Analyzing Nathan Cullen's Joint Nomination Plan
Mar 2, 2012

Analyzing Nathan Cullen's Joint Nomination Plan

NDP leadership candidate Nathan Cullen has staked his bid to be the next Prime Minister of Canada on an unconventional electoral strategy. He would allow so called joint nominations where, at the riding level, riding associations for the Liberals and the NDP (and in principle other parties) could opt to run only a single candidate. The parties would not be formerly merged and it is a one time deal. In this post I consider the necessity, feasibility, and consequences of this proposal.

Is it necessary?
If Stephen Harper and Paul Martin's years of minority rule demonstrated anything to Canadians, it is that minority governments can, and do, work. Budgets get passed, policy transformations can occur and a relatively stable situation can arise. Minority governments are not the ineffective bogeymen they were once conceived to be. As much as the NDP may want to jump right into a majority government, a minority government would be an entirely respectful place to be and could be an reasonable goal to aspire to. I see no reason why current electoral math could not find the NDP in position to form a minority government without any consideration to Cullen's proposal.

In 2015, Stephen Harper will have been on office for over a decade. It is very rare that politicians survive beyond that and a sense of anti-incumbency works to put in place a new government. It is hard to predict outcomes so far in advance, but if an NDP minority was not an unreasonable jump from the May 2011 results, then it is quite reasonable to think that this may be the case in 2015 as well. In May 2011, the NDP came second in 121 ridings; they would need less than half of those to form a strong minority.

They do not necessarily even have to get the largest share of seats in a minority situation. There is nothing in the Constitution of Canada that means that the largest minority government ought to form the government. It is, however, convention. When Harper won his two minority governments, there was little real discussion of trying to have a NDP/Liberal coalition instead. In other parliamentary countries, raucous debates go on sometimes long after an election as coalitions build and form to finally decide what coalition leads a government and who leads and staffs that government. For example, consider a situation where the NDP wins 120 seats, Conservatives win 130 seats, and other parties win the remaining 58 seats - a result that isn't wildly out of the range of possibilities given the May 2011 result. In this situation it is quite reasonable that a formal coalition between the NDP and the Liberals could result in a coalition government with an NDP Prime Minister and several prominent cabinet ministers being Liberals. A proposal by the NDP and Liberals to hold joint nominations is at least as new and unconventional as a post-election coalition.

My first point against Cullen's plan is thus that it is simply not necessary. There are other paths forward for the NDP to form a government that are both acceptable and have a much lower bar to get to.

Is it feasible?
After the May 2011 Election, I ran some numbers on the counter factual of what would have happened if the Liberals and the NDP had merged and run as one. In order to win a majority in those electoral conditions, the coalition would have had to retain approximately 85% of the votes their received while 15% could be diluted to the Conservatives (from, say, right leaning Liberals) or other third parties like the Green Party. It is possible that with joint nominations, 85% of the votes sent to the Liberals or the NDP would still go to the Liberals or the NDP. But it is not obvious that this is the case, far from it and should not be thought of as some form of guarantee of electoral success, particularly if there is public backlash against the plan.

Even if the NDP elects Cullen and the party goes for it, the question remains of whether the Liberals would go along with it even if the NDP elected Cullen as the leader. It is not at all clear that they would, in fact it has been explicitly thrown aside by prominent stalwarts of the party like Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty. The Liberals have a very large advantage having their nomination a year after the NDP. This gives them a long time to assess the situation and the public reaction and then they can choose to make their nomination contest a referendum on this issue or not. It lets the Liberals take the upper hand being able to take the optimal course of action while the NDP is left powerless with their hand displayed. Should the NDP push for joint nominations and the Liberals reject it, this would be a huge blow to the NDP.

Even if both the Liberals and the NDP were to go along with Cullen's proposal, there is no guarantee that the public would. Recall the schenanigans of the 2008/09 prorogation crisis whereby the NDP and the Liberals attempted to topple the newly formed Conservative government with the help of the Bloc. Harper prorogued parliament until the new year whereby the coalition fizzled and he retained power. During that time, support for both the NDP and the Liberals plummeted and there was a widespread sentiment that this was somehow a tricky or unfair way to take power. Ultimately, the Liberals felt their position had collapsed too far and so when parliament resumed they dropped the coalition and backed the Conservative government. Should the population have responded differently - that is, should it have had a plurality supporting the idea of an NDP/Liberal coalition - then the outcome may have been very different. However, it was the inability to sell the public on the idea of the proposal that ultimately doomed its fate. The fate of the joint nomination is thus likewise ultimately in the hands of the public and not the NDP and Liberals. It is a risk.

Part of Cullen's plan is that this is a one time deal because once elected, some form of proportional representation scheme would be implemented. While I don't disagree in the least about the need for electoral reform, it is worth noting that this will not necessarily help the NDP. When you are a third party, First Past The Post systems hurt you, and when you are the winning party, it helps you. This is why Harper has a majority of the seats with a minority of the popular vote. However, should the NDP manage to form a government, they will end up being in a situation helped by FPTP. If one imagines proportional representation with party support as it is now, one would end up with nearly ubiquitous minority governments and it would take coalitions to form government just as it does in many other parliamentary systems. If that is the future, they may as well embrace it now and aim for a minority government or a Liberal/NDP coalition in order to win than the joint nominations trick.

One significant downside is the losses at the riding level. For an entire electoral cycle, the candidates for one or the other of the parties will not even be running. Should everything go to plan, then there is a decided disadvantage to whatever parties sat out a given riding going into the future. Not to mention deflating the energy, at ridings across the country, to build their parties from a bottom up grassroots way. There is also a tinge of an anti-democratic nature that makes me uncomfortable in the sense that a loyal party member is unable to vote for their own party. One can argue that these downsides are small in comparison to having the opportunity to form a government, but they should be noted nonetheless.

I don't intend in this post to adjudicate on whether a formal merger between the NDP and the Liberals is desirable. I will note that I think all of the consequences and outcomes of such a dramatic move is much harder and chaotic to predict than many partisans in this debate seem to think. Both sides are well motivated - the realpolitik of being able to defeat the Conservatives is very appealing, as is the desire to not shift ones policies and values by including a different party - but it is hard to balance them. What I will say, however, is that I think it should be all or nothing. An electoral trick like the Joint Nominations may seem like a best of both worlds (it aids the realpolitik without sacrificing the parties) but I believe it to be a risky proposition that has a big chance of backfiring, several negative consequences, and ultimately is a bandwidth solution to a larger problem.

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