Gaming the system

Aaron Wherry on an idea that's too cute by half

Andrew Coyne calls for a one-time co-operation pact aimed at electoral reform.

There are a lot of reasons to prefer proportional representation — I’ve written about it often — but for the opposition parties there is one reason in particular: the current system heavily favours the Conservatives, as the party with the support of the largest single block of voters.So while I don’t see the case for merging the other parties, I do think there’s some merit in a proposal floated by the Liberal leadership candidate Joyce Murray: namely, a one-time-only electoral pact, for the sole purpose of changing the voting system. The Green Party has proposed something similar. And Nathan Cullen famously ran for NDP leader on an electoral cooperation platform. The details no doubt vary, but here’s how I can see it working. The opposition parties would agree on a single candidate to put up against the Conservatives in each riding. Were they to win a majority, they would pledge to govern just long enough to implement electoral reform: a year, two at most. Then fresh elections would be called under the new system, with each party once again running under its own flag, with a full slate of candidates.

Supporters of each party, therefore, would not have to give up their allegiance. Neither, for that matter, would reform-minded Conservatives. They could vote for the reform ticket this one time, then return to the Tory fold when it came to deciding who should represent them in a reformed Parliament.

I guess the theory is here at that the 2015 election could be an election about electoral reform. That strikes me as an odd notion. Are we going to suspend all other issues of consideration? Are the the Liberals, Greens and New Democrats going to put aside all other policy proposals? Are they going to promise, for the year or two it takes to implement reform, to not do anything else of consequence? Or are they going to have to agree on a unified platform? Could the general public be convinced to take electoral reform so seriously that all other policy issues would be secondary?

I also continue to find the idea of riding-level co-operation to be hopelessly problematic. To start, doesn’t the last federal election demonstrate the folly of trying to figure out ahead of time which party’s candidate has the best shot of winning? How many of the ridings that the NDP won for the first time in 2011 would have had a New Democrat candidate if a co-operation approach had been adopted two months before that election?

Alice Funke sees lots of practical issues. But how would this work politically? Having agreed to co-operate on nominating candidates, how tied to each other would the parties be? Could they still disagree amongst each other? Would they have to agree to refrain from attacking each other? Wouldn’t the Conservatives happily be able to exploit differences of opinion and attack the three as a united front—the NDP held responsible for any mistakes of the Liberals and vice versa? What if 200 Liberal candidates are nominated, but, mid-campaign, the Liberal leader is suddenly enveloped in some scandal?

On a local level, how sure are we that Liberal or Green voters will vote NDP or vice versa? What would be the impact locally in 2019 on a party not running a candidate in 2015? Wouldn’t sitting out a campaign in a given riding make it at least a little bit harder for a party to mount a campaign four years later?

As when Nathan Cullen proposed it, the idea still strikes me a too cute by half. I think people who want to see co-operation among the three non-Conservative parties might as well argue for a merger (though I don’t think that makes much sense right now) or the possibility of a coalition government. Joint nominations, in my mind, put you in no man’s land between those two ideas.

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