Politics of Fear

Monday Magazine | January 19, 2006
A vote for the New Democratic Party is like a vote for Ralph Nader? That’s the way the Liberal candidate in the federal riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, Sheila Orr, has been playing it.

The implication is the NDP, like Nader’s Green Party in the United States, don’t stand a chance of forming the government. Therefore, a vote for them is at best wasted, and at worst creates a split among “progressives”—a split that divides the vote and allows a conservative to sneak in.

Last time around, 18 months ago, roughly 65 percent of voters in the riding didn’t vote for the incumbent, Conservative Gary Lunn, says Orr. If that number of votes could be consolidated into one candidate, and not divided three ways between Orr, NDP candidate Jennifer Burgis and the Green’s Andrew Lewis, then Lunn could be handily beaten, she argues.

“I’ve been talking about the split,” says Orr. “I’m very open about the fact I’m concerned about Stephen Harper forming a majority government.”

Orr’s position, of course, rests on the assumption that she, the NDP and the Greens all stand for basically the same thing. It’s a position that should be laughable, especially coming from Orr. For four years, you’ll recall, she sat in the backbenches of Gordon Campbell’s nominally Liberal government, dutifully voting with the party to implement a neo-conservative agenda that included chopping funding for daycares and women’s centres, gutting environmental regulations and privatizing large parts of the public service. How much worse could Harper be?

However, candidates representing other parties worry that despite Orr’s track record, her argument may convince voters to pass over the NDP or the Greens.

“It’s so undemocratic,” says the Green’s Lewis. “I am battling the strategic voting. We’re everybody’s second choice.” Lewis polled the highest of all Green candidates in Canada last time around, but still finished fourth in the riding.

“People are torn. They don’t know how to vote to get the result they want,” he says. But he doesn’t think casting a ballot for the Liberals, just to block Harper, is the way to go. “Strategic voting is a wasted vote. It doesn’t work. How do you know the result?”

He has a point. In the Victoria riding in the last election, now-retiring Liberal MP David Anderson picked up a lot of “progressive” votes from people who were trying to block the Conservatives. But in the final count, the Tory candidate was a distant third and Anderson had edged out the NDP’s David Turner. Nationwide, the electorate handed the Liberals a minority government, with the NDP having barely enough seats to hold the balance of power. Had Turner beaten Anderson, the NDP would have been in that much stronger a position to bargain with prime minister Paul Martin.

How many voters would have switched their vote if they had known the local race was really a battle between Anderson and Turner, and not with the Conservative Party at all?

This time around there haven’t been any local polls released, but Denise Savoie, a popular two-term city councillor with a strong green bent, seems to be the Victoria favourite.

“It’s a good strategy to vote NDP,” says the party’s leader, Jack Layton. “A good way to stop Conservatives is to vote NDP in quite a few of the ridings. Certainly on Vancouver Island that’s the case.” He adds, “In Victoria, Denise Savoie is clearly the candidate to choose. There’s no reason to expect a Conservative to win in Victoria.”

In response to a question about strategic voting, Savoie herself says, “I think if people are voting not to have a Conservative, they should vote for me. [Conservative canddiate Robin Baird is] not likely to have enough votes unless people voted Liberal . . . I just don’t think [strategic voting is] going to play out in this riding this time. And if it does, it’s going to play out in my favour.”

The Green candidate in Victoria, Ariel Lade, agrees that fewer people are going to be voting strategically this time. “I don’t see it having as large an impact as it did in previous elections,” he says. “People realize it’s going to be a minority government so they feel more liberated to vote for what they believe in.”

The way he looks at it, the main difference between this election and the last one is that Anderson isn’t running. Anderson enjoys a fair bit of personal popularity and he was a cabinet minister going into the last election—he could, at the time, make a credible promise to be a strong voice for Victoria in the government. With Anderson out, says Lade, the people who voted for him last time won’t necessarily vote for his Liberal replacement, David Mulroney. “I think I have as good a shot at winning as he does. And maybe Robin [Baird] as well.”

Still, as the election campaign draws to a close, the Liberal candidates in all three local ridings will no doubt be repeating the vote-for-us-to-block-that-maniac-Harper mantra. As Keith Martin, the Liberal candidate in Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca, says, “I say to people, if you vote NDP you are likely to see the Conservative win. You could allow the Conservative to come up through the middle, elect a Conservative MP and put Stephen Harper closer to being the prime minister of Canada.”

Of course Martin, like Orr, is better acquainted with the neo-conservatives than most of us, having sat as an MP for the Reform Party under Preston Manning and as an MP for the Canadian Alliance Party under Stockwell Day’s leadership. But that may not stop people from seeing him and his fiscally conservative but socially liberal politics as the best alternative to Harper’s Conservatives. Even if the riding elects an NDP representative, he says, the party can’t hope to do any better than be the fourth party in Parliament. “It leaves Victoria powerless . . . They can also get a lot more traction with someone like me who knows the system.”

Back in Saanich-Gulf Islands, the fact that many people are tempted to vote strategically, says Lewis, shows why we need to get serious about changing the electoral system. Under a fairer system, such as Single Transferable Vote (STV) or Mixed Member Proportional (MMP), where seats better reflect a party’s share of the popular vote, voters wouldn’t have this problem.

In the meantime, he says, holding your nose and voting strategically isn’t the best way to get what you want. “You have to vote your conscience or what you truly believe in, otherwise you’ll never get it.”

There’s one other reason to cast your ballot for your favourite party. Under the election financing rules introduced before the last election, each party gets $1.75 a year for each vote they receive. You can, therefore, think of your vote as an indication of where you want your taxpayer-funded donation to go, and who you want to be using it to fight the next election.

Monday Magazine

Founded in 1975 to provide a critical voice in Victoria's political and cultural communities, Monday Magazine continues to shake British Columbia's conservative capital city with tell-it- like-it-is features and reviews. Targeting educated, active adults and Victoria's growing youth market, Monday...
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