One of the key thrusts of this election campaign, beyond talk of the economy and distractions like the niqab issue, has been voting strategically to defeat the Stephen Harper government.
Left wing groups like LeadNow have been promoting the Vote Together campaign, where they connect people in different ridings to vote for the party with the best chance of beating the Harper Conservatives. They even commissioned a poll of 42 swing ridings to see which candidate had the best chance of defeating the Conservatives.
The idea being, of course, that unseating Harper is more important than voting for the candidate or party you like most. Are you a centrist voter who thinks the NDP are a bunch of radical socialists that will bankrupt the country? Has your family been voting Liberal since time immemorial? In this riding, that doesn’t matter. Vote for the NDP anyway, because it’s all about defeating the Harper Conservatives. Likewise, in other ridings the push is to vote Liberal. Anything to get rid of Harper — so they say.
The sad thing is, we live in a system where a party can rule with impunity with less than 40 per cent of the vote. It happened in the 90s, when a divided right allowed Jean Chretien and the Liberal Party to earn three consecutive majorities. Recently, the Conservatives have exploited a divided left to rule for nine years — the last four with a majority.
If your guy is in power, it’s great. If he’s not, it leads to outright frustration and even anger. It’s reached the point where every party but the Conservatives are promising some form of proportional representation if they win the election.
So, it’s possible this election could represent a turning point in Canadian democracy. It could mean our first-past-the-post system, inherited from the British, could be scrapped. It could mean the end of majority governments, and the beginning of coalitions.
That brings me back to voting strategically. In this riding, that means the election is essentially a race between Conservative candidate David Wilks and NDP candidate Wayne Stetski. A poll conducted by Environics for LeadNow put them tied at 37 per cent, with the Liberals and Green party a fair distance back.
With Wilks, you’re getting a fairly typical Harper Conservative. He’s tough on crime and supports low taxes. He’s not hyper-partisan, but he hasn’t shown an independent streak, except for that brief moment three years ago when he pondered voting against the first Harper omnibus budget bill and becoming an independent MP. Since then, he’s been a dutiful backbencher, sending out press releases written by the Prime Ministers Office, but with his name attached to the top.
Where he has succeeded as an MP is addressing constituent concerns and bringing money to the riding. While he was not successful in getting funding to twin the Trans-Canada, he has brought back money for lots of other infrastructure projects. With party discipline getting more strict, this is arguably the most important role of an MP.
Stetski was chosen as the NDP candidate after a single term as the mayor of Cranbrook. It’s both impressive that a left-wing candidate was elected the mayor of Cranbrook, but he was quickly swept out of power after one term in a concerted effort to unseat him.
Stetski reminds me of Norm Macdonald, the NDP MLA for Columbia River-Revelstoke. He’s earnest and soft-spoken, and comes across as very sincere, but he’s not above taking partisan shots at his opponents, particularly at Wilks. His campaign has been surprisingly negative.
Stetski’s biggest argument for voting for him is that he’s the only candidate that can beat the Conservatives. It’s probably true. For decades, since Jim Abbott swept to power in 1993, the NDP has been the second party in the riding. With its union base, it has the strongest organization of any party outside the Conservatives.
The Green Party and Liberal Party like to point to what happened in Alberta this spring, when the NDP won a surprise majority, that the past doesn’t dictate the future, and so you should vote for them. I don’t think that holds up in Kootenay-Columbia for two reasons. For one, Conservative popularity isn’t plummeting like it was in Alberta and there’s no alternate right-wing party to split the vote.
For another, while Justin Trudeau has resurrected the Liberal Party, the party is simply coming from too far behind in Kootenay-Columbia. The fact they’re in the conversation is a positive sign compared to four years ago.
As for the Green Party, they suffer from the problem that a lot of progressive voters want to vote for them, but they don’t think they can win, so they’ll vote NDP. Many people I spoke to were very impressed with Bill Green at the Revelstoke election debate, but a lot of those same people are afraid of splitting the vote.
It comes down to Wilks and Stetski, or, more specifically, Harper or someone else. With Harper, we know what we’ll get — a government that favours industry over the environment, is tough on crime, provides targeted tax credits, prefers ideology to evidence when crafting legislation, and puts politics above all else.
As for the other parties, it remains to be seen how they’ll govern. The Liberals are promising small deficits to invest in infrastructure, while the NDP is promising balanced budgets, despite some expensive spending promises.
The election is a referendum on the Harper government. The desire for change is there, whether it happens is the big unknown.