Is Cooperation Among Opposition Parties Dead?

From The Tyee, 27 March 2012.

Now that Tom Mulcair is leader of the NDP, what happens to the proposal for cooperation among the opposition parties?

The idea is not dead, because the logic of the single member constituency electoral system punishes parties that fail to coordinate when they compete for the same space on the ideological spectrum.

That said, the NDP strategy under Mulcair is to expand the NDP rather than build alliances (quiet discussion among the leaders, behind closed doors, may still happen). The NDP will try and occupy the space historically occupied by the Liberals. And Bob Rae is not a good person to win that space back: his credentials are that he managed one of the worst provincial NDP governments ever. 

If the Tory government continues to govern as if it has the support of a majority of the electorate, it is possible that this will generate enough backlash to enable the NDP to win a majority government in 2015. But that is not likely as long as the economy is in reasonably good shape. The robocalls scandal is a wild card, but so far has not done major damage. Even if the NDP and Liberals do not agree on any formal cooperation, however, they have to think in terms of how they might govern together as a coalition. These are the issue that partisans should be worrying about. But let’s look at the situation through less partisan lenses.

Cullen’s vision versus Mulcair’s

Nathan Cullen mounted an impressive leadership bid based on the idea of being less partisan. Both Cullen and Mulcair represented a change in the NDP — and shift away from the party establishment represented by candidates like Brian Topp or Peggy Nash. But there the similarity ends. Mulcair will expand the base of the party and thereby give it a less clearly defined social democratic identity. Social democrats have never won by sticking with their core constituency — they have to expand beyond organized labour and encompass a broader swath of the middle class. That was the process begun by Jack Layton, and it will continue with Mulcair. It is not about rhetoric or even policy so much as who the party wants to represent. It wants to represent the centre as well as the left. 

Cullen wanted a broad progressive movement too. He called for cooperation to select join candidates. Much of the appeal of Cullen’s thinking was that it was new and refreshingly less adversarial. Mulcair may try and avoid getting nasty with the Tories, but he is adversarial by nature. A big danger is that he will try to whip the NDP into a more disciplined machine — something that operates a little bit more like the Tories under Harper. That would be too bad because the last thing Canadian policies needs is more party discipline, more sheep in the House of Commons, fewer free-thinking and independent MPs. 

The call for cooperation among opposition parties is a call for democratic renewal based on the need for electoral reform. The fact that Cullen was defeated could put these issues on the backburner, but they are not going to go away.

Free the NDP MPs

The truth is political parties are part of the problem in Canadian politics. Some degree of party discipline is good, but too much undermines the deliberative quality of the legislature and weakens the connections between MPs and their constituents.

Mulcair needs to recognize that Canadian politics need to be overhauled. This means putting more power in the hands of riding associations, and giving more power to the ordinary member of parliament. Mulcair noted during the campaign that each region of Canada has its own issues and the national campaign has to be attuned to local issues. He should not forget this now that he is the leader. 

Canadian parties need to be more democratic. The NDP convention was a good (if glitchy) exercise in democracy, but the way that party operates between conventions is not very democratic. The level of turnout in voting for the NDP leadership should also worry the party brass. More has to be done to engage members and especially youth.

One of the nice features of Cullen’s proposal for cooperation is that it would have given the riding associations a bigger role in deciding how to approach the next election. Even if cooperation is not immediately on the table, the NDP should involve riding associations in thinking about the strategic dilemma imposed on opposition parties in our electoral system. Convening joint meetings between Liberal, Green and NDP riding associations or groups of members and leaders could help ensure that the hyper-partisanship on the right is not matched by similar negativity in the centre and left.

Tough Choices for the NDP

The final NDP leadership debate exposed stark choices facing the party as it prepares for the next election. Tom Mulcair presented himself as the most natural successor to Jack Layton; he was an architect of the Quebec strategy, which gave the NDP credibility to cast itself as a truly national party and government in waiting. For those New Democrats who want to see Layton’s strategy fully executed, Mulcair is the obvious choice: he is from Quebec, holds the second NDP seat ever won there, and is probably most able to consolidate that position. His strategy would be to expand the NDP beyond its traditional base, and that means throwing out boilerplate language and tailoring the party’s message to diverse constituencies. Not only would this breath life into riding associations, it would help extend the party to places where it currently has few seats, like the West. This he called “modernization.”

The problem with Mulcair is that he is a newcomer to the NDP, having served previously in Jean Charest’s Liberal provincial government in Quebec. Peggy Nash challenged Mulcair on his view that the party needs renewal. Mulcair countered that he does not propose to take the party in a different direction so much as continuing to move forward with Layton’s strategy. Some of the other candidates were skeptical. Brian Topp said Mulcair had been “very critical of the party.” Mulcair responded that at one point the party was strenuously advocating universal daycare – a message that did not resonate in Quebec, which has had such a policy for some time. With respect to the West, his view was that the NDP should do what it did in Quebec: listen to the local constituencies and tailor the message. The NDP, he said, has trees with shallow roots (Quebec) or roots with no trees (Saskatchewan, where the party has won no seats in 4 consecutive elections).

Topp painted himself (and Peggy Nash) as an “unreformed social democrat,” thereby highlighting his loyalty to traditional party commitments. Topp has the big establishment endorsements, including party icon Ed Broadbent; he talked about being with Layton when he wrote his final letter to Canadians. Nash, for her part, has links to the labour movement (auto workers), leaving no doubt about her social democratic bona fides. The two seem like the most likely to benefit if Mulcair stumbles. Ashton also positions herself close to the party activists – attacking Mulcair for not supporting opposition to trade deals – but she lacks gravitas.

The most personal attack on Mulcair came from Paul Dewar who said that Layton was a “happy warrior”; Mulcair, no the other hand, “got the warrior part down” but where was the inspiration?” This got chuckles from the audience, many of whom know of Mulcair’s reputation as a pugnacious and often bad-tempered leader who does not always work well with colleagues, particularly women. One woman I spoke with after the debate said that Mulcair’s smiles did not seem genuine; another said she found him stiff and unnatural (he read both his opening and closing statements). But Mulcair’s answer to Dewar was to say that it is not enough to quote Layton about being “loving, hopeful and optimistic” (which Topp did in his opening remarks), one had to incarnate this by taking the high road and being good, kind, and respectful of the other candidates in the race. He also noted that the point is to win.

The second major cleavage was between those who would work with other opposition parties and those who would not. Ashton struck a partisan note when she said, in her opening remarks, “Liberal, Tory, same old story.” Only Nathan Cullen – and, with some big caveats, Peggy Nash – seemed to be willing to talk about working with the other opposition parties. Both advocate electoral reform because they believe the Tory majority is, in Cullen’s terms, “false” – that is, based on electoral arithmetic that is allows 39 percent of the voters to have an absolute majority of the seats in the House of Commons.

The cooperation issue emerged when Paul Dewar alluded to the website where Peggy Nash, in response to a survey on where the candidates stand on cooperation, argued that she would be willing to pool resources with other opposition parties. Dewar noted that this seemed like a change in position and he wanted to know what it meant. Nash responded that she was not endorsing Cullen’s plan for joint NDP/Liberal candidates in key ridings to dislodge Tories, but she saw no reason why Liberals and New Democrats might not, for example, work together on an ad campaign against building more jails or in favour of proportional representation.

Niki Ashton challenged Nathan Cullen on his plan for joint opposition candidates in Conservative held ridings saying there are no shortcuts to forming government. Cullen responded that Tommy Douglas was elected on a CCF and Social Credit ticket, and he insisted that Canadians are not as partisan as people in the NDP often think (there are more members of the Mountain Equipment Coop, he noted, than in any political party). Politics is one thing, partisanship is another, and there is no evidence, he argued, that Canadians won’t accept a different way of doing politics, as revealed by public support for budget deals and past coalitions: “politics is about working together to get things done, and that is what Canadians want” he said. In his closing remark he insisted that the party has both an opportunity and responsibility to do everything it can to prevent another Tory government, which he characterized as a “clear and present danger” to Canada.

In short, there seem to be two cleavages in the current line up of candidates. These cleavages are directly linked to inter-connected risks the NDP faces. The NDP’s orange crush could fizzle if the base in Quebec is not held and expanded westward. Another risk for the NDP is that competition with the Liberal and Green parties could divide the votes needed to form government. In the first-past-the-post system, failure to coordinate is heavily penalized. Worse still, these risks intersect. For the NDP to hold onto its base and grow, it must compete with the Liberals. Yet competition with the Liberals could result in another Tory majority. It could also make it harder to form a coalition in the event that no party wins enough seats to form a majority on its own. This is a tough strategic dilemma for the members of the NDP as they select their next leader.

The Future of Hemispheric Integration

From The Mark, March 7, 2012.

Canada and the United States were pointedly excluded from the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a regional group that was formed in December 2011. The launch of CELAC symbolizes major transformations in the Western Hemisphere. U.S. influence is declining, China is stepping up, and Brazil is flexing its muscle as a regional actor.

Clustered around Brazil and the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) is the newly formed Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). The more radical Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) groups Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Cuba under the leadership of Venezuela. Importantly, CELAC brings together members of both UNASUR and ALBA, creating a potential alternative to the Organization of American States (OAS), which is trapped between conservative critics in Washington and hostility from leftists in ALBA.

My, how the neighbourhood has changed! When Canada joined the OAS and negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), market liberalization and democratization promised an era of hemispheric co-operation. Canada felt it could be a player without getting caught in conflicts between the U.S. and the debt-ridden and unstable nations in its backyard. The free-market model – based on policies of privatization, liberalization, deregulation, and free trade – was driven by the need to attract U.S. investors and gain market access through trade deals, and encouraged the prospect of deeper hemispheric integration.

When the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas was killed in a summit of the Americas in Argentina in 2005, three tectonic shifts were at work: a commodity boom led by explosive growth in China; shifts to the left starting with Venezuela’s election of Hugo Chavez in 1999; and 9/11, which diverted U.S. attention to the Middle East.

Today, through a series of initiatives on infrastructure, energy, banking, and telecommunications, Latin America seeks to leverage the resource-extraction boom into regional integration on its own terms.

Where does this leave Canada? Beyond pursuing a piecemeal approach to bilateral trade agreements (for example, Canada’s recently signed agreements with Honduras and Colombia), we can pursue a mix of three strategies.

First, we can work with the U.S., negotiating trade deals, co-operating on security and drug enforcement, and strengthening the existing OAS. This strategy entails a risk, however. The U.S. underestimates the importance of UNASUR and CELAC, which it regards as weak, underfunded, poorly organized, and ephemeral. But these initiatives reflect perceived problems with OAS and the region’s desire for greater autonomy from the United States. If we align with the U.S., Latin America will want distance from us, too.

Second, we can partner with Mexico to gain leverage in Washington, and try to make NAFTA a more attractive model for Latin America by reinforcing its institutions. It is puzzling that Mexico is not more central to Canada’s engagement with the hemisphere. It matters to the U.S., and is a pivotal player in the region. Mexico is in CELAC (but not in ALBA or UNASUR), and it, along with other Pacific nations that are more open to a free-trade agenda (like Chile, Peru, and Colombia), is a natural partner for Canada.

Moreover, Mexico and Central America face challenges arising from drugs, gangs, and violence that have security consequences for North America. And yet, the current North American “community” based around the under-institutionalized NAFTA is stalled and does not appear to work, much less serve as a model to address these issues. It is imperative, therefore, that Canada look farther south than Mexico, working to develop much more comprehensive mechanisms of policy co-ordination and innovation so that Canada, the U.S., and Mexico are better-equipped to confront common challenges.

This brings us to the final point: Canada can work with Brazil and emerging powers on the Pacific (Chile, Colombia, and Peru), support UNASUR as a complement – but not a competitor – to the OAS, and help build bridges inside the OAS. Building bridges beyond North America allows Canada to exploit its reputation as an honest broker and a reliable partner.

Beyond these three strategies, Canada can – and should – continue to make democracy a central part of its engagement with the Americas, working with countries like Chile, Peru, and Mexico to reinforce the effectiveness of the OAS’s Democratic Charter. Canada has proposed a compendium of best practices of democracy, and this could be a building block for developing a peer-review mechanism, a democracy rapporteur, or an early warning system.

Meanwhile, CELAC is competing for a role in the defence of democracy. Its democracy provisions, based on similar mechanisms in UNASUR, have teeth, but the focus is limited to preventing coups against executives rather than upholding the principles of representation, separation of powers, and the rule of law.

In short, Canada must adapt and prepare to navigate turbulent waters. This means recalibrating the balance between working with the U.S., cultivating North America, and building bridges to emerging institutions and leaders. If we’re not careful, Canada may find itself marginalized even as it seeks to be more engaged.

*Adapted from a presentation at a ministerial round table on the Americas, Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Ottawa, Dec. 6, 2011.

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