There are a flurry of myths and misconceptions about our program of practical strategies for co-operation between the NDP, Liberals and Greens. Given the stakes, it's important to thoughtfully consider what is being proposed and acknowledge hard realities before arriving at an informed opinion.
First, let's be clear what the plan is, and is not. The co-operation strategy we are proposing calls for a primary to be held before the general election between local Liberal, NDP and Green party nominees in targeted ridings where the Conservative incumbents won with less than 50 per cent of the vote. Everywhere else it's business as usual. One opposition candidate per riding will win the opportunity to directly face off with their Conservative opponent in 2015.
The NDP, Liberals and Greens would still present separate platforms, although if they chose to, they may negotiate some policy agreements, particularly on electoral reform. During the general election the parties would focus on defeating Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, while competing vigorously in all "non-cooperation" ridings. The chips will fall as they may, and the party that wins the most seats will have the best shot at forming a government.
Despite the seeming simplicity of this proposal, those that reject co-operation commonly voice a number of concerns. Let's address those now.
The first and most vehement claim against co-operation goes something like this: "The Liberals and the NDP have different histories and ideologies. They are fundamentally different parties and therefore cannot work together." This is not an effective argument against limited, one-time cooperation to prevent vote splitting, which would actually increase the likelihood that the parties will remain distinct entities in the long term. Going alone in 2015 is substantially riskier – and should Mr. Harper win another majority on the back of vote splitting, the calls for an outright merger may become too loud to ignore.
Others believe that Liberal, NDP or Green voters may go to the Conservative party rather than vote for the opposition candidate. The only hard evidence thus far indicates precisely the opposite. Liberal supporters surveyed by EKOS in November preferred the NDP or Greens to the Conservatives as a second choice by a substantial margin of 54 per cent over 23 per cent for the Conservatives. Meanwhile, nearly three times as many NDPers would vote Liberal rather than Conservative, and virtually all Green party votes would be split between the "progressive" parties, with only 11 per cent voting Conservative.
Non-cooperators then hypothesize that the lack of choice will make some voters stay home. While this may be true for a few, it would be offset by people who have been frustrated that their vote didn't matter in the first-past-the-post electoral system – people who would now have an opportunity to vote for meaningful change. And besides, I doubt politicians cooperating to achieve a common objective will turn people off politics.
Another favourite argument is to focus on NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's reluctance to co-operate. Mr. Mulcair is pragmatic, chosen by NDP members for his focus on winning, and one should not forget how often politicians can change course. There was a substantial push for inter-party co-operation in the NDP leadership race that helped Nathan Cullen achieve a surprising third-place finish, and should both the Liberals and Greens be in favour of co-operation, it could easily change the political calculus for the NDP.
The last and possibly most credible concern is that the Conservatives will campaign on simple issues such as "economy" or "stability," while demonizing the idea of inter-party co-operation and thus attempting to force the opposition parties off message. The non-co-operators are right in that this will certainly be the Conservative strategy – although it is unclear how this would be much different from the "coalition" bogeyman of previous campaigns.
The opposition parties will be free to focus on core messages while using the co-operation agreement as a perfect opportunity to show Canadians the need for electoral reform. The only thing that the Liberals and NDP may have to admit is that they have more in common with each other than they do with the Conservatives. The second-choice voter preferences demonstrate that this will resonate with the vast majority of voters.
Perhaps most intriguing in the cooperation debate is the lack of consideration given to the reality that the opposition parties must confront. One rarely hears non-co-operators acknowledging that Stephen Harper is out-fundraising both major opposition parties combined. Or that, halfway through his term, having implemented the majority of his agenda, Mr. Harper is still up in the polls, with a boatload of cash and lots of time before 2015 to put a positive spin on his term.
Liberals reflecting on the future of their party face a challenging political landscape. Their party has not won a majority government against a united right in over 30 years. And, with the Mulcair-led NDP running the most centrist platform in the party's history, the Liberals are being given little breathing room to differentiate themselves (except on Quebec policy). Some place their faith in polls suggesting that Justin Trudeau can lead them back to the promised land. Yet, while he clearly appeals to many Canadians, he has not encountered the Conservative attack machine or been confronted in sustained, intense debates by skilled politicians such as Mr. Harper and Mr. Mulcair. As the months stretch into years before the next election, the basic math of a divided opposition will likely reassert itself.
While it is certainly easier to remain in comfortable partisan trenches, it is also incredibly risky. This is true both for Liberals who want their party to remain independent, and for the rest of us – the overwhelming majority of Canadians who are not members of any political party, and want nothing more than a government that represents the will of the majority of Canadians.
Adam Shedletzky is a co-founder of Leadnow.ca, a 225,000-person progressive advocacy group. He is a Junior Fellow at Massey College and a student in the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law.