In yesterday's Calgary Herald, Andrew Coyne argues that problem for these parties isn't vote splitting, but rather that the political system itself is flawed. While I can agree with some of what Mr. Coyne says, he unfortunately uses some logical fallacies to reach a flawed conclusion. The largest hole in his argument is his stance on mergers.
If vote-splitting is a delusion, the solution most commonly proposed to it, merger or coalition, can hardly be less so. You cannot simply add together the votes cast for two parties, and expect the same number to be cast for a third party made up of the first two, merely because it is not a fourth party. A certain number of voters, offered the choice of the merged party and the party they were presumed to have voted against, will revise their preferences.
Thus the primary beneficiary of a merger or coalition of the parties of the “left” would be the Conservatives. A great many voters, particularly in the Liberal party but also among the Greens and NDP, do not regard themselves as being on the left. Whatever it is that causes them to vote for these parties, it does not fit into such crude ideological pigeonholes. If forced to choose between the merged party and the Conservatives, some might very well vote Conservative.
Of course, Mr. Coyne is making a huge leap in logic by proclaiming the Conservatives to be the winner of a potential merger. In the Calgary Centre example, the Liberals, Greens, and NDP combined to accumulate 62.1% of the vote. Thus, in order for the Conservatives to benefit from a merger, more than 12% of voters would need to change their vote to Conservative, rather than vote for a combined entity of the opposition parties. That also assumes that the new amalgamated party would be unable to attract any attention from the Conservatives' existing stable of voters. While it is certainly not impossible that more than 12% of voters could shift right, rather than align themselves with an amalgamated opposition, it is also far from a given that such a shift would happen. It's impossible to say, partly because we don't really know what would happen, but also because we don't really know what the new amalgamated party would look like, and where they would fall on the political spectrum.
Not only that, but Mr. Coyne is willfully ignorant of the recent and obvious precedent for the success of party mergers. The current governing Conservatives represent an amalgamation of the former Progressive Conservative party and the Canadian Alliance. Since the formation of the Canadian Alliance (neé Reform Party of Canada), and the destruction of the Progressive Conservatives by Brian Mulroney in the late 1980s, the political right in Canada had been hopelessly fragmented, to the point where it embarrassingly lost the official opposition status to the regional sovereignist Bloc Quebecois.
The prospects of a right wing government in Canada were bleak. The Liberals may as well have been running unopposed. However, the "Unite the Right" campaign, which was ultimately successful in 2003, bore fruit almost immediately. By 2006 the newly united Conservative party was in power, and they haven't relinquished it since.
So how can the left in Canada not look to that example? Well, it's not quite that simple, and I think this is where Mr. Coyne draws his somewhat misguided point from. The Canadian Alliance was a splinter of the Progressive Conservatives. While they were separate for over 15 years, and their ideologies differed somewhat, which has led to some friction in the post amalgamation era, the two parties shared the same roots. At their heart, they agreed on a lot of issues, because the original members of the Reform Party of Canada had been Progressive Conservatives for a reason. There was a lot of common ground.
The other side isn't quite so cut and dry. The Liberals and NDP both have long histories with very different origins. They also, historically, have not been nearly as close in ideologies as the two parties which now comprise the Conservatives. While they have moved a little more to the left recently, in perception if not reality, the Liberals have traditionally been a centrist party. The appeal of the Big Red Tent was that everyone is welcome, even those with some right leanings. Why else were they able to govern through most of the Cold War? Even the Diefenbaker years were a stroke of pure luck on the part of the Progressive Conservatives; they threw him against the wall and were as surprised as anyone when he stuck. Despite the conservatism, combined with the fears of Soviet spies and nuclear strikes that dominated the 1950s, Canada did not feel the need to turn to the Conservative Party.
The NDP, meanwhile, have arguably moved closer to centre from the left. Still, though they're less intrinsically associated with socialism these days, the NDP are not a centrist party. A merger with the NDP would mean the Liberals are openly embracing the left wing. Whether they intend to be there or not, they will become the leftist party in the minds of the Canadian people. Can they win from there? Absolutely, this country can easily support a two-party system in which power ebbs and flows from one to another, just like the United States. However, they will never experience the same levels of political dominance they have experienced since 1896 (remember, prior to poor Stéphane Dion, only one man in Canadian history had been leader of the Liberals and not been Prime Minister) without the ability to plant themselves firmly in the centre. Is that a worthwhile trade-off?
And to anyone out there hoping for an NDP-Liberal merger in order to combat the current right-wing dominance, be careful what you wish for. How many Canadians look to the American two-party system and feel like that is something we want here? While no party but the Liberals or Conservatives (or some combination of the two) has ever governed this country, the other parties still play a role. They have votes in parliament, which is particularly important in the case of minority governments. I suspect that at some point I will end up writing about this at length, but one can look to the King-Byng affair of 1926, or the 2008 constitutional crisis in Canada, to see how critical the other parties can be.
Returning to Mr. Coyne's piece, he ends by suggesting that Canadians would benefit from a Pure Proportionate Representation system, where one votes for a party and the seats are divided by vote percentage. Unfortunately, there are a few easily foreseeable problems with a PPR system. Firstly, it offers a platform for dangerous minority groups. While a party running on a platform of solely anti-French sentiment would likely never come close to winning a seat under our current First Past the Post system, under a PPR system, they would need less than a third of a percent of the popular vote for a seat (that would have been about 45,000 votes in the 2011 election). Of course having a single seat does not give a party much say in government (just ask the Greens) but it does give them a platform to make their voice heard.
Secondly, a PPR system would eliminate the potential for independent, un-affiliated candidates. While that might seem like no great loss to many, independents are an important part of the political process. They allow Canadians an outlet if they became truly fed up with party politics, and force parties to refrain from becoming dogmatic to the point where they estrange their constituency.
PPR also eliminates local representation. If you are from PEI today, you vote a representative to Ottawa who is charged with looking out for your interests, as well as the country's. Under a PPR system, there is no guarantee that any MP would be from PEI or care about PEI. That applies to any local constituency in Canada. In this country we vote for people to represent us, they simply usually come with party labels attached. That's why crossing the floor is permitted. Under a PPR system, we would no longer be voting for people, we'd be voting for platforms. That reduces Canadians' participation in the political system by adding another layer of distance between the politicians and the people, making it easier to justify voter apathy.
First Past the Post has its flaws, but it has also served us well for nearly 150 years. Personally, I don't understand the desire to do away with the system every time the results are unfavourable to a given group. I don't know if there is a system that would be perfect for a country as large and diverse, and frankly, there is a ton of global precedent for danger when changing political systems (start that list with the Nazi rise from the Weimar Republic). For all those who are upset about the vote splitting at the moment, I urge you to be patient. Things will change in their own time in this country, they always do, but at the end of the day if we don't take radical action, we don't have to fear radical problems.