I am directing today’s blogpost specifically at those NDP supporters who have an interest in addressing Canada’s democratic deficit. Although I am writing from a partisan perspective, I nevertheless invite you to take a very critical look at what your support for the NDP has actually accomplished when it comes to addressing the democratic health of this nation. I believe that the record of the NDP on this issue speaks volumes, and that in fact that your support for the NDP, which has promised action on democratic renewal, has actually led to a circumstance which is increasingly detrimental to the principles of democracy.
I became a partisan in large part because of my dissatisfaction of the NDP’s lip-service to issues such as the climate crisis and democratic renewal. As environmentally-minded Democrats in the United States are now finding out, those who claim to champion an issue and then do nothing when in power, are equally or more dangerous than partisans who are outright opposed to a particular issue. That’s what has been happening with the NDP with regards to addressing Canada’s democratic deficit. Although I speak to you today as a partisan from another Party, one with a different tradition than yours, I ask you to nonetheless take a close look at what your past support of the NDP has really accomplished when it comes to addressing Canada’s growing democratic deficit. I believe that you won’t help but see that the NDP, despite offering solutions, has in fact been a significant part of the problem.
The NDP: First-Past-The-Post Electoral Reform
Canadians like to think that we live in a representative democracy, where every vote counts. However, throughout the country, our elections for provincial and federal representatives all use the antiquated First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system, in which the candidate with the highest number of total votes will be selected to represent a particular geographic area (a riding), no matter that the candidate may have failed to receive a majority mandate. In a two-party system, the FPTP system would assuredly work well, but Canada has never had a two-party system. Even back before the days of the NDP and its predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), there were other parties, including the Progressive Party, and in Ontario, the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO) which challenged for, and in some cases, obtained electoral power.
Clearly, not every vote counts in Canada’s elections. In the federal riding that I grew up in, Bramale-Malton-Gore, for example, the winning Conservative candidate received 34.4% of the vote in the May, 2011 election. Voters who cast ballots for other candidates, including the 33.5% who voted NDP and the 28.4% who voted Liberal, have nothing to show for their ballots, because their candidates failed to receive the most votes. No candidate received a majority.
Bramalea-Gore-Malton is not unique amongst Canadian ridings. As a result, movements to reform our electoral processes have been afoot throughout the nation. These movements champion alternative electoral systems, such as those used in most other democratic nations. Canada’s FPTP electoral system is actually in minority use throughout the world, as most other democracies have abandoned it (or never instituted it in the first place) due to the skewed results the system often leads to, while disenfranchising voters.
The New Democratic Party is often portrayed as a champion of Canadian democracy. Most often, this is because the NDP claims that it is interested in changing the First-Past-The-Post electoral system. Partisans from other political parties, notably Liberals and Conservatives, have derided this plank of the NDP’s platform, claiming that the NDP has historically wanted to change the system because it could never elect enough legislators to have an impact on the political system.
However, that perspective should be considered nonsensical, especially now with the federal NDP polling at numbers close to the ruling Conservative Party’s. And the NDP’s provincial electoral successes have clearly demonstrated that the NDP can form a government under the FPTP electoral system.
Indeed, in recent times, the NDP have governed in Ontario, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Nova Scotia. Interestingly, although the NDP has claimed to be an advocate for democratic renewal and reforms to FPTP electoral systems, when in power, the NDP hasn’t done a thing to reform our antiquated electoral systems.
In fact, it was left to Liberal parties in Ontario and in British Columbia to put electoral reform to the people in referendums.
The NDP and the Power of Votes: Maintaining the Outdated Rural/Urban Status Quo
When it comes to one person, one vote, where has the NDP been?
Recently, Interim Leader of the NDP Nycole Turmel found herself opposing electoral reforms being brought forward by the Conservative Party, which are intended to add ridings in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia, as a result of population increases in those provinces. Right now, there is perverse situation which exists in Canada whereby rural votes actually wield more proportional power than do their urban counterparts, due to the number of votes which are required to elect a legislator. While Canada strives to have an average of about 90,000 voters per riding, the fact is that due to out-migration, many rural ridings have significantly fewer voters than the average, while fast-growing ridings like Brampton West in the Greater Toronto Area have closer to 160,000.
Instead of embracing the idea of empowering voters (or better yet, demanding real change calling for the introduction of an alternative electoral system), Turmel and the NDP were dismissive of the government’s plan to create new ridings. Ostensibly, Turmel insisted that the interests of rural ridings be considered. Yet those rural ridings are the ones whose electors have wielded disproportionate power in the first place; it’s in the rural ridings where the problem lies.
Does the NDP want to maintain the electoral status quo, and tell new immigrants to Canada’s most populous areas that they should continue to accept proportional disenfranchisement? Does the NDP really want to say to urban voters that it’s ok that your votes don’t count as much as do the votes of rural Canadians? Apparently, purely for partisan reasons, that’s exactly what the NDP wants to accomplish, because those parts of Ontario, Alberta and B.C. have been difficult ones for the NDP to make breakthroughs in. Plus, now that the NDP represents the majority of Quebec ridings, it needs to do a better job of looking out for the interests of Quebec. Although Turmel didn’t say so, might it be that the NDP’s dismissiveness of the Conservative plan has more to do with a relative weakening of the power of Quebec legislators, due to the addition of seats of in other provinces?
Again, the NDP seems committed to a course of action where the concept of “one person, one vote” is compromised.
The NDP: Internal Elections and the Power of Unions (“Non-Persons”)
Even internally, the NDP have never used a “one person, one vote” system to elect members to its own governance structure, or for the election of their Leader. When Jack Layton became the Leader of the NDP almost a decade ago, 25% of votes in the leadership contest were allocated to unions. This means that grassroots members of the NDP didn’t have the final say on who the Leader of the Party would be, not until the unions cast their ballots. Now, unions may be comprised of real people, but they, like corporations, aren’t real people themselves. Yet the NDP, due to its historical association with the labour movements and trade unions, has always given the unions prominence of place in their internal elections.
Currently, there is a movement brewing inside of the NDP to curtail the voting power of the unions, in time for next year’s leadership contest. Given that the NDP hasn’t held a leadership contest in almost a decade, it’s unclear if those new, youthful card-carrying members of the NDP might be aware that under existing rules, their votes don’t count in the same way as an incorporated union, a non-person’s, does.
Right now, it’s not clear whether the NDP will abandon this special treatment they have historically afforded to the unions. It looks like leading candidate Thomas Mulcair (who, not surprisingly, is being pushed out by the internal NDP apparatus) is advocating for the change; but NDP insider, President Brian Topp, is against removing the special treatment for unions at the ballot box.
I agree that political parties should be entitled to elect their Leaders in any way they see fit. As I’m not a member of the NDP, it’s really none of my business what the NDP does internally to make up its own election rules. But as a Canadian concerned about reforming our provincial and national electoral rules, it seems to me that a party which doesn’t believe in the principle of “one person, one vote” or another type of representative choice, and which instead embraces the notion that corporate entities (“non-people”) have the right decide election outcomes (as their votes are proportionately worth more than the thousands of grassroots party members), well, that doesn’t sit well with me. And it shouldn’t sit well with anybody else who is concerned about Canada’s democratic deficit.
The NDP: Choosing Partisanship Over Democracy at Every Opportunity
When it comes to the democratic health of Canada, the NDP have been very good at paying lip-service to democratic principles. However, when opportunities have arisen for the NDP to show leadership, they have failed to do so in every circumstance.
Jack Layton, the former Leader of the NDP, was given an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on democracy back in 2008. At the beginning of the 2008 federal election, a group of media broadcasters, responsible for hosting the televised leadership debates, made a decision that Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, would be shut out of participating in the debates, despite the fact that the Green Party was running candidates across the country.
Instead of following then-Liberal Leader Stephane Dion’s lead to condemn the unelected and unaccountable Broadcast Consortium’s decision to exclude May, Layton’s knee-jerk reaction was to express his consent with the Consortium’s decision. This despite the fact that Layton was fully aware that the televised leader’s debates offers its participants an unparalleled opportunity to engage the Canadian electorate.
Layton eventually changed his mind, but not until NDP-supporters across Canada demanded that May be allowed the opportunity to participate in what amounted to a spontaneous uprising. NDP members were heard on national TV and radio programs to lament that Layton seemed more interested in playing partisan politics in silencing May than he was in promoting democracy.
The NDP: Consenting to Silence Other Voices at Every Opportunity
Of course, when the Broadcast Consortium came to the same conclusion to exclude Elizabeth May from the 2011 debates, Layton was seen to mouth his regrets about the decision – but then did nothing to further the interests of democracy.
What is often forgotten in these shameful episode is that the television broadcasters, the NDP, Conservative, Liberal and Bloc parties were involved in negotiations before and after decisions were made to exclude May. The Green Party was not present at the table, and decisions about May’s participation were made in negotiation with representatives from May’s political rivals, including the NDP.
The NDP, of course, led by Layton, was probably the biggest beneficiary of this behind-closed-doors decision to exclude May from the 2011 debates. Layton’s knock-out blows against Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff opened the eyes of the electorate to the NDP as a real alternative to the inept Liberals and fumbling Bloc. Almost overnight, Layton’s personal popularity soared, and he bootstrapped the rest of the NDP into the biggest electoral success experienced by that federal party ever. By having a hand in shutting out the voice of a compelling political rival, Layton set the scene for the NDP’s ultimate success, but at the expense of putting the NDP’s own interests ahead of the democratic interests of the nation.
In Ontario, the Provincial NDP Follows Suit
Layton, of course, wasn’t alone in doing so. Just this past weekend, the Ontario provincial election’s leaders debate was announced. Again, the Green Party will be excluded from the debate, despite its 8% showing in the last election, and its goal to run candidates in every riding. Clearly, the Green Party of Ontario is a pan-provincial party with a fully-developed suite of policies.
Ontario’s public broadcaster, TVOntario, clearly agrees with that assessment, as it announced this weekend that Greens would, for the first time, be represented on all TVO partisan political panels. Why? Because it’s in the interests of democracy to do so.
Yet, the provincial broadcaster’s decision not to invite Mike Schreiner, Leader of the Green Party of Ontario, has been met with silence from the NDP Leader Andrea Horwath and her Party, despite claiming to be champions of democracy. Remember: the NDP participated in discussions with broadcasters. The NDP could have chosen to stand up for doing the right thing, but for partisan gain, they instead chose to silence the voice of a political rival.
Greens have participated in televised leaders debates in provincial elections in BC, PEI and New Brunswick. There’s no good reason that they should be excluded from the debates here in Ontario. Only partisan political interests by the other parties have led to this outcome. Those Ontarians concerned about democratic health have clearly been let down by the NDP yet again.
The NDP: Dangerously Misleading Canadians
I am someone who is very concerned about the growing democratic deficit in this country. And I am continually frustrated that the NDP, a party whose supporters clearly believe it be a party above the partisan fray when it comes to the interests of democracy, that the NDP continues to always put their partisan interests ahead of the democratic interests of Canadians. The NDP, at best, pays lip-service to the principles of democratic renewal. If they would only practice what they preach, all Canadians would be better off. However, by pretending to want to do something on the issue, Canadians who long for real democratic reform are being misled by the NDP, causing more damage in the long run.
Perhaps, if you’re truly interested in the democratic health of this nation, and you’ve been a supporter of the NDP, perhaps it’s time to look elsewhere.
(opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and should not be interpreted as being consistent with those of the Green Party of Canada)