Watching the Liberal Leadership Debate yesterday, I was struck by the response to the announcement that the Green Party of Canada would not be fielding a candidate in an upcoming by-election in Labrador.
Reactions varied, generally along the lines of whether one supported the concept of so-called electoral cooperation or didn’t, and also where a person hailed from (those from Alberta seemed less than enthused after recently facing an onslaught of attacks by the Greens in Calgary Centre). Even those who disagreed however seemed to believe that all in all this was great news for the Liberal Party because it means one less Party to compete with during this by-election.
I am not on the same page. I believe that the Green Party decision to not field a candidate is not only bad for democracy in this country but also bad for the Liberal Party of Canada.
The Supposedly Seductive Power of Labrador Greens
A lot has been said of the 139 votes the Green Party received in 2011 in Labrador. Many say this was the difference between a Conservative having been elected and a Liberal losing.
I myself have never thought that those Green votes were really Liberal votes, for a number of reasons. The most obvious being that those voters cast ballots for the Greens, even though they had the option to vote Liberal. Some Liberals now say that without a Green on the ballot, those votes will go to the Liberals. This of course presupposes that those voters will still vote in the upcoming by-election, despite their preferred option being (undemocratically) voided by their party leader.
Even if these Green Party supporters do still come out to vote, there’s no reason to assume they will vote Liberal. They turned down this Party once before for a different option, and they could very well do so again. In the 2008 election, Dion agreed not to run a candidate against Elizabeth May while also running on the greenest platform our Party has ever put forward. Yet only 1/3rd of Green supporters ranked LPC as their second choice. Over 40% ranked either the NDP or Conservatives as their second choice while nearly 1/3rd said they had no second choice at all, demonstrating that the choice was between the Green Party or staying at home on election night.
Some suggest that without a Green candidate and considering the fact that the Conservatives overspent in Labrador during the last election (ie. cheated), Green supporters will rush to support the LPC candidate in order to keep out another Harper Conservative MP. But the Harper Tories have cheated before (In and Out Scandal) and in the race in Labrador in 2011, the LPC candidate was the only one likely to beat back the Conservative. And yet Green supporters voted Green just the same. To me this suggests that those 139 voters didn’t simply park their votes – they voted based on their principles and thought the Green Party best represented them.
So for those who salivate at the prospect of a race in Labrador free of the Green Party, this shortcut may not rake in the returns you expect.
There Are No Shortcuts
I often think of this period in our Party’s history as not necessarily a time of rebuilding but a time of building. Rebuilding suggests bringing something back to its former status while also suggesting a specific end date for construction. I don’t believe we should or should even want to bring the Party back to some past golden age. I also don’t believe the work of a political party is ever complete. This is why I talk of building the Liberal Party rather than rebuilding it.
To continue the metaphor, a home builder of any real ability would never take a shortcut on building a strong foundation for a home. If he or she did, the whole thing would begin to rot or collapse a short time later. A strong structure that can withstand the test of time needs the right materials, a clear plan, and strong execution. And all of those things take time.
Which is why I want to bring up an important fact: while so many focus on the 79 vote difference (0.7%) between Penashue and Russell in 2011, I instead focus on Todd Russell’s electoral results from the time he was first elected in a 2005 by-election to the most recent result.
In the 2005 by-election, Russell was elected with a majority of support from the voters in his riding and beat his next closest rival (a Conservative) by 19% of the total votes cast. In the 2006 general election a year later, Russell again won by a majority, taking nearly 11% more votes than his Conservative rival.
In 2008 something interesting happened in Newfoundland – the sitting Premier called for an ‘ABC’ strategy – Anyone But Conservative – and his province complied. The CPC vote in that election took a nosedive from nearly 40% in 2006 to just 8% in 2008. In a province where the vote traditionally went back and forth between centre-right Liberals and Conservatives, suddenly the Conservatives were nowhere to be found and the race was between the NDP and the Liberals. However, it wasn’t a close race as Todd Russell swept Labrador with 70% of the vote, receiving almost 53% more of the vote total than his NDP rival. What made this even more incredible was that it occurred at a time when the Liberal vote was crumbling to Conservatives and the NDP across the country in what was at the time seen as rock bottom for the Party.
All of this brings us to 2011 where Todd Russell lost by an incredibly small margin, the blame falling on Conservatives cheating and the presence of a Green candidate with anemic voter support. While both those events were factors, no one seems to be talking about the fact the Liberal vote share in Labrador fell by 31% between the 2008 and 2011 elections. If we allow that 2008 was an outlier, the 2011 result was still 10% lower than in 2006 or 2005, with both Conservatives and the NDP rising above their traditional support levels. Essentially, we bled at both ends and ceded ground to both parties.
Even with other factors at play, it’s clear that our Party lost a step in Labrador (and the rest of Canada) all on our own.
The Work Ahead
We shouldn’t take our eye off the ball on the hard work to be done in Labrador simply because the Greens have decided not to field a candidate. Nor should be lobby or expect the NDP not to run a candidate so that we can win by default (even though victory would clearly not be assured). It simply isn’t going to happen.
What we should do is work for every vote, on either end of the spectrum, until we garner enough support to win. When it comes down to it, hard work is the only way we will win.
By the time the by-election rolls around, we will have a new leader and will begin building a serious platform for the 2015 campaign. In my mind there are two things that will win that campaign, and possibly, the upcoming Labrador by-election.
The first is that we have to reach out and connect with the people of Canada in our local communities. We have to develop personal relationships with fellow Canadians and deepen those we have already established. The best thing we can do to shed the image of a party of elites is to be a party of the community.
The second thing we have to do is put forward a vision of substance that is forward-thinking and able to tackle the issues of not just today but the next 30-50 years. The number one reason why people say they don’t vote is because they aren’t interested. In a time where more people who were eligible to vote didn’t cast a ballot than did cast one for the governing party, there is nothing more important than putting forward a compelling reason for Canadians to participate in their own democracy.
Gone are the days when such enormous topics as free-trade, national unity, or the rights and freedoms of Canadians were discussed during an election period. Kim Campbell is famously (and erroneously) quoted as saying that an election is no time to discuss policy issues. The quote happened in an election between the famous free trade election of 1988 and the post-referendum election of 1997. Since 1997, I can’t recall there being an election that was about substantive issues or that called for a grand vision of Canada’s future. All we’ve had since are elections about scandal and partisan bickering.
The elections of today are not focused on nation building at a time when our country is growing so fast that our infrastructure needs have outgrown our infrastructure budgets. Our elections are not focused on nation building when our natural resources have come to play a starring role in the economy of our country or when the wise use of those resources has become an important question for Canada’s future economic viability.
Instead the numerous elections of the last decade have focused on small platform planks usually focused on simple tax credits that some Canadians can make use of. Rather than discussing how to build a Canada for the 21st century, a period where all of our resources and human talent are primed to excel in, we instead discuss how to save $100 here or there off your taxes every April. That’s important too, but it isn’t a long enough view of our potential as a country.
And it doesn’t have to be that way. Our country doesn’t have to be as visionless as the Harper Conservatives that lead it. Liberals can look beyond the 2015 election or the 2019 election and put together a road map for our country as it could be decades from now if only we started planning now. I might be an optimist, but when it comes down to it, I think Canadians are much more likely to respond to a party that thinks beyond tax codes and instead offers a plan that could build a nation fit for Canadians. None of the other parties have offered up that kind of vision and only the Liberal Party has a track record of delivering that kind of future to Canadians.
More than anything, the by-election in Labrador is a reminder not to get bogged down in the partisan considerations the last decade has been all about, whether those considerations benefit us or not. Rather than continue to focus with tunnel vision on ways to push other political parties out of the equation, we must create a new, grander vision for how our Party can inspire Canadians again. To focus on ‘stealing’ Canadians away from the other parties is to move backwards. Voters do not belong to political parties – they are Canadian citizens looking for a compelling reason to put their faith in someone who will make a difference. We need to leave vote totals and seat counts for the journalists and begin the hard work of rebuilding our relationship with Canadians in communities across the country.
The Liberals elected in 1896 and 1968 were dreamers that inspired Canadians with their activist vision of government. The voters responded and those Liberals changed the course of this country in ways that still reverberate today. It’s time for our Party to dream big again so that we inspire Canadians to reclaim their country, using our Party as the vehicle to carve out a better future for us all.