Talk of opposition cooperation gaining momentum

  • Jan. 9, 2013 4:20 p.m.

Few of the 2012 retrospectives offered in the media have mentioned one trend in Canada which I think is important – the increased interest of non-conservative parties at both federal and provincial levels in possible cooperation.

Back in 2009, when the Democratic Renewal Project in Alberta started talking about how negotiating exclusive candidates among Green, Liberal and New Democratic parties might end the vote-splitting which guaranteed Alberta’s perpetual Progressive Conservative government easy electoral victories, few were interested.

I recall being almost booed out of the room when I proposed the idea to Mo Elsalhy’s Liberal Party Renewal committee. And the NDP, for whom I had run in 1982, was equally unreceptive. Former workers on my campaign tore a strip off me and provincial NDP leader Brian Mason publicly and contemptuously dismissed cooperation scenarios.

Times have changed.

The provincial Liberal party published a ‘Let’s Talk’ ad before the 2012 election and two prominent Liberals who denounced my suggestion at Elsalhy’s Calgary meeting now favour cooperation. Although Mason continues his quixotic quest to bury the Liberal Party instead of maximizing the number of progressive MLAs in the Alberta legislature, his federal counterparts had an interesting debate about inter-party cooperation during last year’s leadership contest, courtesy of candidate Nathan Cullen.

Alberta’s NDP will not talk about cooperation as long as Mason is at the helm. But rumour has it that there are increased rumblings of discontent in the party about his obdurate stance and that a well-respected New Democrat with a pro-cooperation platform may challenge his leadership at the next annual convention.

Pending a change in that party’s leadership, perhaps the Alberta, Green and Liberal parties will get the cooperation ball rolling, although the two smaller parties have a lot of groundwork to do before they can add much heft to the movement. But if these parties make progress in possible negotiations, their example might encourage New Democrats to be more supportive about cooperation when voting at their convention.

Last summer, some of us asked both local party executives and the leaders of the federal Greens, Liberals and New Democrats to negotiate choosing a unity candidate for the upcoming Calgary Centre by-election, in order to avoid vote-splitting. Only Elizabeth May was receptive and nothing was done. Conservative Joan Crockatt then swept in with less than 40% of the vote. Mighty were the lamentations, especially among Liberals whose candidate came second. (See conclusion number 2 below.)

Recently, Liberal MLA Kent Hehr caused a furor when he suggested merger talks with the NDP. And discussions have begun in Calgary about how centre-left parties at both the provincial and federal levels might cooperate in the next round of elections. Monthly meetings at Broken City are planned for the first Tuesday of each month.

The second meeting was held on Jan. 1. It was useful, although too free-wheeling without a chairperson. So far, I have concluded that:

1. Working out the details of inter-party cooperation and possible policies is very complicated and will require time for trust to be developed amongst participants.

One model which is gaining momentum is a joint nominating convention, in electoral districts whose centre-left party executives agree, which would choose a candidate backed by all parties participating. The winner of the nomination would have a hyphenated party affiliation – e. g., Green-Liberal-New Democrat – on the election ballot. (Which affiliation would count for research funds and numbers of seats necessary for party recognition for unity candidates who won seats in the election would have also to be negotiated.)

There has been some discussion whether a hyphenated party affiliation could appear on an election ballot in today’s Alberta (I believe a joint Liberal-Progressive Conservative candidate ran in Pincher Creek in 1955).

Having checked both the Election Act (especially ss. 59 and 83) and the Interpretation Act (s. 26(3)), my preliminary conclusion is that it would be legal.

2. Agreement needs to be achieved well before an election looms.

3. Negotiations should not aim at a permanent arrangement, but one for the next one or two elections.

4. The only way this will work is through local initiatives by party executives who reach agreement in applicable electoral districts – party leaders may have to be informed about cooperation decisions rather than asked for permission.

5. It’s encouraging to note that both NDP (Nathan Cullen) and Liberal (Joyce Murray) federal party leadership contests featured candidates with a cooperation platform.

6. One possible unifying factor could be an agreement to support changing the first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system to some form of proportional representation (PR). After a combined government accomplishes this reform, all parties could revert to their usual competition, as every vote would count in determining the final composition of the legislature.

Not everyone agrees with this last idea, although Greens at both levels support it and at least the federal NDP does as well. Since federal Liberals have historically done well under FPTP, some of their loyalists appear somewhat less enthused.

This illustrates a challenge for all parties. Can their militants raise their sights above partisan self-interest and consider both PR and cooperation from the public interest point of view?

Phil Elder is a former federal Liberal Assistant, NDP provincial candidate and was a strategic Green voter in the last federal election. His column is distributed through Troy Media.

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