The future of the party system in Canada

April 5, 2012

With a Parliamentary structure that entails a fusion of both executive and legislative command into a single governmental branch, the manifestation of political rule in Canada can be traditionally defined as one which necessitates a volatile allocation of political power among a myriad of political parties across different times and geopolitical regions throughout Canadian history. The federal election last May continued this capacious trend of political power when Canadians elected, for the very first time, a majority government under the new Conservative Party, a first ever appointment of the NDP as the Leader of the Opposition, and introduced into the House of Commons yet another new party, the environmentally concerned Green Party, under their first ever elected MP, Elizabeth May. With the dismantling of the Liberal Party and the Quebec electorate’s seeming new interest in a federalist party, the 2011 election founded a new era of political rule that will come to define Canadian politics over the next four years.

(photo via Sharon Drummond)

The future of the party system in Canada is vulnerable to another historic reallocation of power, as public support for the current Parliamentary form has already shifted significantly in what has not even been a year since the last election. Add to the volatile nature of public opinion the rearrangement of party leaders, notably in the case of Thomas Mulcair’s succession of the late Jack Layton and the debatable future of Bob Rae’s tenure, and the perhaps tentative structure of Canada’s 41st Parliament could be reshuffled considerably in 2015. But equally historic in nature would be a fundamentally unchanged allocation of seat distribution. Perhaps 2011 signalled the emergence of a new Canadian identity; conceivably, political volatility may indeed end with the materialization of predominant conservatism in Canada.

To the immediate future, there is no speculation: Stephen Harper will be Canada’s Prime Minister for at least another three and some change years (Conservatives have a 165-seat majority); the NDP will subsist for the first time as Leader of the Opposition without Jack Layton over this time period (the NDP has 102 seats, almost 60% of which come from Quebec), while the Liberals and the Quebec Bloc will use this era to ponder how it is that they can regain influence in the House and avoid sharing the fate of so many previous parties: total disintegration (they have 35 and 4 seats, respectively). The Green Party shares a similarly futile attempt to possess influence in the House of Commons (currently with just a single seat in the House). I will consider here the contingencies of public opinion, electorate regionalism and party leader influence to reflect upon possible future party systems in Canada.

A (New) Two Party System

From Confederation in 1867 right up until the creation of the NDP in the 1960s, Canada’s held a two-party system, one entirely dominated by Canada’s oldest party, the Liberals, and the now defunct Progressive Conservative Party. It took the entrenchment of the NDP as a nationally federalist party in the 1980s to really alter this two-party structure. With the NDP this time, we can return to such a system – albeit with a much more powerful role for the NDP.

With the election of Mulcair as NDP Leader just last week, it is quite possible a future party system in Canada could come to be defined as a polarized left/right two-party system. Mulcair will not be a traditional NDP Leader who will advocate for purely socialist and left-wing ideology; rather, the new Leader of the Opposition is seen much more as a political centrist – that is to say, someone who is much more moderate in his conception of the welfare state, the capital market and levels of corporate tax. Mulcair’s centrist ideology is a direct threat to the Liberal Party, which has historically come to define itself through economic centrism. With the Conservatives comfortably occupying the right of the political spectrum, while Mulcair’s NDP inches away from the left, it is possible the Liberals could be “squeezed out” ideologically.

Instead of “splitting the left vote,” Canadians who are not Conservative may see the now centrist NDP as a reasonable alternative from years of Liberal dominance. If the Liberals are unable to advance new policies that distinguish themselves from their opponents at both sides of the political spectrum, a new system may result in a left-of-center NDP vs. right-of-center Conservative structure in the House of Commons. The total eradication of the Liberals from the House would result in a polarized two-party system under which the NDP and Conservatives would dominate.

Ideologically Amalgamated Two-Party System

One way in which the Liberals can easily avoid the risk of total eradication in the next election would be to merge with the NDP to form a United Center-Left Party opposing Harper’s Conservatives. Former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has previously endorsed this idea, and it is through this very strategy that the Conservatives were able to win power (recall the Conservative amalgamation of the Center-Right Progressive Conservatives with the Right-Wing Reform Party in 2003). This type of Party System would resemble current American presidential campaigning; one large encompassing left party and one encompassing right party would compete in the electorate for the support of centrist voters.

This may not result in an ideal United Left, however, as it would be misleading to simply add NDP support and Liberal support together. A significant degree of Liberals would opt for the Conservative party rather than a party that contains NDP ideology. It is even possible that some NDP support would opt for the Conservatives rather than support a party that has anything to do with the Liberals (think regional politics).

Nathan Cullen, an NDP MP who ran against Mulcair for the leadership position, was a strong advocate of working closely with the Liberal party, and although he managed third place in the leadership race, the idea of a merge has seemingly died with him and the election of Mulcair, who is far more interested in making the NDP a centrist party without the help of the Liberals.

Contemporary Multi-Party System Revitalized

For years, the House of Commons, before the 2011 election, was defined as a multi-party system in which the Liberals and Conservatives competed for the support of other parties. This resulted in back-and-fourth minority governments between the Liberals and Conservatives, with the NDP and Bloc representing their particular ideologies, tossing their support to whoever seemed most appealing. The description of this system was in fact a key component of Harper’s 2011 election campaign where he promised a “strong, stable, majority government” that would end frequent federal elections and render impossible any attempt for the opposition parties to form a coalition government.

All the talk about Mulcair making the NDP a centrist party may not ultimately materialize, thereby returning Canada to this previous contemporary system. Perhaps after four years of Conservatism, those who voted for Harper’s economics and got stuck with his social policies could easily return to support the Liberals.

Furthermore, public support in Quebec for the NDP has dramatically decreased since the death of Jack Layton. This, coupled with news that the Parti Québécois is in strong contention for forming government at the provincial level, may lead the Quebec electorate back to the Bloc (“We voted for Jack, not for the NDP.”). A Liberal and Bloc revitalization would lower Conservative and NDP power, resulting in the return to a multi-party system that would most likely entail a minority government that must appeal to the opposition parties for support.

Ideologically-Contemporary Multi-Party System

If Mulcair succeeds in defining the NDP as a centrist party, which in turn eliminates the Liberal party, a return to the aforementioned contemporary system may still be possible. It could come in the form of maintaining the ideological division across a multi-party system but, interestingly, with different parties.

There is much internal opposition in the NDP against Mulcair; he may want to be more centrist but the entire party may not want to necessarily follow. It is possible the unionist and more leftist division of the NDP may no longer be satisfied with staying within the new centrist party, which could result in an abandonment of Mulcair’s centrism in order to form a New Left Party. A New Left Party would be free from sacrificing socialist policies that Mulcair may undergo under the NDP in his attempt to establish national appeal that is motivated by the ultimate goal of forming government. This would result in the Conservatives on the Right, NDP replacing the Liberals in the center, and a New Left/Socialist Party replacing the NDP while still leaving room for a Bloc revival in Quebec.

Continued Three-Party System

Although the overarching theme of Canada’s party system has been that of volatility, there were eras of power allocation that remained consistent for years (consider most recently, Chrétien’s reign in which he secured three consecutive majority governments). Perhaps post-2011 will see the beginning of Conservative consistency and the continued maintenance of the three-party system that defines the House of Commons today.

If international western economic turmoil cannot recover from the recent recession, or if a new recession rears its head around 2015, Canadians may feel comfortable with keeping Harper since he is publically seen as the one who successfully weathered Canada through the tough economic storm (true or not, that’s public perception).

Furthermore, I call this a three-party system because it really is an either/or scenario with the NDP as the Opposition or a revitalization of the Bloc – Quebec can single-handedly make or break these parties. If Quebec remains with the NDP and the NDP remains even quasi-left under Mulcair, the Liberals will have an extremely difficult time gaining support in Quebec or in the Conservative bastion of the West. It is very possible, however, that the Liberals will be able to maintain a few traditionally popular ridings in the East while also holding onto ridings with popular MPs, such as Bob Rae, Stéphane Dion and Justin Trudeau.

Reorganized Three-Party System

This final possibility is a system that I personally endorse as my prediction of the party system in 2015: a three-party system that sees a slight decline in Conservative power, the restriction of the NDP to Quebec, which will leave little room for the Bloc, and a modest revival of the Liberal Party.

Harper was extremely successful in obtaining the economic vote of not only the upper class through tax cuts and the business class through corporate cuts and trade expansion, but of the general public as a whole who saw and feared American and European economic crises and believed it was time for a strict fiscally responsible government. Many of those who voted for Harper’s economics, however, will not be impressed with his social policies and it is here where the Liberals can capitalize.

Now seeing the NDP as a legitimate threat, the Liberals will have to move to the right economically, but they can remain or even further their position left socially. Although this will not win them any support in Alberta (nothing will), a Liberal party that advocates for center-right economics with socially left ideology will offer to Canadians the appealing economic security Harper provides, but without right-wing omnibus crime bills and the social-conservative components that come with him.

Furthermore, the NDP election of Mulcair seems like a defensive political move in the party’s attempt to lock in Quebec support (or prevent the decline of such support), as opposed to really expanding their appeal nationally (note Mulcair’s environmental policies will be extremely unpopular in the West, while his rejection of the Clarity Act and support of Quebec’s language laws can solidify NDP support there).

Immediately after the 2011 election, it was perceived that Canadians wanted to redefine Canada as a Conservative nation, that Jack Layton would become the new champion for Quebec and that the Liberals would be removed from Canadian politics forever. Just under a year later, this narrative has changed dramatically, and there is still at least another three years to go until the future of the party system in Canada can truly be anticipated.