ASKING CANADIANS: DO WE NEED ELECTORAL REFORM AND POLITICAL COOPERATION?

An important new national poll done by Environics in late March is out. It asked a random sample of 1,004 eligible voters what they thought about electoral reform and co-operation among the New Democrats, Liberals and Greens. The results show that public opinion is ahead of partisan politicians and will be encouraging to Canadians who despair about the steady erosion of democracy under Harper’s rule. They are worth a closer look.

BASELINE PARTY SUPPORT

The first question was which party would people vote for “if an election were held tomorrow”. 78% percent were decided and of these 35% said Conservative, 26% Liberal, 25% New Democratic and 8% Green. Two things stand out: the Liberals appear neck and neck with the official opposition NDP and, if the Bloc’s 5% is included, 64% of decided voters wouldn’t vote for Harper.

Other recent polls suggest Harper’s core vote may have dropped down to 30% of the decided, or only 25%% of the electorate. But even though two-thirds of decided voters say they want an alternative to Harper, a split along the lines of this poll could get Harper another majority in 2015.

Canada’s future is too important to allow this to happen, which is why there’s growing talk of political cooperation. Together the three federal opposition parties hold 59% of the support of decided voters. There’s no talk of including the Bloc in any co-operative campaign, though there’s no guarantee that Harper won’t again try to manipulate public perception to try to discredit political cooperation as “working with the separatists”. Is the Canadian public starting to get impatient with Harper’s wedge politics?

IS DEMOCRACY BROKEN?

Canadians were asked if they thought our political system was “broken”. Overall more (45%) believe it is broken than think it “works well” (33%). Even twice the undecided (47%) thought the system “needs to be fixed” as thought it “works well” (24%). There is a huge range in views; 63% of Green and 59% of NDP supporters think the system “needs fixing”, whereas fewer Liberal (47%) and even fewer Conservative supporters (21%) believe this. However, if one-in-five Conservative voters considered changing their vote to accomplish reform, this could be a game changer. This may be a big “if”.

NDP and Green supporters may have more in common about electoral reform; Liberal supporters may lag behind because they still think they can return to government with the first-past-the-post system.  This is naïve, for poll after poll suggests that political loyalties in Canada, as elsewhere, are no longer locked into a two-party system. It will take political co-operation to form a new government and to get electoral reform.

PROPORTIONAL REPRESENTATION (PR)

Eligible voters were asked whether they supported “moving towards a system of PR” to ensure parliamentary representation that reflected the popular vote. While 43% of Green and 42% of NDP supporters “strongly support” this, 27% of Liberal and only 13% of Conservative supporters did. This may show that hardcore Harper voters know that the Conservative’s majority came from the use of wedge politics and the support of only a minority of the electorate.

But why do only about one-quarter of Liberal backers strongly support electoral reform? Is this a carry-over from them governing for so long within our unfair voting system?  It’s important to note, however, that 46% of the polled Canadians “somewhat support” moving towards PR. And supporters of all parties, Conservatives included, are included: of Liberals and Greens, 50%; Conservatives, 49% and NDP, 40%. Perhaps the most important finding then is that 70% of those polled strongly or somewhat support PR. Even 55% of the undecided answered this way; overall only 18% opposed PR.

Has the time for serious electoral reform finally arrived? After all Canada is one of the few democracies that still has an antiquated, unfair electoral system. Based on these results electoral reform could form part of a campaign for political co-operation, perhaps along the lines that Joyce Murray championed in her bid for Liberal leadership. Green leader Elizabeth May has already shown she is willing to co-operate politically. It’s worth considering why we’ve heard nothing positive about this from either NDP leader Thomas Mulcair or likely Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. Is gender perhaps playing a role in this? Are regional differences perhaps at play? Recall that Nathan Cullen, who made a strong showing for NDP leader, also stressed political co-operation and that he, Murray and May are all MPs from BC.

JOINT CANDIDATES

The poll asked how people would vote if a joint candidate ran against the Harper Conservatives. Overall 37% said they would vote for the joint candidate; notably only 25% said they’d vote for Harper, a drop from 35% on an earlier question. What might this drop mean? Might political co-operation introduce some healthy unpredictability; 18% said they’d “decide not to vote” but another 18% said they “don’t know” how they’d vote.

There are unknowns to be aware of. However, a large majority of supporters of all federal opposition parties said they’d vote for a joint candidate; 72% of NDP, 70% of Liberal and 64% of Green supporters. Not surprisingly, only 3% of Conservative supporters said they would do this; 80% said they’d vote Conservative.

What did the 19% who said they didn’t vote in 2011 think of political cooperation? Most (66%) said a joint candidate would have “no effect” on whether they voted. This differed among those with different preferences: 81% of NDP, 68% of Green, 62% of Conservative and 46% of Liberal sympathizers said it would have no effect. About one-third of the Liberal (34%) and Conservative (32%) sympathizers said a joint candidate would make them “more likely to vote”. This compares to only 9% for Green and 7% for NDP sympathizers. Only a small number of sympathizers (10%) said this would make them “less likely to vote”; the highest percentage was Liberal (16%) and next Green sympathizers (14%), with the NDP at 10% and the Conservative at 6%. Political co-operation apparently won’t necessarily draw non-voters into progressive voting.

ENCOURAGING RESULTS

People must not over-interpret these findings. It’s noteworthy that 24% of Green and 16% of Liberal and NDP supporters said they would “decide not to vote” if there was a joint candidate. This compared to only 8% of Conservative supporters. Party strategists who want to undercut co-operation may emphasize these rather than the more compelling results, so there remain challenges for those who want to nurture political co-operation for the sake of the whole country.

The Conservative vote seems the most consolidated. Core Conservative sympathizers may even be more committed to vote if they face a joint candidate. But combining the progressive vote to prevent Harper from further unraveling Canada requires that supporters of the Liberal, NDP and Green parties be more flexible and less partisan. Finding two-thirds or more of their supporters saying they’d vote for a joint candidate is therefore encouraging, especially when this conversation is just beginning.

The 37% who say they would vote for a joint candidate is larger than the hardcore Conservative base which in this poll is down to 25% of decided voters.  But 37% is still very much smaller than the combined vote of 59% for the federal opposition parties.  If political co-operation comes from the grass-roots within constituencies where Harper won with less than 50% of the votes cast, Canadians may find the right mix of party politics and political co-operation to get Canada back on a democratic course. Everyone who cares deeply about our country’s future needs to think long and hard about what they are prepared to do in the lead up to 2015.

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