Strengthening Canadian Democracy

The Shifting Place of Political Parties in Canadian Public Life

R. Kenneth Carty June 13, 2006

Canada is a party country, put together and sustained by the daily struggles of party politicians as they seek to build the accommodations necessary to support public policy. The challenges of democratic electoral competition require that political parties engage citizens in a way that provides for effective public involvement and service. Thus, the widespread perception that the country suffers from a democratic deficit is ultimately a judgment on the place of the party in Canadian public life and the failure of parties to meet the demands of modern participatory politics. The result has been a call for electoral reform, in the hope that by transforming the institutions that govern party organization and activity we will provide the basis for a renewed and rejuvenated party politics.

The reality is that the Canadian party system is unique. The famous brokerage pattern of Canadian politics – in which political parties are political brokers, accommodating and stifling rather than advancing and articulating interests – has led to a distinctive organizational style in which active citizens are reduced to being merely voters and in which party leaders easily dominate personalized electoral and parliamentary games.

Competition between Canada’s brokerage parties has been shaped by the first-past-the-post electoral system, which has rendered large regions of the country uncompetitive for long periods. The result is that too many citizens are excluded from meaningful participation in their nation’s business and competition is structured in highly regionalized terms. The political balances created by this dynamic have not been stable, and on several occasions electoral earthquakes have restructured the political landscape. The one constant of this party politics throughout the twentieth century was the role of the Liberals as the country’s dominant and governing party.

The apparently easy electoral supremacy of the Liberals – one of the democratic world’s most successful political parties – masks a long-term transformation of the party. Over recent decades the Liberal Party has become more centralized, while its popular base has grown both smaller and narrower. The shifting political equations that have structured political competition have ultimately led to the triumph of the centre (Ontario) but in doing so have also led to the emergence of the Liberals as a party of Ontario – a party now as regional as any of its opponents. The result has been that Canada is left trying to practise brokerage politics with no genuine brokerage parties.

The question of electoral reform is really a question of what kind of political parties we want and what kind of electoral competition we want them to engage in. The premiers, who have launched an electoral reform agenda in several provinces, seem convinced that new institutions are needed to produce a new party politics. Those who believe that Canada’s distinctive brokerage politics must be restored remain to be convinced. At the heart of this debate is the continuing question of the nature, shape and place of political parties in Canadian public life.

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 parties 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 constrain their activity or weaken their political position. And more specifically, given the importance of electoral rules in determining the framework for the structure 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 proposal made by an independent commission and finetuned by the Commission on PEI’s Electoral Future3; New Brunswick’s Bernard Lord initiated a wideranging, 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 oxymoron, 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 citizens 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 citizens 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 directions 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 dysfunctional. 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, offering 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 generally. However, they responded eagerly to the opportunity 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 commitment and involvement of Assembly members belies any notion that ordinary citizens are either uninterested in, or incapable of, participating in public 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 public issues and inhibits citizens from engaging in political life.

One of the greatest surprises of the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly experience was the group’s conclusion. Most observers probably expected some recommendation 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 considered 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 countries 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 singlemember 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 democracy” but regarded as fundamentally “unacceptable” an electoral system in which a party can win a majority 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 representation — and at the same time transform, or at least mitigate, the highly centralized and disciplined character of Canadian parties, centred as they are on dominant 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 institutions. In most democratic countries, political parties naturally exist to reflect and articulate the society’s basic divisions — be they social, economic, ethnic or geographic. Articulating distinctive ideo-

logical perspectives or ideas of the good life, such parties are the active and quite deliberate instruments of division 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 clienteles to participate in a clearly defined, democratic electoral 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 interests, blur rather than sharpen divisions. The implicit proposition is that Canadian society is so inherently fragile 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 genuinely 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 history 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 accommodative 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 particular 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 participation. But, shut out of national office by an electoral system that favours the brokerage parties, they have been condemned 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 significant 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 sufficiently broad blanket of often internally contradictory values and policies to attract the support necessary to dominate in a first-past-the-post electoral 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 brokerage parties allow their members and supporters to decide who, but rarely what, to vote for.

The building and sustaining of brokerage organizations has not been an easy task. The very rationale for the existence of such organizations — the great diversity of communities and interests in the country — militates against unified and disciplined mass membership. 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, including 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 chosen) disciplines its members and articulates party policy. This is a structural arrangement that gives local partisans a strong sense of ownership and an institutional base from which to participate in the system. Party leaders live with it because it keeps them out of the particularistic idiosyncrasies of individual constituency-level politics and thus gives them the freedom to define and pursue wider partisan interests.

Individual partisans may own their local candidates 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 instructions 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 nonbrokerage parties. And every few decades the dysfunctions and frustrations of such an unresponsive pattern of party politics grow so intense and so widespread 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 control 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 bargain that has structured local-centre relationships in Canadian parties for over a century. It gives party leaders much greater control over the local associations, 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 considerable advantage of the leader, and threatens partisans’ longstanding autonomy and authority within their own local associations.

This portrait of the dominant Canadian political parties shows clearly that they remain, as they have always been, the underdeveloped institutions of a political elite playing a highly personalized game of electoral politics: they are not the instruments of an engaged or even interested citizenry. Yet our constitutional theory assigns them a central place in our democratic 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 brokerage 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 foreign 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 colleagues 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 brokerage parties that they are needed to fight its disintegrative effects, the electoral system lies at the heart of a politics that gives priority to the claims of regionalism (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 uncompetitive 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 exclusion of its representatives from meaningful participation 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 interests, successive elections saw partisanly coloured regions gently rubbing up against one another like great tectonic plates. At any one moment, the political landscape 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 eventually find an explosive outlet. And so it has been in Canadian political life, with a pattern of electoral competition 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 system, to rebuild, and for a new political equilibrium to assert itself. Each time, the political destruction stimulated 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 underlying 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 revolution 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 partnership. 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, immigration 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 representation 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 politics of the dominant party became preoccupied with administrative issues rather than fundamental questions 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 domination by individuals with an “opposition mentality.” To many, the very idea that one might make a contribution 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 transformation 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 shrinkage 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 alarming, 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 governments 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 presents to the public, the voices heard in its senior counsels 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 KingSt. 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 proportion 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 governments dominated by Ontario MPs: on average 58.5 percent 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 concomitant 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 singlemember 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 balanced, unequally resourced and unevenly committed. 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, competitive political parties is central to its continuing existence. Thus partisanship might be expected to be a vital part of citizens’ political identity, and the party a principal route to democratic public participation and service. 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 created 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 vulnerable and forces it, when challenged, to resort to using the resources of the state for narrowly partisan purposes.18 Ultimately, this not only threatens to delegitimize 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 metropolitan centre), the party system no longer seems able to strike acceptable accommodations capable of balancing 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, partisanship, and the party activity it supports, are more likely to lock them out than offer them an entry portal 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 vehicle 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 underpinnings 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 competition managed by political parties working very differently (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 systems, making single-party majority governments far less common. While that might well alter the governing dynamics of individual provinces, it would certainly have consequences for the character and functioning of Canadian federalism as it has developed over the last half century. With first ministers no longer sure about their ability to commit their governments and legislatures, the practices of executive federalism would be undermined and new modalities for decision-making and public administration that cross jurisdictional lines would have to be created. In an earlier era, the Liberal Party managed this through a network of regional bosses (see Whitaker 1977). However, with the subsequent separation of national and provincial party organizations, and the transformation of the national parties themselves, there is little prospect that the political parties are still capable of serving as instruments of intergovernmental 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 parties represented in Parliament (and fairer representation 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 brokerage 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 challenge 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 participate 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 legislature 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 government announced its intention, in its Speech from the Throne on September 12, 2005, to hold another referendum on the same proposal. The second referendum is to be supported by funds for information campaigns 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 uncharacteristically 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
  5. The Draft Bill can be found at 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:
  7. Examples include, in the world of established democracies, the United Kingdom, Italy, New Zealand and Japan; most of the countries of the former Sovietdominated Eastern Europe; and a range of Third World nations as they struggle to establish democratic electoral 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 Mark Warren and Hilary Pearse (forthcoming) provide a sophisticated multiperspective 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 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 abandoned for a Single Transferable Vote electoral system. Its report can be found at 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 development 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 evidence of the Liberal’s willingness to use state resources for partisan electoral aims.

Blais, André. 2005. “Accounting for the Electoral Success of the Liberal Party of Canada.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 38 (4): 821-40.

Blais, André, and Elisabeth Gidengil. 1991. Making Representative Democracy Work: The Views of Canadians. Toronto: Dundurn Press for the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing.

“The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly: A Round Table.” 2003. Canadian Parliamentary Review 26 (2).

Cairns, Alan C. 1968. “The Electoral System and the Party System in Canada: 1921-1965.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 1: 55-80.

Carty, R. Kenneth. 1988. “Three Canadian Party Systems: An Interpretation of the Development of National Politics.” In Party Democracy in Canada, edited by G. Perlin. Scarborough, Ont.: Prentice-Hall.

_____. 1995. “On the Road Again: ‘The Stalled Omnibus’ Revisited.” In Canada’s Century: Governance in a Maturing Society. Essays in Honour of John Meisel, edited by C.E.S. Franks, J.E. Hodgetts, O.P. Dwivedi, Doug Williams, and V. Seymour Wilson. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

_____. 1997. “For the Third Asking: Is There a Future for National Political Parties?” In In Pursuit of the Public Good. Essays in Honour of Allen J. MacEachen, edited by T. Kent. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

_____. 2002. “The Politics of Tecumseh Corners: Canadian Political Parties as Franchise Organizations.” Canadian Journal of Political Science 35 (4): 723-45.

_____. 2004. “Canadians and Electoral Reform: An Impulse to Doing Democracy Differently.” Representation 40: 173-84.

_____. 2006. “Regional Responses to the Challenges of Electoral Reform.” Canadian Parliamentary Review 29 (1): 22-26.

Carty, R. Kenneth, and William Cross. Forthcoming. “Can Stratarchically Organized Parties be Democratic? The Canadian Case.” Journal of Elections, Public Opinion, and Parties.

Carty, R. Kenneth, William Cross, and Lisa Young. 2000. Rebuilding Canadian Party Politics. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Clarkson, Stephen. 2005. The Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Courtney, John. 1999. “Electoral Reform and Canada’s Parties.” In Making Every Vote Count: Reassessing Canada’s Electoral System, edited by H. Milner. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press.

_____. 2004. Elections. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.


Cross, William. 2004. Political Parties. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

_____. 2005. “The Rush to Electoral Reform in the Canadian Provinces: Why Now?” Representation 41: 75-84.

Docherty, David. 1997. Mr. Smith Goes to Ottawa: Life in the House of Commons. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Howe, Paul, and David Northrup. 2000. “Strengthening Canadian Democracy: The Views of Canadians.” IRPP Policy Matters 1, no. 5.

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Lee, Jeannie. 2006. “The Prince Edward Island Plebiscite on Electoral Reform.” Canadian Parliamentary Review 29 (1): 4-8.

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Perlin, George. 1980. The Tory Syndrome: Leadership Politics in the Progressive Conservative Party. Montreal: McGill- Queen’s University Press.

Ratner, R.S. 2004. “British Columbia’s Citizens’ Assembly: The Learning Phase.” Canadian Parliamentary Review 27 (2): 20-26.

_____. 2005. “The B.C. Citizens’ Assembly: The Public Hearings and Deliberations Stage.” Canadian Parliamentary Review 28 (1): 24-33.

Siegfried, André. 1966 [1906]. The Race Question in Canada. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Warren, Mark, and Hilary Pearse, eds. Forthcoming. Designing Democratic Renewal.

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For immediate distribution – June 13, 2006

Montreal – The decline of party membership and citizens’ engagement does not bode well for Canada. Political parties serve as bellwethers for the state of democracy. When citizens are actively engaged in parties, democracy flourishes. When they lose interest in participating, the system is imperilled. As a part of its Strengthening Canadian Democracy series, the IRPP is today releasing two studies on the role of political parties in Canada. The first, by Kenneth Carty (University of British Columbia), outlines the function parties have historically served in Canada and their place on the political landscape today. The second, by William Cross (Carleton University) and Lisa Young (University of Calgary), focuses on the critical role played by individual party members and looks at ways to reinvigorate citizens’ membership in Canada’s parties.

Both studies start with the same basic assumptions: an engaged citizenry is a cornerstone of democracy, and political parties are vehicles for public participation in governance. Given these assumptions, the authors see worrying trends on the horizon:

  • Cross and Young point out that membership rates appear to be dropping, the average member is nearing retirement age and not being replaced, and activism in parties is relatively low.
  • The authors’ survey research also shows that party members are not satisfied with their ability to shape policy. In particular, members resent the extent to which political professionals have usurped their traditional role.
  • To address this problem, Cross and Young propose the creation of policy foundations within the parties, as exist in Germany. According to the authors, these groups would serve as “a vehicle for both a party’s grassroots supporters and its substantive policy experts to participate in the study and development of policy options within each party’s broad ideological framework.”
  • Carty argues that Canada’s traditional brokerage parties, rather than advancing and articulating specific interests, accommodate and stifle them. This has led to the disengagement of voters.
  • Furthermore, says Carty, the first-past-the-post electoral system “has rendered large swaths of the country politically uncompetitive for long periods of time.”
  • Moreover, Carty shows that the Liberal Party currently only represents the centre of the country, and no longer plays even its traditional brokerage role.
  • Now we face a choice, concludes Carty. Either we go back to the old style national parties, or we implement electoral reform, which “offers a way to usher in the new party organizations that will reshape the competitive alignments necessary to allow Canadians to participate in a new democratic national public life.”

Are Canadian Political Parties Empty Vessels? Membership, Engagement and Policy Capacity, by William Cross and Lisa Young, and The Shifting Place of Political Parties in Canadian Public Life, by Kenneth Carty, can be downloaded for free from


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