the status quo? Unfortunately, with our media-driven Leadership-based politics, it may yet take a while, as the media seems insistent that the next election will be an epic confrontation between Left vs. Right. In such battles, spin and rhetoric are king, and good public policy has little to do with outcomes.

And I fully expect that there will be efforts to exclude Green Party Leader Elizabeth May from future televised debates as well, as neither the Conservatives or the NDP stand to gain anything from her participation, as Greens votes are drawn from progressives of all political stripes. The Green Party is only a “party of the left” in that our politics are to the left of the Conservative Party’s ultra-right wing oil-based neo-liberal platform.

Moral Voting, Not Strategic Voting

If the Green Party decides to do things a little differently in Etobicoke Centre, I sincerely hope that Green supporters in that riding understand that it’s about doing politics differently, rather than abandoning those supporters for other reasons. Instead of a strategic, political decision being made, should the Green Party opt out of the by-election, the decision could and should be viewed as a moral decision, one which puts the interests of the nation ahead of partisan gain.

I can only hope that NDP supporters are asked by their Party to understand this rationale too, and cast moral ballots rather than strategic ones. But I’m not holding my breath.

(opinions expressed are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)

1 comment:

GAB said...

I agree we need to look at opportunities to do things differently and cooperate for the country's good, the problem is if we make this decision will be the rhetoric from gits questioning our seriousness as a party and ultimately we'll need to spend more on an smart ad campaign defending the decision than we would have on the actual by-election.

To do this properly will require more money and finesse than actually running someone. I fear we will cheap out and hurt ourselves in the process. If the NPD join us it would be much easier but I doubt they will.