Friday, October 8, 2010

Toronto and Canada: One vs. the Others

The municipal race currently 'heating up' in Toronto, an election campaign that makes the American presidential race seem like a sprint, is an interesting paradox: it's by far the most partisan non-partisan electoral system I've ever seen. While there may tehnically be no parties on the bill, it still feels very much like a  party system. And furthermore, as superficially different as they might look on the outside, it reminds me most of our federal political landscape.

How? Well, post-Sarah Thomson there are now four major candidates. Similarly, federally we have four major candidates outside of Québec. Seemingly a healthy multipartisan democracy. But one which, after the battle lines are drawn, still seems quite polar. Still seems 'us vs. them', or rather 'us vs. him'.

Neither Toronto as a whole nor Canada as a whole is especially conservative. Within the '416', in fact, conservative viewpoints (small-c intentional but capital-C too) form a distinct minority of the public discourse. In both cases, the front-runner is a distinctly conservative candidate, but in both cases they are running at the front with far less than 50% of the vote.

Whenever people are talking about Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and claiming to like one while hating the other, I am baffled. "But they taste the same!", I call out, and people disagree vehemently. "Put it this way," I say, "Compare Coke to Pepsi and, say, a glass of milk. Don't they seem the same now?"

Municipally and federally, it seems like the same kind of thing. Looking merely at Joe Pantolone, George Smitherman and Rocco Rossi, there seem to be a million differences between them, and in fact those three names alone do roughly represent the left, centre and right of the spectrum. Yet introduce front-runner Rob Ford into the equation, and suddenly the first three seem like mirror images of each other. How is this? Well, Rob Ford and Stephen Harper are both highly polarising figures, and the influence we inevitably must tolerate that comes from south of the border in waves familiarises us with the politics of polarisation. For a large variety of reasons, Rob Ford and Stephen Harper represent American-style politics in a way that our other candidates don't. I think to a certain degree the inability of the other candidates to catch onto this new dynamic, or their unwillingness to respond to it, is a good part of the reason they lag behind. Let's take a second to look at current polls:
  • Federally, averaged for the month of September by
    • Stephen Harper and the CPC: 33.4%
    • The Non-Stephen Harpers: 65.0% (LPC: 29.6%, NDP: 15.2%, GPC: 10.2, BQ: 10.0)
    • Others: 1.6% (I won't be so Manichaean as to lump everyone into the non-Stephen Harper camp, since some of these other voices might well be conservative; my point is that the four I listed above are very specifically not Stephen Harper; in other words, they are Coke, Pepsi, RC and Cott next to Harper's milk)
  • Municipally, I can't find anything more recent than the one from 28 September here:
    • Rob Ford: 28%
    • The Non-Rob Fords: 47% (Smitherman: 23%, Pantalone: 10%, Rossi: 7% and the ghost of Thomson: 7%)
    • Undecided: a whopping 20%
Similarly, even though Rossi is a rightist, he seems to have more in common with Smitherman and Pantalone than with his wingmate. Muncipal debates give the impression of Ford on one side and everyone else on the other, just as, federally, the 2008 leadership debates seemed to pit Harper against a 'gang of four'. And importantly, the poll I referenced put Ford ahead but also claimed that if it were a two-person race between Smitherman and Ford, Smitherman would win. I have to imagine if it were a two-person race between Ignatieff and Harper as well, that Harper could win.

But it's not. Neither race is bipartisan, and both races run the risk of seeing a man elected who is disliked by a majority of the electors: not a great way to establish a mandate.

What is there to do about it? Well, every time the opposition appears united against them, Harper and the Conservatives like to paint the other parties as a 'coalition', a strategy that I think might backfire if it succeeds in making the public familiar with, and used to, the idea of a 'coalition'. The truth is, though, that federally we are sooner or later going to have to get used to post-election coalitions; our electoral landscape is too fragmented to ever again see majorities on the horizon, and our ability to tolerate minority rule is being tested, it would appear. It's really only possible to envision a Liberal-NDP coalition at the moment, and indeed it is that very possibility that is mentioned so often you'd be excused for thinking it already exists. But there might be any kind of coalition in the future. They will come; as a country we have no choice.

But municipally? The election for mayor is the closest we in Canada get to American-style politics, because it's voting for an individual, in a very strict winner-takes-all fashion. There is no opportunity for coalition here: the losers go home, out of a job. True "Anyone-but-Ford" believers might claim that tactical voting is even more essential municipally than it is at other levels, and certainly tactical voting must be what Smitherman dreams of when he crawls into bed at night.

An Alternate-Vote system is probably the answer for mayoral races. I don't love AV, but it's tough to see an alternative in a winner-takes-all scenario. I don't suggest that (a) this is useful merely to keep out Rob Ford or that (b) every supporter of Pantolone or Rossi would by default put Smitherman higher than Ford on the list. Though three of the post-amalgamation mayoral races have been cakewalks (in one case with over 80% of the vote), I think future elections will be less so. AV would be useful not just now but subsequently. If FPTP would, at the moment, produce a Ford victory but AV would produce a Smitherman victory, that clearly indicates that voter intentions are not reflecting reality.

Which I think is a contributing factor to voter malaise. One thing that has Ford running first at the moment is that, for better or for worse, he's the only candidate that inspires much of a reaction at all either way. Otherwise this campaign has largely been a disappointment, and it's difficult to be anything but disspirited about it.

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