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Toronto Star, Monday, November 16, 2009

Liberals and New Democrats together could unseat Harper
Electoral ceasefire would put nation's centre-left majority in political control

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 NDP.

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 Conservatives.

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 Conservatives.

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 parties.

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.

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