It goes without saying that I loved the story our tireless David Akin broke over the weekend about the New Democrats colluding with Fair Vote Canada to street-fight the Liberals in Monday’s Ottawa-Vanier by-election. It is not so much that there are big dramatic implications to Akin’s piece. It is the touching, almost sweet portrait of a particular corner of Canadian politics that I appreciated. I am not here to sell you a copy of yesterday’s paper, but to me the article almost had some of the pathos of a good short story.
Think about it: the Fair Vote Canada people are obsessed with electoral procedure, and convinced that mathematical proportionality in parliamentary assemblies is not just a convenience or a guideline, but a strict ethical principle, one in whose pursuit half-heartedness and half-measures are not to be tolerated. Their concern about the fairness of elections has sometimes led spokesmen for Fair Vote up to the edge of verbal bullying and Old Testament ranting. And they are now opposing the Liberals in one of their strongholds in order to take revenge for the breaking of the Grit campaign promise to reform federal elections and end the wicked first-past-the-post system.
You might assume from this that people who care so much about elections might know an extremely large amount about elections. Think again.
When Akin got his hands on a lessons-learned review of the group’s Ottawa-Vanier campaigning, what he found was the spectacle of Fair Vote Canada having to go to the NDP for basic information, particularly lists and maps of the most propitious polling districts for getting out the NDP vote. The New Democrats offered nuggets of campaigning advice such as “skip Tory-heavy and low-turnout polling districts,” “try to get leaflets into apartment blocks,” and “a university campus is usually a good place to reach NDP voters.”
It is fun to imagine Fair Vote advocates, still stung by Liberal treachery, deciding gloomily that to defeat the cynical politicians that they must become like them — indeed, ally with them. One pictures them casting aside their innocence like a garment, arming themselves with the (extremely) humble rudiments of campaigning knowledge as they prepare to take up a bleak, hopeless battle.
Then you picture a world in which third-party lobby groups actually have significant power, know-how, and quantitative ability — and maybe it is not so funny and charming anymore. This will depend, of course, on your other political prejudices. The U.S. is a world of strong, authoritative, adult “third parties” — thinktanks, political action committees, community organizers. EMILY’s List, Citizens United, MoveOn.org, and the Club For Growth don’t typically turn to political parties for help: it is supposed to work the other way around.
Elections Canada is not likely to take umbrage with the NDP’s friendly lending of maps to Fair Vote Canada unless this is seen to constitute the use of a third-party group to evade a campaign spending limit. Fair Vote Canada is allowed to endorse — and allowed to … anti-endorse? — individual candidates. It is subject to its own spending rules, but it sounds as though the help it got from the NDP probably amounts to roughly 30 cents on an actual balance sheet. Nothing in the law or in ethics requires the New Democrats to charge a thousand dollars for asking “Hey, did you guys try canvassing the U of O?”
In the long run, as a purely self-interested matter, Fair Vote Canada ought to be damned careful about letting itself be seen as the cavalry arm of one political party. The NDP’s intelligentsia favours proportional representation (PR) with vote-share thresholds for assembly eligibility. Such thresholds would threaten the Greens and insure the New Democrats against the characteristic schisms of the far left. Most Fair Vote supporters want something more like full PR. If PR is a moral question, and having “Fair” in the name of your group seems like a hint, then the New Democrats should be treated as no different in principle from the other parties.
There is something else to consider, lest we fall into the trap of thinking that Fair Vote Canada is totally uncynical itself. The document Akin obtained makes it clear that increasing New Democratic turnout was Fair Vote Canada’s main canvassing goal. They worked directly from the NDP’s own list of preferred polling districts.
That is a tactically appropriate way to fight a by-election if your goal is to punish the government. By-elections are won by getting out the existing vote base of the party you are supporting. But shouldn’t Fair Vote Canada really have targeted the strong Liberal polls?
The group says it believes that the shattered reform promise was a major factor in helping the Liberals win the 2015 election. If that is so, the angriest, most vengeful voters, the ones readiest to hear and act on the Fair Vote Canada message, should be the ones that voted Liberal in 2015 mostly because they trusted that promise. Doesn’t the group think that these people really exist? I am not sure anyone else does, but they are supposed to.