Thursday, April 12, 2007

On bad deals

It's official: the Libs and Greens have cut a deal under which neither party will run a candidate in the other's leader's riding. And it's hard to see how the end result could be much more disastrous for either party.

First, let's look at the implications for the Libs. The first problem, as has already been noted, is the party's unexplained retreat from its 308-riding strategy (and indeed track record of running a candidate in each riding). While the most significant loss for the Libs will be in Central Nova itself - as the riding association has no reason to stay interested through the next election cycle - the message will presumably be heard loud and clear in other ridings as well: any riding association can find its work entirely unraveled at the whim of Dion and his handlers if it's seen as making the road easier for the Lib's leader. And that can only drain whatever enthusiasm may have remained among grassroots Libs who may have wanted to build their party up where it isn't currently competitive.

But the problems go far deeper than that. Today's deal can only create new fissures among the party's loyal supporters: while some Libs try to get at least an explanation or point out the reasons for not following through, others will take up the call to clap louder in hopes of papering over yet another avoidable trouble spot within the party. And Dion himself comes off looking both heavy-handed (in imposing his will on the riding association), and ineffective (in starting yet another internal fire of the kind that he's shown no ability to put out).

So what do the Libs get in exchange for all those costs? Dion didn't figure to be challenged in his own seat anyway, so the Greens' willingness not to run there doesn't make any positive difference. And it's hard to see how Elizabeth May had much choice but to remain at least somewhat positive about Dion given her constant gushing over the past few months - so slightly cementing that support seems like an awfully small gain in exchange for the wounds opened up by the move.

Amazingly, though, the Greens may end up even worse off than the Libs. By explicitly endorsing Dion for PM, May has effectively taken on every bit of Lib baggage in exchange for a slightly improved chance at a single seat. And even her own chances of getting into Parliament may be lessened if Central Nova voters see themselves as having been manipulated due to the Libs' choice to pack it in entirely rather than running even a weak candidate.

Then there's the Greens' choice to echo the Think Twice (But Don't Think Deeply) Coalition's rhetoric. This would be a bizarre choice at the best of times, but it's all the more so given the party's current supporters' actual preference among possible PMs.

That's right: as the lone party leader who already holds the dubious honour of being her own party's supporters' second choice for PM, May is throwing her support to their fourth choice (or sixth if one counts "none of the above" and "unsure") in an attempt to stop their first choice. Which only seems likely to alienate both a good chunk of current Green supporters, and anybody who might otherwise have flipped from supporting the Cons.

Now, I'm not one to suggest that parties should never seek to work together, and indeed I wouldn't mind seeing a genuine concerted effort at an electoral coalition which actually had the effect of reducing the likelihood of a Harper majority. In that vein, one could make a relatively plausible argument that the above costs to the Libs and Greens could potentially have been worth it for both parties if the result had been a national cooperative effort that actually led to significant strategic advantages.

But instead, the Libs and Greens have unleashed every possible negative about running a fully coordinated campaign...while still having to compete against each other in 306 ridings as well. That is, unless they each separately decide to abandon other ridings in addition to the two included in the agreement - or decide they have no choice but to expand the deal, which if done later would serve as evidence that neither party really thought through the consequences of today's announcement.

In a sense, the closest recent political comparator to today's deal may be Jean Charest's decision to campaign on a small tuition hike in the recent Quebec election - thereby enraging Quebec's students while not doing much to win support from any group. But then, the Lib/Green deal still manages to top that by including equally damaging results for two different parties, rather than simply reflecting a one-sided miscalculation.

Of course, another difference is that Charest's announcement came at the start of a campaign where the aftereffects couldn't be avoided. For now, the best chance for the Libs and Greens is probably a delayed election to allow them to get their respective acts together to avoid the immediate fallout. But I can't help but to suspect that if Harper wasn't previously planning on an election this year, he'll now be taking a much closer look at the possibility. And we'll have to hope the NDP is ready for a battle the likes of which it's never fought before, as the Libs under Dion haven't given any reason to think they have either the unity or the competence to keep Harper short of a majority.

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