Why independents have no chance

My panelists on last Friday's After Nine show at CFIS 93.1 FM insisted either more independents were needed in Parliament, or that MPs in all parties needed to rediscover their independence from the leader. Outside of confidence motions, such as the annual budget, having a majority of the seats in Ottawa should be no guarantee of passing legislation. I heartily agree, but cannot overstate how unlikely such a scenario is to manifest.

First, there is the near impossibility of independents being elected. Non-partisans do not have a party apparatus to double their cash from donors, with one max donation going to thee and another going to HQ where the shortpants brigade does opposition research or signs are ordered in bulk. Also, independents cannot advertise before the writ drops, nor can they bankroll their own campaign. Thus, no "agent of change" can upset an election.

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Then there is the fact that, ironically, Canadians are more likely to vote along partisan lines than our American cousins, who often cast ballots based on the candidate. Certainly, names and reputations count for something, but without a party banner, even long serving representatives are all but forgotten the minute they quit or are booted from caucus. Leaders know this well and it gives them an inordinate amount of coercive power over their MPs.

None of the independents, including the candidate whose campaign I managed, won or retained office in 2015. For all the media attention on Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, it is nearly certain they'll lose, either to their former comrades or the opposition by vote-splitting.

So if running independently is futile, what options remain for those who want to make a difference? There are only two: creating a new party, with integrity and clear principles, or reforming one of the long established political vehicles that has fallen into disrepute and scandal.

How successful has creating a new party been? Until the Great Depression, there were no viable third parties federally. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, predecessor to the New Democratic Party, was founded in 1932: 79 years later the NDP finally became the Official Opposition. Including the Bloc de Quebecois in 1993, then the Reform Party in '97 and the Alliance Party in 2000, new parties have silver medalled in elections just four times.

That's a failure rate of 91 per cent for Official Opposition status, and a no-hitter for new or third parties when it comes to forming government. Some may quibble about the united right, as the Reform and Alliance did "achieve government" through the Conservative Party; others will point to how the Liberals jumped from third place to government in the 2015 election. Such arguments are worth having, but the fact remains all of our prime ministers have either been Grits or Tories.

This brings us all the way back around to the perennial tragedy of the Commons: Canada appears incapable of reform (pun intended). This is the heart of the issue, as those who desire more independents in Parliament, de jure or de facto, are essentially asking for both fiscal accountability and genuinely innovative policy that improves the lives of all Canadian citizens.

That has been the stated intention of every alternative political project since Confederation, and not a single one has ever been granted the mandate to try. With electoral reform dead and buried "this election will be the last held under first past the post," remember? - as well as the rules for political fundraising described above, there is almost no hope for new parties to get off the ground and make a serious difference in our federal contests.

That's a bleak picture, but at least it gives us a direction. For if we cannot go around our established political vehicles, our only option is to go through them. What might that look like?

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