Sunday, April 15, 2007

The May Dion Deal

This is a remarkable development. Partisan politics in a first past the post system is a Darwinian struggle for survival. It does not typically permit parties to cooperate, or even say nice things about each other in public, regardless of how they might feel privately.

To extend the Darwin metaphor a bit, it means that it is the stronger of the two partners to such an arrangement that is likely to benefit and thrive, while the weaker risks severe harm to the species. In other words, this could be highly beneficial for the Liberals but very damaging for the Greens.

How might the Liberals benefit? Implicit in the deal is a general endorsement for the Liberal policy on climate change and Dion’s leadership on the issue by the Green Party. This will help insulate the Liberals from the attacks of the NDP and the Conservatives that Dion was part of a government that failed to follow up its Kyoto commitments. For example, this Angus Reid online poll found that a plurality of 34% of Canadians believed the Greens are the party “best suited to develop effective global warming legislation” compared to 18% for the Liberals. (TC has reservations about online polls but these are very large numbers). So having Green support has the potential to considerably strengthen the Liberals’ and Dion’s reputation on climate issues. Some have argued his reputation on this issue is already strong – but he is still new and public knowledge of party leaders and their policies, especially new ones, should not be overestimated. I think the greatest benefits may be downstream rather than immediate.

Effectively Elizabeth May is saying that the urgent nature of the climate crisis and the fact that in her words the Harper government represents a “grave threat”, legitimizes encouraging Green voters to support the Liberals against the Harper Conservatives. This is the clear implication of her position, although she does not explicitly so, but it is an implication that will not be missed by those who might be willing to vote strategically on the climate issue.

If there is true urgency here, why is May not simply endorsing the Liberals? There are going to be very difficult questions for her to answer as this type of cooperation is implicitly contradictory in nature. It means the Greens could take fewer votes, perhaps far fewer, than would otherwise have been the case. Whatever her idealistic intent, she can’t ultimately escape the zero-sum nature of party politics. She is new to politics and often appears quite na├»ve about its sometime brutal realities.

Could the Liberals literally gain extra seats from this? If we take the seat calculations I made based on the most recent SES poll, and, for illustrative purposes, take half of the Green vote and give it to the Liberals, it would boost the Liberal seat total by 9 to 130. The potentially tangible benefits to the Liberals are there indeed.

The conventional media coverage has been largely negative but don’t let that mislead you. The pundit class (as TC has previously discussed) are generally clueless. The sophistication of their analysis tends not to go beyond comparing the number of Liberal votes in Central Nova with the number of Green votes in St. Laurent-Cartierville. This deal may not be win-win but I doubt that it is lose-lose.

For the Green Party as an institution, the implications of the deal are most likely to be highly negative. The one potential benefit would be if May could actually win Central Nova. I think it highly unlikely (the Green vote is weak there and many Liberals in rural Nova Scotia would have either the Conservatives or the NDP as a second choice), although Greg Morrow of DemocraticSpace says it is at least a possibility. Having just one seat in the House of Commons would bring sufficient benefits to justify this action to the Greens who are otherwise likely to see votes bleeding away from them.

It is the potential harm to the Greens that explains the reaction of the NDP who have denounced the arrangement as a backroom deal (a pejorative phrase that has been much thrown around but left undefined). Jack Layton has a better understanding of the Darwinian character of party politics, hence his reaction.

While it was probably all Layton could say, it doesn’t seem accurate to characterize the May-Dion agreement as a “backroom deal”. It seems to me about the same as the NDP budget deal with Paul Martin. There were private conversations then a public announcement of a deal with (perceived) benefits for both parties. A better definition of a backroom deal would be one that involves making a private promise in a closed door negotiation in exchange for a public benefit, such as a leadership convention candidate making a secret promise to a rival to drop out and throw support to the remaining candidate.

It is all no doubt frustrating for the Jack Layton, whose seriousness about global warming goes back a number of years, and has indeed been endorsed by Elizabeth May. To see what Jack Layton and Olivia Chow have done personally about the issue, take a look at this YouTube video tour of their house.

In the end, the whole arrangement could turn out to be moot. If Afghanistan, for example, became the focus of the campaign, or the election was to be delayed and a recession was to suddenly get underway, even climate change could be pushed to the side. There is a gamble about the future here but it seems to TC that most of the potential risks are to the Green Party, and most of the potential benefits belong to the Liberals. It is not likely to establish a precedent that other smaller parties like the NDP will wish to emulate.

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