Toronto Star, Monday, November 16, 2009
by Michael Byers
Negative ads have prejudiced voters against Michael
Ignatieff, and brought Stephen Harper within reach of a
majority government. The Conservatives now lead the
Liberals by about 10 percentage points.
The situation seems unlikely to improve. The Prime
Minister's divisive partisan tactics have diminished the
public's respect for politicians in general. In just
four years, he has changed the tone of media coverage
and public discourse, shifting the mood of the nation
toward cynicism and selfishness.
Liberal infighting has not helped, while the NDP has
missed two opportunities – on climate change and
macroeconomic policy – to capture the national
imagination with bold ideas.
There is only one surefire way to prevent a Harper
majority. The Liberals and NDP should agree to not run
candidates against each other in the next campaign.
In each riding, the party whose candidate fared worst
in the last election would pull its current candidate
out, or refrain from nominating one.
Both parties would win more seats, with the Liberals
potentially forming a majority government.
Based solely on the results from October 2008, the
agreement would, in itself, deliver 30 to 40 additional
seats to the Liberals and another five to 10 seats to
The Bloc Québécois would not be part of the deal but
could be expected to win around 40 seats in total.
Importantly, what is proposed is not a coalition, but
a one-time ceasefire between two opposition parties
whose combined vote share last time was significantly
higher (44.4 per cent versus 37.6 per cent) than the
No effort would be made to coordinate platforms,
though the absence of debilitating head-to-head races
between Liberals and New Democrats would direct both
parties' attention onto the Conservatives.
Nor would the agreement extend to post-election power
sharing. If the Liberals were in a position to form a
minority government, they would be free to seek support
from any of the other parties – including the
The only post-election condition in the agreement
should be an unqualified public commitment to holding a
national referendum on proportional representation
within the first year.
The commitment would include the provision of
sufficient public funding to ensure in-depth discussion
and widespread knowledge of the arguments both for and
against the proposed change.
Proportional representation would produce a much
fairer allocation of seats than our current
first-past-the-post system and boost voter turnout and
political engagement by making every vote count.
Many New Democrats might wish to make the immediate
introduction of proportional representation a condition
of the ceasefire agreement, since a referendum might not
produce the desired result.
However, such an approach would enable the Prime
Minister to make proportional representation the
principal issue in the campaign, instead of his record
and the alternative policies offered by the other
A ceasefire agreement would likely be opposed by some
insiders, in both parties, who benefit from the existing
system. It would certainly inconvenience some candidates
who have already been nominated, and would have to stand
down. Most, however, would probably accept that larger,
more important interests are in play.
The ceasefire agreement, once struck, could be
expanded to include the Green party, which has always
sought proportional representation and would benefit
substantially from it.
The Greens obtained nearly 1 million votes (6.8 per
cent) but no parliamentary representation in the last
election. They finished second in five races, though the
party's only realistic chance of winning a seat in the
next election is in the B.C. riding of Saanich-Gulf
Islands, where Elizabeth May is running and the Liberal
finished second to the Conservative last time.
An arrangement could be made to rectify this lack of
representation by giving all five second-place Greens a
clear run in the next election, with May having that
opportunity in her new riding – in return for the Green
party withdrawing its candidates from every other race.
The chances of the Liberals forming government appear
to have slipped away. The future of the country is in
the balance. Whether we like it or not, the parties of
the progressive centre have reached a decision point.
Will we let an outdated electoral system deliver a
majority Conservative government on the basis of the
preferences of less than 40 per cent of voters – and
less than 25 per cent of those Canadians who are
eligible to vote?
Or will we seize the moment, pull together, and put
the country back on course?
Michael Byers lives on Salt Spring Island and teaches
political science at UBC. In October 2008, he ran for
the New Democrats in Vancouver Centre.