The Shifting Place of Political Parties in Canadian Public Life

R. Kenneth Carty 13 juin 2006

Les partis politiques jouent un roÌ‚le fondamental au Canada : leurs efforts quotidiens permettent d’obtenir les compromis nécessaires à la mise en place des politiques publiques. En démocratie, la lutte électorale que se livrent les différents partis exige que ceux-ci engagent les citoyens à participer aux affaires publiques. Le constat, très répandu, selon lequel le pays souffre d’un déficit démocratique est donc en fait un juge- ment porté à la fois sur la place qu’occupent les partis dans la vie démocratique canadienne et sur le fait qu’ils ne jouent pas le roÌ‚le qu’exige la démocratie participative. C’est pourquoi plusieurs souhaitent une réforme électorale, dans l’espoir que la transformation des institutions qui régissent l’organisation et l’activité des partis politiques posera les bases de partis renouvelés et rajeunis.

Le système de partis canadien est unique. Le modèle qui le caractérise – les partis politiques dits d’accom- modement cherchent en fait à concilier et à freiner les intéreÌ‚ts plutoÌ‚t que de les promouvoir et de les articuler – a conduit à une situation particulière qui réduit pratique- ment le roÌ‚le des citoyens à celui de simples votants, et ouÌ€ les chefs de parti dominent les batailles électorales personnalisées et les joutes parlementaires.

Le type de compétition qui existe entre les différents partis au Canada a été façonné par le système électoral majoritaire uninominal, qui a transformé plusieurs régions du pays en fiefs de l’un ou de l’autre des partis pendant de longues périodes. Par conséquent, de trop nombreux citoyens ne peuvent participer de façon signi- ficative aux affaires publiques, et la compétition entre les partis est devenue en grande partie une affaire de régions. La stabilité créée par cette dynamique n’a pas toujours été à toute épreuve, et, à plusieurs occasions, des séismes électoraux ont restructuré le paysage poli- tique. La seule constante reste la domination exercée par le Parti libéral au cours du XXe siècle.

Toutefois, cette suprématie électorale apparemment facile des libéraux – l’un des partis politiques ayant connu le plus de succès dans l’ensemble des pays démo- cratiques du monde – masque une transformation à long terme du parti. Au cours des dernières décennies, le Parti libéral s’est de plus en plus centralisé, alors que sa base populaire diminuait et deve- nait de plus en plus étroite. Les équations fluctuantes qui ont structuré la situation des différents partis ont fini par mener à la prédominance du centre du pays (l’Ontario), mais, ce faisant, elles ont aussi transformé le Parti libéral en parti régional (le « parti de l’Ontario »), comme ses opposants. Le Canada se retrouve donc réduit à faire fonc- tionner un système de partis d’accommodement sans qu’il y ait véritablement de partis en mesure de jouer ce roÌ‚le. Quel type de partis politiques voulons-nous ?

Quel type de compétition souhaitons-nous entre ces partis ? Voilà ce qui est au centre de la question de la réforme électorale au Canada. Plusieurs provinces se sont déjà lancées dans des projets de réformes électorales ; leurs premiers ministres semblent donc convaincus que de nouvelles institutions sont nécessaires pour transformer la politique « de partis ». Il reste toutefois à convaincre ceux qui croient qu’il faut rétablir notre système de par- tis d’accommodement. La question persistante de la nature et de la forme des partis politiques ainsi que de leur place dans les affaires publiques canadiennes est au cœur de ce débat. 

Parties are responsible for what voters are most dissatisfied with in their politics. The evidence is clear that Canadians find their politics overly elite dominated, insufficiently responsive to their views, and lacking in opportunities for them to influence policy outcomes.

William Cross, 2004

In the spring of 2003 the premier of British Columbia moved to keep a campaign promise that had the potential to dramatically reshape the province’s electoral competition and the political par- ties that drive it. In seeking office, Premier Campbell had committed to convening a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform, that would be charged with assessing the familiar first-past-the-post electoral system and then deciding whether a better one might be available. This initiative was part of a wider democratic agenda that included the first fixed election dates in Canada and open (televised) cabinet meetings. The premier argued that electoral systems were so fundamental to democracy that it was the province’s citizens — not party politicians with their obvious conflict of interest on the subject — who ought to decide how to elect their legislature.1 Thus any recommendation for change from the randomly chosen group of ordinary voters making up the citizens’ assembly was to go straight to the electorate in a definitive referendum.

This initiative was surprising. We do not expect party elites, and particularly the principal beneficiaries of a particular institutional regime, to take the lead in promoting an agenda for change that is likely to con- strain their activity or weaken their political position. And more specifically, given the importance of elec- toral rules in determining the framework for the struc- ture and activities of political parties, we do not expect party politicians to recuse themselves from deciding what those rules should be. Such an approach to the reform of party competition is simply unprecedented.

Yet all this happened in British Columbia, and then, in the face of an ambivalent referendum result in May of 2005, the premier announced there would be another one — better prepared and publicly financed.2

Equally fascinating is the fact that four other provinces have been seriously considering electoral reform. In each case the premier, in office as leader of the party rewarded by the current electoral system, has been a key player in the process. Prince Edward Island’s Pat Binns provided for a plebiscite in November 2005 to allow the voters a say on the pro- posal made by an independent commission and fine- tuned by the Commission on PEI’s Electoral Future3; New Brunswick’s Bernard Lord initiated a wide- ranging, representative Commission on Legislative Democracy, which was instructed to recommend a proportional electoral system4; Quebec’s Jean Charest has seen a major electoral reform bill introduced in his province’s National Assembly5; and Ontario’s Dalton McGuinty has announced a citizens’ assembly on electoral reform for his province.6

For much of the last decade and a half, electoral reform has been on the agenda of a large number of political systems around the world.7 However, electoral reform in Canada has long been regarded as an oxy- moron, and it has been generations since the issue was debated seriously by leaders of our major national political parties.8 There are competing explanations as to why, after so many years of benign neglect, the subject should suddenly emerge in this country (Carty 2004; Cross 2005). Whatever our intuitions, it is important that we not overlook the central role that party leaders have played in this turn of events. It would appear that each leader has recognized a deep public disaffection with political parties and the wider electoral process — the very institutions at the centre of their political existence — and has been moved to respond to it.

Certainly much of that disaffection became clear as the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly went about its work.9 Over fourteen hundred ordinary citi- zens wrote to it, approximately three thousand came out to the 50 public hearings held from one end of the province to the other, and the Assembly’s own discussions and research all echoed a recurring theme: our contemporary electoral and parliamentary politics do not function in a manner that allows citi- zens to see their concerns and issues represented, reflects their values and aspirations for their society, fosters public discussion on the day-to-day realities of their lives, or permits them to influence the direc- tions of their governments. Canadians see, at the heart of this syndrome, a set of political parties and a pattern of party competition that are essentially dys- functional. The hope of electoral reform is not to abolish partisanship as a central dynamic in a freely competitive politics. It is to develop the institutional incentives to build political parties that are open and responsive to ordinary voters and that will stimulate positive and constructive electoral competition, offer- ing voters choices that enhance their ability to direct their representatives and shape their governments.

Members of British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly epitomized the very model of an engaged democratic citizenry. Plucked at random from the voters’ list, those 160 individuals came together in the Assembly knowing little about electoral systems — many claimed not to know or care much about politics gen- erally. However, they responded eagerly to the oppor- tunity to participate in a process designed to rethink the public life of their provincial community. Giving up 30 to 40 days of their year, they absorbed a course in electoral systems, listened to their fellow citizens in an extensive set of public hearings, and then engaged in a sophisticated modelling exercise. This process culminated in a debate during which they reasoned with one another in a genuine effort to decide what was best for the province.10 The extraordinary com- mitment and involvement of Assembly members belies any notion that ordinary citizens are either uninterested in, or incapable of, participating in pub- lic decision-making. It confirmed the proposition that real deliberative debate is possible, and reinforced the view that the adversarial wrangling among political parties that passes for our electoral and legislative politics only frustrates constructive discussion of pub- lic issues and inhibits citizens from engaging in politi- cal life.

One of the greatest surprises of the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly experience was the group’s conclu- sion. Most observers probably expected some recom- mendation for change. Many anticipated that it would be some form of mixed member proportional (MMP) electoral system. That kind of system has recently been adopted in New Zealand, Scotland and Wales and has been enthusiastically endorsed by the Law Commission of Canada.11 And while the Assembly carefully consid- ered an MMP system, it ultimately opted (by 4:1) to recommend the far less well-known single transferable vote (STV) electoral system, whereby people can rank their choices among candidates and parties. Few coun- tries use STV to elect their national legislatures, and it is worth reflecting on why these citizens ultimately chose it, by 20:1, over our current, familiar single- member plurality system.

There was a real tension in the Assembly on the question of the role that political parties should play in our democratic life. On the one hand, members generally believed that disciplined parties get in the way of a genuine representation of their views, that politicians quickly lose touch with those who have elected them, and that their party system does not present clear choices on issues. On the other hand, they saw political parties as necessary for “true democ- racy” but regarded as fundamentally “unacceptable” an electoral system in which a party can win a majori- ty of seats without a majority of votes and in which seat shares do not reflect vote shares.12 Thus Assembly members were seeking an electoral system that would recognize and even enhance the centrality of political parties — hence the insistence on proportional repre- sentation — and at the same time transform, or at least mitigate, the highly centralized and disciplined charac- ter of Canadian parties, centred as they are on domi- nant leaders. They recommended an STV electoral system precisely because it combines the proportional representation of political parties with increased voter choice and enhanced local accountability.

What is striking about these views of members of the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly is that they are not in the least surprising. Survey work done for the Lortie Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing in the early 1990s, and repeated by the Institute for Research in Public Policy 10 years later, show exactly the same set of electoral values and opinions about political parties among the wider public (Blais and Gidengil 1991; Howe and Northrup 2000). Canadians believe they need political parties, but they do not like or trust them. If given a choice, they want an electoral system that will treat parties more “fairly.” This leads me to a consideration of just what kind of political parties we have in Canada, and what they offer ordinary citizens.

Canadian Political Parties

The pure and simple continuation of their own existence becomes the principal preoccupation… the natural form of the political party risks being corrupted into an unwholesome caricature, a machine for winning elections.

André Siegfried, 1906

Canadian political parties are unique institu- tions. In most democratic countries, political parties naturally exist to reflect and articulate the society’s basic divisions — be they social, econom- ic, ethnic or geographic. Articulating distinctive ideo-

logical perspectives or ideas of the good life, such parties are the active and quite deliberate instruments of divi- sion and conflict. Their task is to mobilize distinctive groups in an effort to advance their claims, promote their interests and win them benefits. Voters can readily identify which party speaks for them, and in this sense political parties provide a vehicle for their citizen clien- teles to participate in a clearly defined, democratic elec- toral struggle. It does not work this way in Canada; it is not even supposed to.

From the very beginning, the major Canadian parties were designed to obfuscate rather than articulate inter- ests, blur rather than sharpen divisions. The implicit proposition is that Canadian society is so inherently frag- ile that political disintegration is something politicians dare not risk by championing the conflicting interests of a single region, linguistic group, religious community or economic class. The result is that politicians who are gen- uinely nationally minded need to build broad-tent parties that offer a place for any and all Canadians. This is the famous brokerage theory of Canadian politics, shaped by parties that necessarily operate quite indiscriminately (see Carty 1995, 195). In an ideal brokerage world there need be only two such parties, ensuring that elections provide voters with a choice of government. Such parties will inevitably be drawn to the median voter and will feel free to steal policies and programs from one another in order to do so. The result will be a pair of major parties that differ little in what they offer the electorate or in the opportunities they offer citizens. And for our entire his- tory two such parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, have, in uneven turn, pre-empted our political lives and national governments.

Of course, Canadians have actually had a good deal of experience with what Siegfried recognized as “natural” parties — those that represent distinctive clienteles. There is a long history of such parties rising in protest against the two oldest national parties — in protest against the very notion of brokerage organizations and their accommoda- tive politics. Some have sought to represent a distinctive interest — McCarthyites, United Farmers, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and, later, the New Democratic Party; some have arisen to articulate the claims of a partic- ular region — Social Credit, the Bloc Québécois. In each case, they have reflected the frustrations of voters unable to find in the brokerage parties a politically acceptable mechanism for meaningful representation and participa- tion. But, shut out of national office by an electoral system that favours the brokerage parties, they have been con- demned to play a secondary role on the opposition benches in a government-dominated Parliament and so most have had a limited lifespan.13

This is not to say that individual supporters or members of brokerage parties have had any signifi- cant role to play in defining the key orientations and messages of their political parties. Brokerage is, by its very nature, an elite activity. It needs strong and active party leaders able to stitch together a suffi- ciently broad blanket of often internally contradic- tory values and policies to attract the support necessary to dominate in a first-past-the-post elec- toral regime. As a consequence, Canadian parties have been primarily distinguished by their leaders, “whose mere name,” as Siegfried put it a hundred years ago, “is a programme in itself” (1966, 136). In leader-centred, leader-dominated parties there is little room for individual partisans to do much more than show up at the polls on election day. Canada’s bro- kerage parties allow their members and supporters to decide who, but rarely what, to vote for.

The building and sustaining of brokerage organiza- tions has not been an easy task. The very rationale for the existence of such organizations — the great diver- sity of communities and interests in the country — militates against unified and disciplined mass mem- bership. The solution has been the franchise-style organizational model adopted by Canadian parties (Carty 2002). In this model, parochially oriented party associations of volunteers in each electoral district are free to manage and control their own affairs, includ- ing the selection of local candidates and the conduct of constituency-level election campaigns. For its part, the parliamentary caucus of professional politicians (effectively dominated by a leader they have not cho- sen) disciplines its members and articulates party pol- icy. This is a structural arrangement that gives local partisans a strong sense of ownership and an institu- tional base from which to participate in the system. Party leaders live with it because it keeps them out of the particularistic idiosyncrasies of individual con- stituency-level politics and thus gives them the free- dom to define and pursue wider partisan interests.

Individual partisans may own their local candi- dates and representatives, but they have no effective means of directing them. When Members of Parliament go off to Ottawa, they come under the sway of the leadership and take their voting instruc- tions from the parliamentary top of the party, not the grassroots bottom. Of course, unlike the case in many parliamentary systems, the franchise bargain of Canadian parties — local autonomy for parliamentary discipline — means that constituency partisans are relatively free to remove an MP whom they believe has not been representing them effectively. And there are cases of this happening in every election. Party leaders need not mind, for any new representative delivered from a riding will be subject to the same parliamentary discipline as the last. This separation between the opportunities for citizen participation and the practices of institutional representation proves, ultimately, to be an unsatisfactory way to engage in democratic politics. Some MPs simply leave after a short electoral career, depriving Parliament of much needed experience (Docherty 1997); and some voters abandon the parties in an effort to find a political alternative in one of the non- brokerage parties. And every few decades the dys- functions and frustrations of such an unresponsive pattern of party politics grow so intense and so wide- spread that the whole system collapses, as it did in the 1920s, 1960s and 1990s.

In the dying days of the Chrétien government, Parliament passed a law (C-24) that was intended to reshape the financial and organizational bases of the country’s national political parties. The law will do this by severely limiting the parties’ access to money from corporate and trade union sources and replacing that money with substantial (and regular) subsidies from the state. Parties are being transformed from popular organizations through which active citizens can con- trol the state, into centralized institutions, independent of their supporters and dependent on parliamentarians’ willingness to give them access to the state’s purse. In addition, this statute has broken the old franchise bar- gain that has structured local-centre relationships in Canadian parties for over a century. It gives party leaders much greater control over the local associa- tions, which now must register annually with the state but need the leader’s imprimatur to do so. This tilts the balance of power within the parties, to the consider- able advantage of the leader, and threatens partisans’ longstanding autonomy and authority within their own local associations.

This portrait of the dominant Canadian political par- ties shows clearly that they remain, as they have always been, the underdeveloped institutions of a polit- ical elite playing a highly personalized game of elec- toral politics: they are not the instruments of an engaged or even interested citizenry. Yet our constitu- tional theory assigns them a central place in our demo- cratic politics. If, for many, the very existence of electoral competition between the parties, no matter their internal character and practices, was once sufficient to guarantee a socio-political dynamic that values public participation and service, this is no longer the case. This leads us to consider the cast and consequence of the country’s patterns of party competition.

Canadian Party Competition

There can be few countries in the world in which elections arouse more fury and enthusiasm than in Canada.

André Siegfried, 1906

Canada’s elections, like its national game, have traditionally been hard-hitting contests between two teams more concerned with the moment than with its meaning or consequence. It could hardly be otherwise, given that two large bro- kerage parties dominate our politics and the logic of their existence focuses their ambitions on office rather than on policy or program. On occasion, national elections will be fought over seemingly major policy differences, but the alacrity with which parties are prepared to adopt policies they once enthusiastically denounced continues to amaze for- eign observers. In our time, Chrétien’s Liberals were as content to live with the trade and tax policies they had recently opposed as were Laurier and his col- leagues a century earlier.14

The first-past-the-post electoral system, which privileges the imperatives of geography over other bases of popular mobilization, has been central to the persistence of this pattern. Based on a winner-take-all principle, and offering the prospect of single-party majorities, it rewards the vote-vacuuming strategies of brokerage parties and discriminates against those that seek to articulate and represent the clearly defined interests of a particular social group. Parties with a specifically regional appeal are the obvious exception, for the geographic bias of the electoral system often over-rewards them — as revealed by the parliamentary history of Social Credit (whether in its Alberta or its Quebec manifestation) or the current strength of the Bloc Québécois. Indeed, in rewarding regional electoral appeals, and thus strengthening the claims of the bro- kerage parties that they are needed to fight its disinte- grative effects, the electoral system lies at the heart of a politics that gives priority to the claims of regional- ism (Cairns 1968). And it surely impedes those who wish to engage in national politics on other terms.

Canada’s politics of regionalized electoral competition has rendered large areas of the country uncompet- itive for long periods. The impact of that pattern of politics is to deprive many citizens of real choice and to divest national competition among the brokerage parties of much of its dynamism and authority. Over much of the twentieth century, voters in Quebec and Alberta had little real electoral power, as the effective choices of their representatives were exercised in the unregulated and often highly manipulated private nomination practices of the parties. Decades of partisan dominance in Quebec led the Liberal Party in that province to confuse, and equate, its partisan interest with public service in the wider national interest. In Alberta, the consequence of the pattern of highly regionalized electoral competition has been the exclu- sion of its representatives from meaningful participa- tion in government. On only three occasions since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1920 have a majority of Alberta’s MPs sat in the House of Commons as part of a majority government. In this sense, Alberta has really been Canada’s politically distinct society, and Albertans might rightly feel that their partisanship has excluded them from the process of defining national goals and programs.

This pattern of electoral competition has ultimately been both deceptive and destructive. Driven by parties determined to smother differences and conflicting inter- ests, successive elections saw partisanly coloured regions gently rubbing up against one another like great tectonic plates. At any one moment, the political land- scape looked little changed as the country lived through decades of highly predictable election outcomes that confirmed the position of the dominant “government party.” But tectonic plates do not rub against each other indefinitely; the accumulating physical stresses eventu- ally find an explosive outlet. And so it has been in Canadian political life, with a pattern of electoral com- petition that has allowed our regionally defined political stresses to continually build. The inevitable outcome has been a series of electoral earthquakes of a magnitude rarely seen in any other democratic system. In 1921, in 1958 and again in 1993, the carefully crafted political balances of the national party system proved unable to contain the country’s internal tensions, and a massive electoral explosion shook and restructured the partisan landscape. It took most of a decade, after each of these political earthquakes, for the parties, and the party sys- tem, to rebuild, and for a new political equilibrium to assert itself. Each time, the political destruction stimu- lated the emergence of new patterns of partisanship, and with them new organizational frameworks to structure political life.15
Any shift in the partisan alignments of the electoral

landscape inevitably alters the political balances under- lying the governing equations that structure national power and participation. In the decades after the 1921 breakdown of the limited-suffrage, post-Confederation political world, Mackenzie King’s Liberals established an easy hegemony and became the country’s natural governing party. They did so by forging a political base that rested on the twin pillars of Quebec and prairie Saskatchewan (from 1921 to 1951 the country’s third most populous province), supplemented by support in other regions. This was an era in which Canadian national party politics was essentially uncompetitive. The predictability of the pattern made it clear who was in and who was out and it provided a rigid partisan frame that ordered the modalities of citizenship.

By realigning the Prairies, the Diefenbaker revolu- tion of 1958 fundamentally changed the competitive cast of Canadian electoral politics. Neither Quebec nor Alberta (newly emerged as the dominant Prairie province) became any more competitive, nor did their citizens get to choose most of their representatives in general elections;16 but the system did offer the country as a whole the prospect of regular electoral change. The Liberals could win a majority if they could marry their Quebec base to Ontario; the Progressive Conservatives’ prospects were dependent on a Prairie-Ontario partner- ship. So precariously balanced was this system that no party leader between the Liberal St. Laurent in the 1950s and the Conservative Mulroney in the 1980s was able to win a successive majority government. It was the most open, permeable and dynamic period of the century, one in which public service was fully opened to members of both linguistic communities, immigra- tion shaped a new multicultural social fabric, and the Charter of Rights in a repatriated Constitution provided new avenues for engaging the system and established the courts as an alternative arbiter of the public good.

The temporary destruction of the Conservatives as a significant brokerage alternative to the Liberals in 1993 once more shattered the country’s underlying electoral equations and reshuffled the patterns of local represen- tation in Parliament. The party system again became uncompetitive, and the Liberal government seemed to go unchallenged as the party won four elections in a row. However, the basis for that dominance had changed. The party’s success now rested on its easy and virtually complete command of Ontario, a province that had only once in three decades delivered half its votes to Mr. King. In a country where partisan politics had long rested upon carefully constructed and nurtured inter-regional balances and accommodations, this transformation of the Canadian party system marked the ultimate triumph of the centre over the regions.

In each of these periods, the essential partisan shape of the country changed. The shifting balance altered the partisan political terms that regulated access to power and hence the ability of individual Canadians to find a place in national political life through participation in a national party. What seemed to hardly change was the predominance of the Liberal Party, and so to it we must now turn.

The Liberals

Even if the last century did not belong to Canada, Canada turns out to have belonged to the Liberal party.

Stephen Clarkson, 2005

The Liberal Party of Canada has been one of the democratic world’s most successful political parties, with a record of electoral victories matched by few others. This suggests that the party, and its leadership, may have been better than its Conservative opponents at brokering broad coalitions. But in this the Liberal Party was certainly helped by the electoral lock it put on Quebec during the First World War (in the 20 elections that followed, Quebec delivered more seats to the Liberals than the larger province of Ontario on all but four occasions) and the preference that English-speaking Roman Catholics have shown for the party (Blais 2005). Whatever the explanation for the Liberals’ dominance, their long years in power meant that few could doubt that the principal route to government participation in Canada was through this party. Public service — at least government service — had a partisan colour.

For the Liberals, their continuing easy success exacted a heavy price. Long years in office turned partisan politicians into government administrators, and the party found itself being devoured by the state. With a depoliticized Liberal Party transformed into the electoral arm of the government of Canada, the poli- tics of the dominant party became preoccupied with administrative issues rather than fundamental ques- tions of political values and social mobilization (see Whitaker 1977). One became a Liberal activist as much to get ahead as to serve the public interest.

Of course, permanent government had its corollary in permanent opposition. George Perlin (1980, 198-200) has written about the frustration, internal conflict and political ineffectiveness of the Progressive Conservatives, the result being domina- tion by individuals with an “opposition mentality.” To many, the very idea that one might make a contribu- tion by participating in the opposition party must have seemed risible. Thus, rather than opening up alternative avenues to public life, partisanship of any colour became a constricting force in the system.

If the dominance of the Liberals has long been the defining reality of national political life in Canada, it is important to acknowledge how the party itself has changed over time. Its long, relentless series of electoral victories too easily obscures the ongoing transforma- tion of the party, which reflected more deep-seated shifts in the party system and its underlying political ground. We have already noted the centralizing impact of the Chrétien government’s party finance legislation. Two other changes are particularly important, and both served to dramatically shift the locus of access and influence in the party, and hence the country.

The first notable change was the continual shrink- age of the Liberal base: it just kept getting smaller. In Laurier’s (pre-universal franchise) heyday, the party averaged over 47 percent of the vote, albeit in contests in which the only serious opponent it generally had to face was the Conservatives. Over the King-St. Laurent era, a period in which a series of minor parties appeared on the electoral map, the party’s average national vote dropped a few points, to 44.6 percent, still sufficient to ensure majority governments. With the Diefenbaker realignment of western Canada, the party’s vote share dropped again, so that during the Pearson-Trudeau era it averaged just 41.7 percent. That was never enough to guarantee single-party majorities, and under both leaders the party had to endure episodes of minority government. During the most recent period, the Chrétien-Martin era, the Liberal vote dropped even further, so that it averaged only 39.2 percent over the four elections following the 1993 political earthquake. At this level, the party is almost completely dependent on the vagaries of the electoral system to return it to office. Perhaps even more alarm- ing, for Liberals and those concerned with government legitimacy, has been the simultaneous collapse of voter participation. With electoral turnout percentages now in the low 60s (of those registered), Liberal govern- ments were being returned with the active electoral support of only about one-quarter of the electorate.

While the Liberal base has been steadily shrinking, the party’s political coalition has also been increasingly narrowed. As a brokerage party, the face that it pres- ents to the public, the voices heard in its senior coun- sels and the doors that it opened to influence are heavily structured by the makeup of its parliamentary caucus. And even a quick look at the changing cast of the Liberals’ national caucus speaks to the impact on the party of the shifting balance of the regional basis of party competition and the emergence of Ontario as the linchpin of national electoral politics. During the King- St. Laurent era, when the Liberals still commanded comparatively high levels of support and effortlessly won majorities, Ontario MPs averaged just 24.8 percent of the party’s House of Commons caucus. This propor- tion jumped to 36.5 percent during the more turbulent Pearson-Trudeau years when, as a harbinger of things to come, on three occasions Liberal MPs from Ontario outnumbered partisan colleagues from Quebec. The 1993 turn of the electoral wheel sharply accelerated this trend, leaving the Chrétien-Martin Liberal govern- ments dominated by Ontario MPs: on average 58.5 per- cent of their caucuses came from that province.17 At the beginning of the 21st century Canada may have still belonged to the Liberal Party, but the Liberals belonged to Ontario.

This restructuring of the party system, with its con- comitant triumph of the centre in Canadian electoral politics, and the emergence of the Liberals as a smaller, narrower, but still governing party, went hand-in-hand. The result has been to leave Canadians trying to (or pretending to) practise brokerage politics without any genuine brokerage parties. At the same time, the single- member plurality electoral system that produces elected dictatorships continues to deny the logic of this pattern of partisanship and so misrepresents it in Parliament. This shrinks the prospect that the party system might be seen as an effective agency through which citizens might hope to make a contribution to the public life of their society.

A Party Country

Parties are still among the few relatively genuine national forces in Canada.

John Meisel, 1963

Canada is a county of regions — imperfectly bal- anced, unequally resourced and unevenly com- mitted. It was put together, and then expanded over the subsequent decades, through a series of explicitly political decisions made by working party politicians. As John Meisel has argued, one of the central tasks demanded of the political parties has been to keep the country together and make it work. In this sense Canada is, unlike most countries, a party country in which the role and activities of a set of healthy, com- petitive political parties is central to its continuing exis- tence. Thus partisanship might be expected to be a vital part of citizens’ political identity, and the party a prin- cipal route to democratic public participation and serv- ice. But however much this is so, the stark reality is that most Canadians no longer like, trust or join national political parties; they do not believe the party system offers them a tool for choosing or influencing their national government.

The dominant Liberal Party — the so-called national party — has become narrower, smaller and more centralized. Its long occupancy of power has led it to confuse partisanship with patriotism and has cre- ated a cult of entitlement that repels citizens from engaging in public service rather than inviting them to do so. Its failure to build a coherent, participatory membership organization leaves it politically vulnera- ble and forces it, when challenged, to resort to using the resources of the state for narrowly partisan pur- poses.18 Ultimately, this not only threatens to de- legitimize public life but also reverses the natural relationship between citizen and state in a democracy.

With the political ascendancy of the centre province (itself increasingly driven by its own metro- politan centre), the party system no longer seems able to strike acceptable accommodations capable of bal- ancing competing regional interests. For those in the centre who win, partisan contests may no longer seem relevant to the process of acceptable collective decision-making. For those on the peripheries, parti- sanship, and the party activity it supports, are more likely to lock them out than offer them an entry por- tal into meaningful public involvement. Whether the revival of the Conservatives as a viable brokerage alternative can undo this syndrome is still very much an open question. The Diefenbaker and Mulroney experiences are not encouraging.

This failure of the major political parties, and hence the party system, to serve as the primary vehi- cle for public service is profoundly troubling for a party country. Which brings us back to Premier Campbell and his colleagues, who appear to have decided that one of the principal institutional under- pinnings of our current political malaise — described in terms of a democratic deficit — is the geographically structured electoral system. Their provincial reform processes, functioning independently of one another, have produced sharply different proposals for changing their respective electoral systems. Though all the current reform proposals call for some form of proportional representation, they would result in distinctly different patterns of party compe- tition managed by political parties working very dif- ferently (Carty 2006). But a set of provincial-level reform experiments may teach us much about the consequences, for the organization and activities of Canadian parties, of changing the electoral system.

One predictable result of adopting those reforms would be fragmentation of the respective party sys- tems, making single-party majority governments far less common. While that might well alter the govern- ing dynamics of individual provinces, it would cer- tainly have consequences for the character and functioning of Canadian federalism as it has devel- oped over the last half century. With first ministers no longer sure about their ability to commit their governments and legislatures, the practices of execu- tive federalism would be undermined and new modalities for decision-making and public adminis- tration that cross jurisdictional lines would have to be created. In an earlier era, the Liberal Party man- aged this through a network of regional bosses (see Whitaker 1977). However, with the subsequent sepa- ration of national and provincial party organizations, and the transformation of the national parties them- selves, there is little prospect that the political parties are still capable of serving as instruments of inter- governmental integration.

National electoral reform poses a distinctive set of challenges that need to be carefully thought out. As in the provinces, a proportional electoral system would likely lead to some fragmentation of the party system. There would undoubtedly be more small par- ties represented in Parliament (and fairer representa- tion of some of those already there), but the large parties might themselves break into pieces. Whether the current Conservative or Liberal Party could hold together under a proportional regime is an important question. A case might be made for the proposition that, but for the first-past-the-post electoral system, they would succumb to the disintegrating effects of regionalism. After all, its imperatives were among the most powerful forces pushing the Alliance and Conservative pieces of the old Progressive Conservative Party back together. If national broker- age is desirable as the naturally Canadian way to do party politics, then electoral reform must be assessed in terms of its capacity to support and sustain the political parties that are able to engage in it (Courtney 1999, 2004).

Over time, the country’s political dynamics have left its major governing party narrower, smaller and more centralized. Proportional national electoral reform seems likely to reinforce those tendencies and exaggerate the difficulties faced by political parties striving to practise brokerage politics. If the real chal- lenge is to find a way to restore this kind of national political party, then electoral reform would be counterproductive. If, on the other hand, the evolution of our parties leads us to conclude that old-style national brokerage parties are now a thing of the past, then electoral reform offers a way to usher in the new party organizations that will reshape the competitive alignments necessary to allow Canadians to partici- pate in a new, democratic national public life. 

This essay was written before the fall of the Martin Liberal government and its subsequent defeat, which put the Liberals out of office for the first time since 1993.

  1. For an account (with excerpts) of the debate in the leg- islature authorizing the Assembly, see “The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly: A Round Table” (2003). The full debate can be found in the British Columbia Hansard for April 30, 2003.

  2. The referendum was held at the same time as the provincial general election, on May 17, 2005. It was supported by 57.7 percent of the electorate and by at least 50 percent of voters in 77 of the 79 provincial electoral districts. The legislature had previously set a double threshold of 60 percent support and a majority in 60 percent of the districts, so the referendum was deemed to have failed. In light of public support for electoral change, the newly re-elected Campbell gov- ernment announced its intention, in its Speech from the Throne on September 12, 2005, to hold another referendum on the same proposal. The second referen- dum is to be supported by funds for information cam- paigns and will include an electoral map delineating a set of electoral boundaries for the proposed alternative system.

  3. The proposal to shift to a mixed proportional type of electoral system was defeated in an uncharacteristi- cally low turnout of about 33 percent on November 28, 2005. Precise turnout figures are unavailable as no enumeration to prepare an up-to-date voters’ list was conducted. For an account of the conduct of the plebiscite, including the government’s decision to alter the threshold for change during the campaign, see Lee (2006).

  4. The Commission’s comprehensive report can be found at www.gnb.ca/0100/FinalReport-e.pdf

  5. The Draft Bill can be found at http://www.assnat.qc.ca/eng/37legislature2/Av-pro- jets/04-aAVPL_LE.htm. Consideration of the bill includes work by a committee of citizens specially appointed to supplement the work of the committee of the National Assembly.

  6. The Assembly is to start meeting in the fall of 2006. For further information, see the Web site of the Democratic Renewal Secretariat: http://www.democra- ticrenewal.gov.on.ca/english

  7. Examples include, in the world of established democ- racies, the United Kingdom, Italy, New Zealand and Japan; most of the countries of the former Soviet- dominated Eastern Europe; and a range of Third World nations as they struggle to establish democratic elec- toral politics.

  8. The Liberal Party’s 1921 election platform included a call for the adoption of proportional representation. The House debated the electoral system in 1922 but voted to maintain it.

  9. A full account and documentation of the Assembly’s work, and its final report, can be found at www.citizensassembly.bc.ca. Mark Warren and Hilary Pearse (forthcoming) provide a sophisticated multi- perspective analysis of the Assembly experience.

  10. For descriptive accounts of the Assembly’s work, see Ratner (2004, 2005).

  11. The Law Commission of Canada’s (2004) report Voting Counts: Electoral Reform for Canada can be found at http://www.lcc.gc.ca/about/voting_toc-en.asp. There have been second thoughts about the system in Wales, and the Commission on the Powers and Electoral Arrangements of the National Assembly for Wales (Richard Commission) has recommended it be aban- doned for a Single Transferable Vote electoral system. Its report can be found at www.richardcommission.gov.uk/content/template.asp?I D=/index.asp

  12. In a survey of Assembly members we conducted before they met, 65.8 percent agreed that politicians soon lost touch with their electors and just 31.6 percent thought the British Columbia party system provided clear issue choices; 68.4 percent believed outcomes should be proportional, only 8.1 percent thought it acceptable that a party with less than a majority of the vote should get a majority of the seats, and 60.4 percent agreed with the proposition that parties are necessary for democracy. We surveyed them after the Assembly survey and found little substantial change on any of these basic questions.

  13. The social democrats (as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation or the New Democratic Party) have survived longest by trying to establish themselves as a national party, but in doing so have paid a high seat-vote price.

  14. Of course, the Liberals have not been alone in this. The Mulroney Progressive Conservative government enthusiastically adopted North American free trade economic policies in the 1980s despite the party’s century-long opposition to it.

  15. My original statement of this perspective on the devel- opment of the Canadian party system can be found in Carty (1988) and is elaborated in various ways in Carty (1995, 1997) and Carty, Cross, and Young (2000).

  16. Most MPs from these two provinces knew that the real competition for their seat was focused on winning their party’s local nomination — Liberal in Quebec, Progressive Conservative in Alberta.

  17. Ontario’s share of the Commons varied very little over the century, oscillating between 32 and 34 percent.

  18. On the limits of Canadian party organization, see Carty and Cross (Forthcoming). The Commission of Inquiry into the Sponsorship Program and Advertising Activities (the Gomery Inquiry) provides much evi- dence of the Liberal’s willingness to use state resources for partisan electoral aims. 

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