Why the centre-right needs to build a new kind of coalition

Electoral reforms are coming. Two staffers who worked for Stephen Harper examine how to build a centre-right coalition that would thrive under any system.

Conservative Party supporters watch early federal election results on television feeds at the party's election night headquarters in Calgary, Alta., on Monday October 19, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Conservative Party supporters watch early federal election results on television feeds at the party’s election night headquarters in Calgary, Alta., on Monday October 19, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised to make 2015 the last federal election under first-past-the-post. Canada’s centre-right has two options in responding: fight the reforms, or fight to build a political movement that is successful regardless of the reforms.

A principled approach to challenging electoral reforms is important, but a greater proportion of the centre-right’s energies must be directed to the latter struggle: building a larger voter coalition capable of winning under any system.

In June 2015, the Liberals released the now ubiquitous commitment to existential electoral change. The detailed pledge is to convene an all-party committee to study reforms, including ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting. It came with a promise of new reform legislation no later than April 2016.

Since the October 19 election, commentators and pollsters have repeated that a dire fate now confronts the Conservative Party. Unfortunately, the thesis has merit. By all available polling indicators, the federal Conservative Party is the first choice of too few Canadians, and the second choice of far too few Canadians.

Rather than prioritizing scarce resources over the next 18 months towards fighting against electoral reform, the centre-right should fight for certain principles: preserving the fundamental tenets of our Westminster system of government; maintaining the opportunity for regular centre-right majority governments; and ensuring any reforms have legitimacy through a national plebiscite.

A spirited and thoughtful defence of principle should prevent any egregious gerrymandering or attempts to make fundamental reforms without approval though a referendum. The recent plebiscites on electoral reform proposals in British Columbia, Ontario and Prince Edward Island now demand that any reform be given popular approval. This is an evolving Canadian constitutional norm, and possibly now an unwritten constitutional requirement. Any attempt by the Liberal government to change the rules of the game without giving a voice to the electorate should be vigorously opposed.

Perhaps the most ominous reform proposal for the centre-right is mandatory voting. Mandatory voting has a certain motherhood appeal. What reasonable person is anti-voting? Well, civil libertarians and the millions of Canadians who quadrennially abstain from the tastes of the political class. Nonetheless, it may be hard to mount a vigorous campaign against mandatory voting.

If mandatory voting or other electoral reforms are reasonably foreseeable by 2019, Canada’s centre-right coalition should begin preparing now to win under the new rules. The centre-right lacks a 50 per cent +1 voter coalition, but it does have one major advantage: a single political vehicle. The centre-left is divided across four disparate federal political parties. Former prime minister Stephen Harper endowed Canada with a single, united centre-right party.

A single party is key to centre-right victories at the provincial level. Centre-right parties govern in only two provinces: British Columbia (Liberal Party) and Saskatchewan (Saskatchewan Party). Those centre-right governments are politically successful because they are true centre-right coalitions. In both provinces the historically rightist and centrist political elements coalesced into a solid majority coalition.

As the federal and Ontario Liberals continue to chart further to the left, the success of centre-right coalitions in Saskatchewan and BC should be the model for building a big national political coalition.

Building a political coalition that can succeed under any electoral system (including proportional representation) begins with raising expectations. The centre-left is not satisfied targeting 40 per cent of the electorate. Collectively, the NDP, Greens, Bloc and progressive Liberals are chasing 70 per cent of the electorate. The centre-right should be equally ambitious. The 74 per cent of Torontonians who voted for centre-right candidates in the 2014 mayoral election (John Tory, Doug Ford) demonstrates what is possible.

The immediate goal of the centre-right must be to occupy a much bigger span of Canada’s political spectrum. Moving towards a 50 per cent +1 coalition will require multiple strategies. It is not a false choice between finding more base voters or broadening the brand. It is both of these strategies, plus educating voters, adopting available technologies, empowering the grassroots, and other complimentary initiatives.

Building a bigger centre-right coalition is the thrust behind Blue Skies Ontario. As the idea incubator for Ontario’s centre-right, we are providing a vehicle to discuss expanding Ontario’s centre-right beyond the traditional core demographics. An effort to expand the centre-right’s voter pool should now begin at the national level.

If October 19 was the last federal election under the only system the country has ever known, Canada’s centre-right needs to begin now to build the big coalition that will succeed in 2019.

Leif Malling and Jamie Ellerton, managing directors of Blue Skies Ontario, are former political staffers in Ottawa for the Harper Government.


Why the centre-right needs to build a new kind of coalition

  1. Give me a break. There is no centre-right in the Conservatives. They were pushed out and wiped away as quickly as they could get the term ‘Progressive’ out of the name. The facts are that the Conservatives, in thrall to their Western base, essentially betrayed the centre-right polices of the Red Tories from day one with their breathtakingly reckless policies, corrupt practices and attempts to bring American style divisive politics into Canada. They shifted right, right and right again, completely abandoning the centre that was responsible for numerous flagship Ontario governments, as well as the PC Majorities of the 80s.

    The best thing that the Conservatives could do is amputate their toxic Western base and start basing policies and priorities on the concerns of all Canadians, as opposed to amplifying a religious culture war. Until they can put forward a platform that speaks to issues, opposed to ideology and regional one-upsmanship, they can forget about trying to reclaim the centre that they spurned so fiercely.

    • I think what you might mean is that the “west” had better broaden their appeal or find themselves a “regional” party. The Harper game of trying to fly below the radar while iron fisting an agenda cloaked in secrecy is unlikely to work again anytime soon.

    • I disagree.

      I am no fan of Harper, but if he was in the States he would be a Democrat. He is farther to the right of the Liberals/NDP/Green/Bloc, but were still centrists.

      • All parties have moved far to the right in the past 20 years.

      • I don’t get this argument. For example, Harper is a climate change skeptic who has dragged his feet on concrete climate change policy. Obama wants to combat climate change by cancelling Keystone just to start. Harper wanted Canada to join the Iraq invasion. Obama is a rather reluctant interventionist and doesn’t even want to fully commit to Iraq.

        The best we can say is that Harper would be a centrist Republican in American terms. I don’t think he’d be a Democrat though. Not even close.

  2. “a promise of new reform legislation no later than April 2016.” Typo. That’s April 2017.

  3. Kudos on a positive appraisal and proactive approach to possible electoral changes.

    But your thinking doesn’t fully take into account the opportunities but challenges of a new electoral system – while much detail needs be seen in whatever changes are implemented (whether proportional representation or alternate voting) before recommending an approach, forcing the right and centre-right into an uncomfortable tent might not be to their mutual advantage or realistic. Had PR been in place in 1993 some open arrangement between the fragments of Mulroney’s coalition within the PCs the decade before could have impeded Chrétien’s free-ride decade. That the centre-right at the provincial level succeeds when they unite is immaterial – they all operate under first past the post and thus need to unite. Should a reasonable PR system come into play there’d be no need for Red Tories or Reformers or Québec soft-nationalists to sit in the same caucus – rather they could share government in coalition, with an agreed approach. A broadened coalition need not be within the same partisan tent.

    • In all likelihood, we’ll up with the preferential ballot as a) that’s Trudeau’s apparent first choice, b) it’s much more likely to give the LPC a majority government than PR, and c) it’s much easier to sell to the public than PR. a) and b) will result in a bias for the new government, so we should expect that the committee will be steered in that direction.

  4. I think you are missing the point of proportional representation. It is less about one party rule, and more about having a mix of political views in a government that reflect the mix in the population. Your efforts may be better spent learning how to get work done in co-operation with those whose views are different from your own.

  5. Justin Trudeau ‘reformed’ ballot choice is RANK and electoral heaven for his centrist party: near perpetual victories for the Liberals, By Design.
    But for two thirds of Canadian voters it means that on your electoral ‘wedding night’, Elections Canada bureaucrats will break into your honeymoon suite and insist that you hook up instead with your second and third and fourth choice for a wedding partner. But I have already picked the spouse I want to spend the rest of my life with, you protest in vain. Tough, say the bureaucrats – you must settle for sloppy seconds and thirds…

  6. The best thing the conservatives (small C) could do would be to form multiple parties. I could see myself voting for a center-right party under certain circumstances, but I would NEVER join Ford Nation.

    A center-right party could get my vote, a farther right party could get someone else’s vote, and Ford Nation could get the fringe vote. Those parties could form a coalition.

    As long as the right tries a one-size-fits-all policy – they won’t have my vote. Which is a shame, because I agree with a lot of their policies.

    • You’ll definitely be interested in a proportional voting system then. That way your vote will count.

  7. Rather than trying to cover all the bases, Conservatives just need to embrace proportional representation. Then all their voices would be heard no matter which particular faction they belonged to.

    Under Canadian law, referendums do not compel government to do anything. They are just used to test the waters, or often, quash an initiative that the public is demanding.

    The Liberals, NDP and Green all made electoral reform a part of their platforms in the recent election. They have a mandate to enact electoral reform.

    The author has made an excellent point about not fighting electoral reform. The Conservatives should cooperate to ensure that electoral reform is fair and beneficial for all Canadians. Cooperation and collaboration are necessary skills under a proportional voting system.

    • Referendums are indeed used in Canada at times and can compel government actions, e.g. Charlottetown Accord referendum, BC’s HST referendum. A change in voting system is a monumentally huge change, and so IMO is deserving of a referendum.

      As well, the Liberals did not specify a particular voting system, so it’s difficult to see how they could have a mandate to bring in a system which does not have the support of a majority of the population. That would be dictatorial. And what better way to determine that the proposed new system has the support of the Canadian people than holding a referendum? We have to live with whatever system is used, so we must have the final say on it.

      Personally, I have enthusiastic support for the ranked (preferential) ballot and zero support for proportional representation, and zero support for MMPR unless of the Jenkins Commission type.

  8. Perhaps you do not realize the numbers of angry bloggers who insist that they do not vote as a kind of statement to show their disgust for the choices offered. I don’t believe mandatory voting will make any government popular. If we are going to make something mandatory, let’s make it something worthwhile. How about childhood vaccination prior to attending a publicly funded school. Canada is a country of freedoms and whether we like it or not, it is an adult’s freedom choice not to vote for the leader of the country.
    I really hope we don’t go to a “ranked” ballot as that is how Alberta ended up with Redford and Special Ed…two less than optimal choices snuck in as 2nd choices. Why don’t we do what the US does. Vote for a riding representative separately from the PM. That way Liz May might get in as PM even if she has no green mp’s with her in the house.

  9. You are seriously mistaken if you believe Canada has a “center” right party. The last 9 years of the CPC has provided Canadians with a view of hard right politics being rammed down our throats. From the beginning, the changes the CPC deployed were subversive, the reality of them never truly explained to the Canadian public. From the party’s unwillingness to speak to media, to back room deals and omnibus bills, this hard right party did nothing for the average Canadian, and everything for corporate Canada. I was always a Red Tory, and i find it deeply insulting that you woukd even use the word CENTER in the same sentence with the CPC. There is and was nothing what so ever center about this party, and i doubt Canadians will every allow them power again as long as they have a leader from the conservative belt of this country! I know i will never turn my back on my Red Tory roots, which means I will never cast a vote for the CPC! McLeans, i expected much better research from you before you posted garbage like this article! A one sided opinion that holds very little weight with the majority of Canadians. Gee, do you have a political agenda you need to push?

    • Nicely put. Harper’s Conservatives have no “centre” to them, same as Harris’ Ontario Conservatives. And I expect the federal Conservatives to face the same long walk in the woods as their provincial counterparts.

      “A principled approach to challenging electoral reforms is important…” …”the centre-right should fight for certain principles…” … “A spirited and thoughtful defence of principle…”

      There is nothing principled about the Conservative Party of Canada.

      “This is an evolving Canadian constitutional norm, and possibly now an unwritten constitutional requirement.”

      The Conservative Party of Canada wipes its ass with unwritten requirements, constitutional or otherwise.

      “Canada’s centre-right needs to begin now to build the big coalition that will succeed in 2019.”

      Do you think Canadians are going to forget the toxic, destructive, divisive, unCanadian performance of the outgoing Conservative government? Do you really think rebranding and “changing the tone” will be any more effective than putting Harper in a sweater vest with a kitten? For the first time in my life, I devoted time and money to political campaigns to make sure the Conservatives were defeated. And I’m going to do this for every election for the rest of my life to make sure my country is never subjected to that abuse again.

      Canadians aren’t going to forget, and we’re not going to fall for some bullsh*t rebranding. Enjoy your walk in the woods. Say hi to Mike Harris.

  10. People like me should be voting Conservative regularly. But there’s a lot of time I either don’t or do so very, very grudgingly. Why? Because the CPC either isn’t conservative on some issues at all, or resort to hyper-partisan wedge issues (long gun registry, long form census) instead of governing sensibly.

    What I wouldn’t give for smart urban conservatives. These would be conservatives with a libertarian streak on social issues, who prioritize urban issues (like transit) and espouse conservative economic policies. Instead what we got was the Harper conservatives who played footsie with social issues like abortion or inflated some (using terrorism to justify invasive spying), didn’t bother seriously investing in urban infrastructure like transit or high speed rail and to top it all off, inflated the housing market by loosening CMHC rules.

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