How to save a center-left government in an election in which the governing Liberals and the third-party NDP are often fishing in the same pool? That is the dilemma confronted openly by Buzz Hargrove, the head of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) in a recent speech at the start of the campaign for Canada’s January election:
Whether you elect a Liberal or an NDP, the overall numbers don’t change in terms of the ability to form a coalition government. We’re out to stop the Tories.
The statement is quite remarkable on a couple of fronts. First of all, of course, it does matter what the relative balance between Liberals and NDP will be in the next parliament, and the make-up of the next parliament could be quite different from the current one, even if superficially it looks similar: A Liberal plurality. Second, he used the term coalition. Canadian practice when no single party has obtained a majority of seats has long been for a single-party minority government with no formal agreements between the largest party and a smaller one, rather than either a formal coalition or a minority cabinet that has a formal support agreement with another party or parties (such as is now the practice in New Zealand).
In a separate CBC story, it is noted that the CAW voted explicitly to work to elect as many NDP members as possible, and as few Conservatives. The CAW declaration reads:
The best possible outcome of this federal election is another Liberal minority government, with the NDP holding a balance of power. The worst outcome is a Conservative victory (minority or majority).
The CBC story goes on to describe the resolution more fully:
The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of a motion to back the NDP if its candidate has a chance of winning, or the Liberal if the NDP candidate does not have a good chance of victory [...]
…there was a “lengthy and impassioned debate” with some speakers backing just the NDP, while others argued the recommendation “is a realistic strategy intended to give the NDP the best chance to have an impact in the next Parliament.”
Of course, strategies like this are necessary because, unlike most of the advanced parliamentary democracies in which multiparty politics prevail, Canada uses first-past-the-post voting instead of proportional representation. Thus a district-specific strategy is necessary for any organization concerned about the national balance of power to maximize its preferred outcome.
Not surprisingly, incumbent Prime Minister Paul Martin is not thrilled with this variation on strategic voting. He made a pitch to the union members to ignore the recommendation. He prefers a far less subtle form of strategic voting, focused only on the national two-party balance:
Now I know many of you in this audience have supported the NDP, but I also know this: Liberals or Conservatives, one of us will form the next government.
He urged CAW members to choose between himself and Conservative leader Stephen Harper, noting there is a “fundamental clash of values” between the Liberals and Conservatives. [Last quote is from the first-linked story.]
Depending on the outcome, it is plausible that the NDP could find itself for the first time in a position to broker a formal agreement with the Liberals. Such an agreement would surely include a serious review of alternative electoral systems in federal elections, in addition to a role in the formulation of policy, whether or not the NDP demanded and obtained any actual cabinet portfolios.