Where do the partyless progressives go?

In my last post, I wrote about how I’ve found myself a partyless voter in the Canadian political landscape.  I also wrote about why I supported Joyce Murray for leader of the Liberal Party – a hope that, perhaps, the Liberal Party could become the party for me (and others like me).

I now find myself even further from both of the two major opposition parties.  On the same day, the Liberal Party of Canada elected Justin Trudeau with 80% of the weighted-average vote (and also a majority in each province), and the NDP voted with 85% support to reword its preamble to shift the emphasis away from democratic socialism.

Both decisions were practically foregone conclusions, and both leave me with less, not more, attachment to either party.  Trudeau represents a business-friendly, right-of-centre perspective for the party – and his support for expansion of the tarsands is particularly bothersome to me.  As for the NDP, I’m not bothered as much by the wording change as I am by the formalisation of the party’s shift to the centre.  Even some of its factions are speaking out against it becoming just another Liberal Party.  The parties, save a few specific core positions for each of them, are becoming indistinguishable.  And decidedly centrist – something which with I do not identify.

The response from party faithful to such statements is, overwhelmingly, one of two things.  The more common response is “well, we’re better than Stephen Harper aren’t we?”  The answer is obviously yes, but lesser of evils is hardly worth aspiring to.  The other is “well why don’t you sign our membership card and maybe you can make change from within.”  Sunday’s votes confirmed for me how futile such an endeavour would be.  If the votes had been close, and it would be a matter of convincing 5-10% of the party, then there would be an opportunity.  But when the votes are so substantially in favour of this side of the debate, change from within the NDP or LPC would be just as fruitful as it would within the CPC.

So, what do we progressive-realists, with an environmental bent, and a thing for democratic reform do? Amidst my frustrated tweets, a couple people suggested starting a new party.  I’m trying to become one of those lemons-into-lemonade people, and through the LPC campaign I’ve encountered more people with a similar mindset to me.  It would be an interesting idea.

I think any such party would have to have some core principles that are progressive, realistic, strong on the environment, and at least temporarily focused on democratic reform.  Just off the top of my head, I’d expect some core principles would be:

  • A strong focus on sustainability, including a price on carbon that starts charging at the first unit of output – not a free allocation of carbon consumption to a limited number of players as cap-and-trade requires, but a carbon tax or something like it.  Strong regulations on the environment (not just to minimise carbon, but to protect our water and food sources and threatened species) are a must.
  • Commitment to a fair and progressive taxation system – one in which those who can afford to contribute more to our society do so, and those with less contribute a fair amount.  This must include a system that offsets the cost of carbon and other consumption taxes for those with below-average incomes, without privileging special interests.
  • Any fiscal policy must also reflect the reality that continued deficits are not sustainable – we cannot build prosperity today on the backs of future generations.  Solving our deficits should be done through increased income taxes on corporations and individuals, subject to a progressive tax rate system, not through cuts to public services.
  • Electoral reform needs to be a key part of the platform, whether that be proportional representation, ranked ballots, or perhaps a combination of both.  I’m starting to favour an MMP lower house and proportional-by-province upper house, with ranked ballots for both, but I think most of us recognise any of these options would be a significant improvement.
  • A commitment to equality, both domestically and internationally.  Our policies would reflect the spirit of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, demanding equality for all Canadians, including a progressive immigration policy to help those who will commit to Canadian values join our nation.  We would stand on the side of justice for those in other countries who cannot defend themselves, and rebuild Canada’s reputation as a peacekeeping, not war faring, country.

But how to go about this?  Is creating a new party practical in Canada?  With the first-past-the-post system, absolutely not.  Any such party would never get off the ground.  Briefly, I felt hopeless.

And then, a thought came to me.  What about the Green Party?  In many other countries, the Green Party is the progressive party – I’m thinking in particular of Australia (where I recently spent a year living), where the Greens hold the balance of power and have forced the centrist Labor Party into progressive and pro-environment policies.  If I were eligible to vote in Australia, I would vote for their Greens without hesitation.  The Global Greens Charter reflects my values (and the values I identified above) well. Canada’s Green Party has a lot of the elements I’ve outlined above – particularly on the environment, obviously – and the areas it doesn’t are few, though significant, which is why I haven’t consistently voted for them or joined the party.

The party has a big contingent of former Mulroney Progressive Conservatives – their leader and only MP Elizabeth May being one.  This isn’t inherently bad, as these were presumably the progressive side of the PCs who were unhappy with a conservative party.  But there is a significant “free market” faction within the party, which is hard to overcome – this comes out in many forms, from calls to privatise certain government assets to certain provincial Green parties wanting to limit the right of public servants to strike (the Green Party of Ontario copied a section of the Progressive Conservative Ontario platform on this particular issue in the last election).  For her part, May’s actions in the house and in public comments typically put her in a cautiously progressive position, but she also clearly sticks to party policy when it’s firm.  The party is decidedly undecided when it comes to picking a ‘wing.’

I also have a personal pet peeve against income splitting, an issue the party strongly supports the Conservative government on, and Elizabeth May frequently touted last election.  This isn’t quite a ‘regressive’ tax scheme, but it’s certainly not progressive – as I argued in a previous entry, income splitting benefits only the most wealthy.

There’s also the ‘ick’ factor.  Many progressives, when the Green Party comes up, respond with “oh no, not the Green Party.”  There’s a perception out there that despite the (usual) composure of leader Elizabeth May, the inner workings of the party are a mess.  From what I’ve heard from some insiders, that perception is reflective of reality – there are apparently a number of factions within the party that would rightly be described as radical (and not just using Joe Oliver’s definition).  For a very eloquent discussion of the party’s more significant challenges on a broader political level, I strongly recommend this piece by former Toronto Centre candidate Chris Tindal.

But where the NDP and LPC have a clear direction supported by an overwhelming majority of the party, made up of a significant number of voting members who would be difficult to sway or outvote, the Green Party does not.  The party has about 13,000 members – not a small figure, but not a huge one either.  By contrast, during its leadership race the NDP had just over 128,000 members, and yesterday’s LPC leadership race had just over 300,000 eligible voters (including members and ‘supporters’), of whom only about 127,000 registered and around 104,000 actually voted.  Assuming yesterday’s votes were representative (a false assumption, I know, as LPC’s was riding-weighted, and the NDP’s was not a party-wide vote), that leaves about 19,000 New Democrats who want the party to stay to the left, and probably about 45,000 Liberals and Liberal supporters who have progressive views (assuming about 15%, given that not all candidates who were not Trudeau were to his left).

Add to that the fact that many Greens are already mostly progressive to begin with, and you have a party with a lot of potential.  The sentiment of “join a party and change it from within” is something that could actually be accomplished with the Green Party.  It would not be difficult for the progressive factions of the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party to join forces with those of us who have already left one or the other out of frustration with weak policies on the environment or regressive economic policies to grow the Green Party into something bigger and better than it is now.  All of this could be done within a party that is relatively established, has name recognition and an elected Member of Parliament, and is part of a global alliance of political parties.

I’d love to hear the input of others – are you with me that the NDP is (or is becoming) just another Liberal Party now, and that the Liberal Party is slowly shedding what was left of its progressive skin?  And if so, is there any strategic value to making a rush to the Greens, to support the policies we like and overturn the ones we don’t?  Could we get together a few thousand progressives to develop a real progressive alternative; one that could hold the balance of power and work in co-operation with the others to implement real progressive policies?  Comments are open.


4 responses to this post.

  1. I’m not sure “change from within” ever works. It might be better just to start from the ground up.


  2. Posted by LJ on 2013/04/15 at 4:37 pm

    All this because of the removal of a word from a preamble? I was there. i was one of the 85%. For me it was semantics and not a deal breaker. I would rather be looking at the policies of any party to get a real sense of whether it aligns with my values or not. So far so good with the NDP on all the points you raise above and with which I agree with you.


    • No – and if you’d read this post (and the previous one that I linked to) you would see that I view the preamble as nothing more than a formalisation of a long rightward shift by the NDP.

      I’m not sure what part of the NDP’s policies support a price on carbon that doesn’t allocate free carbon to polluters? Doesn’t the NDP support cap-and-trade? I also take issue with Mulcair’s on-again off-again support for expanding the tarsands — this is no longer the party that once promised to shut down the tarsands until sufficient research could be performed to find ways to reduce the ecological impact. Any party whose leader will “be a partner with the development of energy resources” in Alberta is not, in my view, on the side of sustainability. And not in the view of many others either.


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