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  October 8, 2015

Should Canadians Vote Strategically to Defeat Harper?

Amara Possian of Leadnow and Dimitri Lascaris of the Green Party, London-West, debate the consequences of strategic voting in the Canadian October 19th federal elections
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Dimitri Lascaris is a lawyer, journalist and activist. After working in the New York and Paris offices of a major Wall Street law firm, Dimitri became a class action lawyer in Canada. His practice focused on shareholder rights, environmental wrongs and human rights. In 2012, Canadian Lawyer Magazine named him one of the 25 most influential lawyers in Canada, and in 2013, Canadian Business Magazine named him one of the 50 most influential persons in Canadian business. Dimitri ran for the Green Party in Canada’s 2015 federal election and has served as the Justice Critic in the Green Party of Canada shadow cabinet.


SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I'm Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

The Canadian federal elections are to be held on October 19. The polls are showing that Liberals and Conservatives are virtually tied, with 32.5 percent for the Liberals and 32.3 percent for the Conservatives. The New Democrats stand at 25 percent, followed by the Green Party at 4.7 percent. The Bloc Quebecois has increased its support to 20.4 percent in Quebec. The fact that the Conservatives and the Liberals are running neck to neck is causing some social movement organizations to call for strategic voting, to end Stephen Harper's nine-year rule.

Our next guests are on opposite sides of the debate on strategic voting. With us to debate this crucial issue for Canadians are two guests: Amara Possian and Dimitri Lascaris. Amara is managing Vote Together, one of Leadnow's federal election campaigns, and Dimitri Lascaris is a partner with the Canadian law firm Siskinds where he heads the firm's class action practice. He's running to become a member of parliament for London-West riding as a member of the Green party. Thank you both for joining me.

DIMITRI LASCARIS: Thank you, Sharmini.


PERIES: So let me just begin with getting each of your views on strategic voting. Let me start with you, Amara.

POSSIAN: Well, what we've heard from the Leadnow community is that people across the country are tired of the fact that our democracy is broken. We live in a system where a majority of people can vote for change and still see the Harper Conservatives win seats. So the Vote Together campaign is a response to our broken democracy. People want change on October 19. First past the post voting distorts democracy, and we're trying to change that with this campaign.

PERIES: And Dimitri, as a candidate for the Green Party, what is your basic position on strategic voting?

LASCARIS: Let me say at the outset that I'm a longtime supporter of Leadnow, although for reasons I'm going to explain, I'm very much in disagreement with them on their strategic voting campaign. I will continue to be a supporter of Leadnow. And the main reason I'm a supporter of Leadnow is because its substantive positions on issues that matter to Canadians are the right ones. Its methodology for getting to the destination it wants to arrive at may not be the right one in this particular election, but I certainly agree with its substantive positions.

What I'm troubled by is that as I understand it, perhaps Amara can correct me, but as I understand it the real priority, the overarching priority of the strategic voting campaign is to remove the Harper government. And the campaign doesn't really ask the question, it almost renders the entire question neutral, as to what are we going to replace that government with? And my perspective on this, and that of a lot of people that I've spoken to in my riding, is that that question is even more important than the question of getting rid of Stephen Harper's government. What are we going to replace him with? There is no doubt, I think, that the strategic voting initiative is going to result in a number of ridings--or it may result, if it works, and that's another question, whether it can actually work--may result in certain liberal candidates defeating conservative candidates when they might not otherwise have done so without the strategic voting initiative, assuming that it can work.

What are we going to end up with if that happens? We're going to end up with a government, a Liberal government, that supported Bill C-51, the worst assault on our civil liberties in our lifetimes. We're going to end up with a government that wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline and the Energy East pipeline. It wants to expand the tar sands. I understand that Leadnow is opposed to that, and rightly so. I understand it's opposed to Bill C-51, and rightly so. This is a government that just yesterday essentially embraced the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which is going to create a separate legal system for corporations that is rigged in their favor. It's going to be staffed by corporate lawyers, who are going to make decisions that could have profound impacts on the legislation and the regulation we adopt. This is a government that doesn't want to raise the corporate tax rate, which is lower than in any other country in the industrialized world--or it would be, the Liberal government.

So why would we go through all of the trouble of having this election if we're going to end up with a government that is essentially pursuing the Harper agenda?

PERIES: Amara, let me let you get in on this. What do you think of what Dimitri's saying? Essentially that what you're suggesting that voters do by strategic vote is end up with a government that opposes positions that your organization has taken on very important issues.

POSSIAN: I think we know that no matter what happens on October 19 or 20, we're going to have to keep pushing the parties to work together for change. So this isn't just a campaign that's about an election, voting together isn't an end. It's a means to a more progressive political landscape where we can push the parties to work together on the areas that our community cares about.

If vote splitting means that Harper gets a minority government, then we're going to push the parties to cooperate to defeat him, and deliver the change that a majority of people across the country are voting for. We're a supporter-driven organization. We have half a million supporters. And we go to them with important strategic questions when we need to make a decision. And a couple of years ago we went to them and said, there's a major election coming up. You've seen what's happened to this country under a majority Conservative government. Do you want us to run a campaign in the election? Ninety-one percent of people said yes.

And then when we presented a few strategic options, some of which included taking positions on issues, the vast majority of our supporters said that they wanted us to consolidate the vote behind candidates who could defeat Conservatives. So I think that this is a smart, practical campaign for a broken system. It's a way for us to achieve change on October 19, and it has also helped us build independent political power outside the party system that will help us keep pushing after the election so that we can deliver real change.

PERIES: And Dimitri, how do you respond to that? I mean, the focus on defeating Harper is essentially a worthwhile campaign, here.

LASCARIS: You know, the system became broken under the Liberals and the Conservatives. It didn't just become broken under the Conservatives, let's be blunt about this, okay. You put the Liberals in power, you are basically voting for the status quo. You're rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, to be perfectly blunt about it. And I wouldn't say much more about the NDP, frankly. I'm not going to go through all of the issues I just discussed with you. But the NDP is only marginally better than the Liberals.

What we should be talking about is engaging in the transformative change that our country and the world desperately needs right now. Just talking about one issue, the climate crisis, we are at the eleventh hour. We need to act now. We don't have the luxury of negotiating over a period of years some changes to our political system. We have a climate crisis. All three major parties are proposing the expansion of the tar sands. Only the Green Party is opposing the expansion of the tar sands and the construction of pipeline infrastructure to support that. Only the Green party has come out decidedly and repeatedly against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which will limit our ability to deal with the climate crisis.

So I think, Frankly, this is all very misguided. And what the Leadnow organization should be doing, again I have a great deal of admiration for it, is identifying for its members the party or parties who are actually going to implement and determine to implement the changes the country needs rather than trying to replace one disastrous government with a slightly less disastrous government.

PERIES: Amara, what do you make of what Dimitri's saying?

POSSIAN: So I don't think that elections are about transformative change. I don't think that kind of change is going to come from our political system. That's why we've spent so many years building an independent political force that works outside the party system. Vote Together isn't about electing specific candidates or specific parties or a specific composition of parliament. It's about connecting people who want change on October 19 with the tool that they need to defeat the Conservatives.

We're putting information on a website about the riding that people live in, including the latest about which local candidate can defeat the Conservatives. We're also giving people strategic avenues for action. And this is something that's unprecedented. People who want change have never been able to go and find a one-stop shop with all of the information they need to make up their own minds about what to do. We aren't telling people what to do. We're giving them information so they can make a good decision on October 19.

PERIES: Amara, what do you make of what Dimitri's specifically saying about the transformative nature of the engagement that as an organization you should be involved in? Because as you say, it's not about this particular election, but it's really a longer-term strategy.

POSSIAN: The engagement that we're involved in is transformative. We're seeing people from across the country who have never been engaged in politics before stepping up and making this happen, because they know that our democracy is broken and they know that this is a smart way to achieve change. The core of our campaign in our target ridings involves people canvassing, nightly at this point, making phone calls into swing ridings, organizing events. There is an enormous number of face to face conversations that are happening that for many people are the first time that they're taking action politically. And that's, it's an enormous gateway into something that I think will become a longer-term push for transformation in this country.

PERIES: So as far as Leadnow is concerned, what is your strategic advice in terms of the London-West riding where Dimitri is running for the Green Party?

POSSIAN: I'd say you should go to, put in your postal code, take a look at historic results and where the parties stand on the issues, and make up your mind.

PERIES: And Dimitri, what do you make of that?

LASCARIS: Well, historic results are meaningless, I would say, because you know, the Green Party has never--although my predecessors were all fine people and I appreciate the work that they did to establish a base for our party in the riding, I'm not a candidate like one that is presented to the electorate. In the Green Party we've put a lot of resources, and a lot of hardworking volunteers--I've gotten tremendous feedback in our riding. And telling people to act on the basis of historical results is not in their interest, frankly. And if anybody thinks that by adopting some sort of a voting strategy that results in the Liberals coming back to power is going to restore our democracy, our admittedly broken democracy, they need to wake up and smell the coffee, because that's not the case.

We're going to end up exactly where we were before the Conservatives came to power, which is with a marginally better government than that of Stephen Harper. That's not even going to come remotely close to doing what we need to do to fix our democracy.

PERIES: And Dimitri, let me just ask you, Elizabeth May herself had come out and supported strategic voting in the past. Where is the party at on that now?

LASCARIS: I think there was some debate about that, Sharmini. I don't know that she was actually clearly in favor of strategic voting. But I will say this, there was a lot of talk about strategic voting in 2011. It may be that Leadnow thinks it's found some way to really make strategic voting work, but there was a tremendous amount of talk and initiative in 2011 for strategic voting, and what we got was a Harper majority. So that didn't work too well, did it.

I mean, at the end of the day there is a key problem, a defect, in the whole notion behind strategic voting. And that is, you're making a guess about how other people who are similarly-minded in the sense that they want to get rid of the incumbent government, how they will actually cast their ballot. Okay, and I think what Leadnow is doing is it's trying to get people to have a sort of informal agreement about that, how they will cast their ballot. But at the end of the day the voters don't know how people will actually cast their ballot when they get into the voting booth. It can actually depart from whatever agreement they've entered into. They may be swayed at the last minute by any number of considerations. You're making an educated guess about how other people are going to vote, and your guess could be wrong.

What you really need to do is vote your conscience, and that means voting for the candidate that you believe is advocating the changes that our country needs. That's the only way to restore democracy in this country.

PERIES: Amara, now, some people are saying that strategic voting is really anti-democratic because you're not really voting for the party that you want, but you're being strategic. What do you make of that?

POSSIAN: I mean, I think that argument is based on the premise that our democracy is working right now, which it isn't. If people do want Dimitri is saying, the vast majority of people in our riding could vote for change and still elect a Conservative. So unfortunately, our Democratic system is broken, and we need to take this riding by riding approach to defeat Conservatives.

PERIES: And Dimitri, let me give you the last word.

LASCARIS: Well you know, it's interesting. I said at the very outset we had a meeting with our volunteers on our first night of campaigning. And I said to them that I regard this campaign as a grand experiment in democracy. There's some people, one of whom a good example is Christopher Hedges, who appears often on the Real News, who thinks that there's no way that the current democratic system can be used to affect the changes that we need. And he advocates essentially for massive civil disobedience. There are others who think that the system can be changed from within.

I'm going to be completely blunt about it, I'm not sure exactly who's right in this debate. I see that Christopher Hedges' view has merit, but I also wonder whether we are underestimating the ability of the electorate to make the right call within the current, admittedly defective, electoral system. One thing's for sure, our campaign is determined to find out who's right. And if Leadnow is correct, I don't think--correct in the sense that the current system cannot result in transformative change, I don't think putting the Liberals or the NDP in power are going to get us there, and ultimately what we're going to have to do is change the system from outside.

PERIES: Amara Possian, Dimitri Lascaris, I thank you both for joining us today.

POSSIAN: Thank you.

LASCARIS: Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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