Q&A: Canada 2011

As part of my election preview for Canada’s federal election on May 22, I’m taking questions from readers which are pertinent to the broad topic of Canadian politics, history or current events and giving some answers.

It always strikes me that there is a fairly clear territorial cleavage in Canadian politics (East/West/Quebec) but what other important divisions are there? Clearly the NDP has traditionally been the party of blue-collar workers, and is now moving into the culturally liberal intelligentsia, but what is the class orientation of other parties? Is there a notable difference in religious adherence, or in ethnic adherence (aside from Quebecois)?

Class politics don’t play well in Ontario and most of central Canada, although the west and British Columbia in particular has electoral patterns which are more class-based than Ontario or the centre. The NDP’s traditional clientele is broad, but it can be summed up to include white Anglo-Saxon often unionized working-class voters, some non-whites (especially in BC, not in Ontario) and young hipster professionals/bobo types in gentrified districts. The Liberal Party especially and the Tories to a lesser extent are referred to in literature as ‘parties of accommodation’ or brokerage parties which means that they don’t generally have well-defined support from one election to another based upon long-term loyalties of voters and social groups and rather seek to create and re-create coalitions at each election. Yet, there are some basic bedrock Liberal and Tory groups. Immigrants and visible minorities, especially in Ontario, tend to be solidly Liberal although Harper made major inroads with Chinese voters (who tend to be small-c conservative and affluent) in BC back in 2008 (Chinese areas in Ontario – Markham and Agincourt – remain Liberal). Ethnic Europeans – Italians, Portuguese, East Europeans have tended to be reliably Liberal. Both immigrants and ethnic whites, however, have been moving away from the Liberals in recent years. Harper’s strategy includes, in large part, appealing to visible minorities in GTA areas such as Brampton or Mississauga. This strategy has been partly successful. Jews tended to be solidly Liberal in the past, but swung hard towards the Tories – at least in Ontario – in 2008, with the Tory gain of Thornhill being the best example (Thornhill is the only plurality Jewish constituency).

I’ve heard that somebody said that religion remained a remarkably good predictor of voting in Canada. I don’t disagree, though it’s less through these days. Catholics have traditionally tended to be solidly Liberal, while Anglicans especially and Protestants in general tended to be more Conservative. Not all Protestants are Tories, though – the original Liberal base in Ontario lied in the rural areas of southwest Ontario which was largely Methodist. United Empire Loyalists and high church Anglicans, however, are solidly Conservative since Confederation. Religious affiliation is an underlying voting determinant, and it is most important in the Atlantic provinces. Ironically, in the province where religion is most important – Newfoundland – the patterns are inversed. Catholics are Tories and Protestants are Liberal. The roots of this weird situation lay in the Catholics voting against confederation in 1948 while Protestants voted in favour. Liberals, and their provincial boss Joey Smallwood (an Orangemen), supported Confederation while Tories were either opposed or cooler on the idea.

French-speakers outside Quebec were solidly very solidly Liberal – just look at some of the Liberal margins in the Prescott-Russell area in Ontario or the Acadian areas of New Brunswick in the past – but Francophones, especially in rural areas, showed significant moves towards the Tories in 2006. In places such as Orleans in Ottawa, suburbanization (which brings in Anglos) has also sped up the move away from the Liberal Party.

Class is not a voting determinant in Quebec. Although French working-class voters in places such as Hochelaga are solidly Bloquiste and despite the Bloc/PQ’s affiliation to social democracy, the fact that the “national question” is the major voting determinant makes the Bloc Québécois a big tent party. It draws from working-class voters to rural conservative voters to well-off middle-class suburban folks. Though the poorest are more likely to vote Bloc/PQ than the richest, the Bloc is clearly a big-tent party. The provincial ADQ made gains with rural conservative and Francophone suburban voters in 2007, and Harper hoped to make inroads there in 2008 before the arts cut phenomena. This isn’t universal, because you have some very French-speaking areas which are quite federalist (Beauce is the best example). English Quebeckers and non-whites in Quebec tend to be solidly Liberal (especially provincially) for rather obvious reasons. The predominantly Anglophone and affluent West Island of Montreal is solidly Liberal, although slightly less so these days.

Region does remain one of the dominant cleavages overall. Parties have specific messages tailored to different regions, and strategies will often focus on regions rather than demographic groups or linguistic/religious groups (Harper’s appeal to minorities is an exception).

Also, what kind of factions exist within the parties, and are these divided down territorial lines as most other politics is?

The Liberals are probably the most factionalized, with a whole slew of various axes of division. There is a generally Left Liberals and Right Liberals division, with people such as Paul Martin Jr. being clearly on the right and Pierre Trudeau being clearly on the left. There is/was an important division within the Liberal Party being “One Canada” Liberals and “community” Liberals (as I call them) with the former supporting Trudeau’s centralist vision of a united, equal Canada of 10 equal provinces and others more open to the idea of “distinct society” Quebec and a more “communities” version of Canada. John Turner, a rival of Trudeau, was certainly in the latter category. Lester Pearson was also perhaps more of the “community Liberal” type than Trudeau. The most recent civil war in the party was probably Chrétien (a Trudeau, centre-left Liberal)-Martin (a more decentralist, centre-right Liberal) which degenerated quite badly and which erupts from time to time to this day.Chrétien apparently dislikes Ignatieff, who seems to straddling a middle-way between the Trudeau centralism and the two communities side. There is a sizable socially conservative Liberal caucus. All these factional fights stem from the fact that the Liberal Party has always been a big-tent party drawing from a whole bunch of different voters.

Harper’s Conservative government is well known for being something close to a one-man show with little to no dissension from the party line and basically no public factional fight. The major division within the party seems to be between western-based Reform-Alliance types who are more socially and fiscally conservative and the more eastern-based PCs/remaining Red Tories. The Reformists hold the upper hand, with the more moderate former PCers being weaker. Harper’s most prominent potential rival was Jim Prentice, who recently retired to take up a job for the CIBC bank. Prentice is a moderate ex-PC (albeit from Alberta) and ran for the PC leadership in 2003 as the pro-merger candidate. The winner of that race, Peter MacKay is undoubtedly a major contender if/when Harper goes.

The NDP doesn’t have prominent factional fights these days, but the major division is probably between the urban liberal-left libertarian and the party’s traditionally populist Prairie Christian left/socialist grassroots. Layton does a good job at working both, but he’s more closely associated to the former. There is a small radical left Socialist Caucus within the NDP.

How come some leaders aren’t MPs before they become leader? In the UK it would be considered shocking if a major party selected someone from outside the Commons as its leader. I mean Layton was just a mayor wasn’t he? Albeit, of Toronto.

Yes, this is an interesting phenomenon. On one hand you do have some leaders who win the leadership without being MPs although they were politically active in the past or previously held a seat. Chrétien and Turner are good example. I can’t directly explain this phenomenon, but certain parties – the Liberals in particular – have a knack to choose leaders who aren’t incumbent politicians or non-traditional politicians (eg, Trudeau or Ignatieff).

There is also a higher than average number of PMs losing their seats. The sitting Prime Minister lost his seat in the 1921, 1925 and 1926 elections (three in a row!), for example. Although the tradition of “safe seats for the PM” wasn’t as important then as now.

If the Liberals and the NDP had a majority of seats do you think they would form a majority, and if not, why not?

This is a very slippery question, as the Liberals know. Liberals and NDP have cooperated in the past, but never in a formal coalition agreement. Nobody will admit that they’re forming a coalition, especially not one supported from the outside by the Bloc, but Ignatieff’s statement considering coalitions as a “legitimate option” didn’t shut the door on the option entirely. Both Liberals and NDP do seem to be very peeved with the Tories right now, which makes the option more likely. Harper will campaign hard on the coalition issue, because it paid off for him in 2008-2009, but with the news of Harper having proposed a sort of Tory-NDP-Bloc coalition in 2004 it might backfire on him. And it’d be hard for the Liberals to handle the issue of coalition worse than Dion did in 2008. All in all, it’s tough to say.

I’m interested in knowing why the attempt to from a NDP-Lib-BQ coalition failed a couple of years ago. It seemed that Harper was gone at the time, yet he survived.

It failed, to sum it up, because of Harper’s superior political skills and Stéphane Dion’s utter lack of political skills. In 2008, Dion was on his way out and then half-came back to form a coalition which he jumbled up extremely badly, most notably by responding to Harper’s speech with an amateur raw video which cut his chin off the picture. Ignatieff wasn’t hot on the coalition idea and wanted to let it die off, which Harper did by proroguing Parliament and killing any chance of the opposition moving to put a motion of non-confidence on the table.

Will Canadians be able to realize that if Harper doesn’t get majority then a seperatist party will be partially in charge ?

This is Harper’s campaign line. As aforementioned, it could backfire especially with Duceppe going out of his way to show that Harper wanted a coalition with the “separatists” in 2004. The Liberals are skating some very thin ice here, as is the NDP to a lesser extent. What’s interesting about this Harper rhetoric is that it shows his strategy is majority-without-Quebec which has been achieved extremely rarely. The coalition pitch sales better in Quebec and going all out to call the Bloc “separatist” doesn’t work too well with swing Quebec voters. It is possible, but no party has won a majority without taking at least 30% of the popular vote in Quebec. Chrétien did come close to that in 1993, but he did that because he took 99% of Ontario’s seats which Harper can’t do.

The one thing I still don’t understand is the social cleavage between the Liberal Party and the NDP. I “get” who votes Conservative – all the Anglosphere countries have a party that takes a low-tax, vaguely-moralistic line – but I don’t “get” who votes for the other parties.

As mentioned above, the voting coalitions change faster than in other countries. The NDP used to be stronger in the Prairies and weaker in Ontario. A long time ago, Ontario was the Conservative stronghold (especially provincially) with Toronto being a real Tory stronghold. In the early twentieth century, the Prairies used to be quite Liberal. The NDP, and its predecessor the CCF’s base was in the Prairies where the CCF emerged as a populist western protest-party with roots in Christian left gospel. As such, the CCF was one of the many western populist parties whose ranks included the Social Credit, the Progressives or more recently Reform. The Liberal base used to be Quebec and Catholics and various other election-to-election brokerage coalitions. The NDP has links to organized labour and finds its base with unionized working-class voters (in addition to other voters mentioned above). The Liberals are more of a middle-class old big tent party whose coalition shifts rapidly.

I know the Wildrose Alliance has taken seats in the Albertan general assembly, will they contest this election and if so what are their prospects?

The WRA is a provincial party. Aside from provincial NDPs and some provincial Liberals, provincial parties are a whole different ballgame. The lack of links between provincial and federal parties is rather unique. Some provincial parties such as the BC Liberals, for example, have very little in common with their federal namesakes. The WRA’s voters are strongly Conservative federally.

And lastly, but not least, who will you be voting for? ;)

A political party :)

I welcome all other questions from readers on the broad topic of Canadian politics, history, electoral geography, current events and the like. I’ll also welcome questions on this election specifically or on key ridings or regions.

Posted on March 28, 2011, in Canada, Election Preview. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. With your point of view, what do you think are main ridings to watch?

    I believe that some races will be pretty ”dirty” especially with some close ridings.

  2. Who decided that an election should happen now? Why did they choose now? How do Canadians approach the question of letting a minority government fall, now that they’re finishing up their third minority in a row?

    On the Chrétien point, do you think there can ever be another majority government when only half of Québec’s seats are winnable by all federalists combined? Or should I bear in mind your point about the rapid changes of political coalitions?

    We in Ireland who are aware of the politics of Canada consider the Liberals to be similar to our Fianna Fáil – a middle group that sees itself as the “natural party of government”. Your description appears to agree with that analysis.

    Here’s one that I don’t think anyone else I know of could answer as well. Do votes in the territories just get distributed basically randomly without reference to party labels? I’ve been studying the electoral geography of Scotland in the post-war period, and the Highlands and Western Isles had extremely heterogenous party results from one election to another, with incumbency as the only factor I could link to success.

  3. Edward;

    The government fell on an opposition motion of contempt of Parliament. The opposition backed this motion with the government’s refusal to disclose close for major programs and a cabinet minister lying to committee about altering a document. The general feeling seems to be generally “meh” which expresses discontent with politics, desire for stable government and all that. This election isn’t as unwanted as 2008 was, though, I’d wager.

    Harper’s bet is risky but not impossible. If he breaks through further in GTA (especially Brampton, Mississauga, Ajax-Pickering and maybe Markham) and takes seats in Burnaby-Coquitlam-NW/Vancouver Island in BC from the NDP he can win a narrow majority. Quebec doesn’t seem to be necessary for a majority coalition if you do have a good majority of seats in ON/Prairies/BC. Winning Quebec has tended to be key perhaps because of the symbolic/PR aspect of forging a “bilinguistic”/”bicultural” coalition. QC being en bloc for the Bloc, does, however, make huge majorities more unlikely and overall majorities much harder especially when neither Tories/Grits/NDP are especially good.

    “natural party of government” is often used in literature to describe the Liberals. Mackenzie King played an especially crucial role in making this true by building a QC-West and then QC-Anglo middle classes coalition while the Tories were stuck as the party of rich Anglos or old United Empire Loyalists hated in QC.

    The Northern ridings have elected Tories, Grits and Dippers at various points. Hometown and candidate base seems important in all this, and overall the incumbent has a boost. Aglukkaq will probably win easily in Nunavut now that she’s a high profile minister and incumbent, for example. A map of the 2008 election in Nunavut also seems to be all friends and neighbours effect.

    I’ll eventually profile all the key ridings.

  4. SouthpawPundit

    Jack Layton was never a mayor, neither in Toronto nor elsewhere (he did lose the 1991 mayoral election though); he was a city councilor in Toronto, a university professor, an author, and a small business owner. Either way, I’d rather see him as Prime Minister than either Stephen Harper or Michael Ignatieff.

    As for explaining who votes for what, that’s a very complex question that I think very few people are equipped to answer adequately. I’ll even go as far as to say that there is no one single person who can provide a complete answer.

    So instead of doing that, I’ll spend a while droning on about brokerage parties, protest parties, and why understanding this stuff is relevant to vital the political situation in Canada today.

    It’s important to note that the parties discussed here are federal parties, and provincial politics will be references only in passing (and mainly with respect to discussing the New Democratic Party and the Social Credit movement). The provinces themselves have their own party systems, some of which are quite different than their federal counterparts. Moreover, aside from the New Democratic Party, whose provincial wings and federal wing form a single whole, provincial and federal parties that share the same name are not formally affiliated, though some are informally connected to their federal namesakes more then others.

    Before considering any ideological questions (and as a socialist, that’s exceedingly difficult for me to do), it would be best to divide Canadian parties into two categories: Brokerage (big-tent) parties and protest parties. In explaining the concepts, I will provide examples from Canadian political history and current Canadian politics. I will pay special attention to the Conservative Party and its pedigree
    because the current Conservative Party shows that the demarcation between these two types of parties is not particularly clear cut.

    Brokerage parties tend to not be particularly ideological and are composed of different interests binding together in attempt to obtain political power and subsequently engage in a combination of furthering their own interests and implementing some sort of vision for Canada. The original Conservative Party (pre-1867) and the current Liberal Party (of similar vintage) are both brokerage parties. In very simplified terms, at the time of Confederation, the Conservative Party (or formally, the Liberal-Conservatives, with the Liberal officially dropped in 1873) consisted of people who supported the coalition of Loyalists (who tended to be from Upper Canada’s elite, most being Anglican and others being from other mainline Protestant churches), organized labour (who preferred protectionism and
    Imperial security to free trade and Continentalism) and conservative Quebec Roman Catholics formed by Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, and his Quebec lieutenant, Sir Georges-Etienne Cartier. The Liberals, conversely, consisted of pretty much everyone else. As the Liberals included everything from Christian fundamentalists, to French-hating Anglo-Chauvinists, to anti-clerical Quebecois radicals, they frequently were about as friendly to one another as they were to the Conservative government. It goes without saying that phenomena as diverse as Canada’s many waves of immigration, the Louis Riel crisis, the decline of the British Empire, various conscription crises, the Cold War, and the interaction between the two main brokerage parties and the protest parties that would later emerge ensured that both the Liberals and the Conservatives would go through many changes, both in terms of the policies they favoured and the interests that made up their respective coalitions.

    To illustrate how divergent the interests in a brokerage party can be, I’ll use a recent example from the Liberal Party. In 2003, then-Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien was adamant about keeping Canada out of the Bush-Obama Iraq quagmire. By the end of that year, Chretien had stepped down, former Finance Minister Paul Martin (a supporter of the Iraq War) had returned to the political arena and become Prime Minister, and David Pratt, the Liberal caucus’ staunchest critic of Chretien’s decision to keep Canada out of Iraq, was Minister of Defence. Thankfully because the war had become rather politically toxic by then (though nowhere to the extent that it later would throughout the world, especially in Europe and Australia), the only Canadians soldiers who ever ended up in Iraq were those on exchange with the U.S. Military. Most were more than willing to be there. One could easily argue that the factional conflict described here is rooted in a number of factors, including the conflict between the continentalism that defined the Liberal Party for decades and remains fashionable among its more right-leaning factions and the more nationalistic stance associated with Pierre Trudeau and Stephane Dion or even between Liberals who favoured continuing along the Trudeau path and Liberals who wanted the party to go in a different direction. Our overview of brokerage parties complete, we can look at the Conservative Party and then move to a general discussion of protest parties.

    The current Conservative Party, a 2003 merger of the right-populist Canadian Alliance and the remnants of the centre-right Progressive Conservative (the merger, obviously, is quite the story in itself), is a brokerage party too, but it’s heritage is a bit more complex than that and is a prime example of the nebulous distinction that exissts. Discussing its heritage, along with the heritages of the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties, will transition nicely into a look at Canadian protest parties in general.

    The Progressive Conservative party was a merger of the remnants Progressive Party and the original 1867 Conservative Party. The Progressive Party was an agrarian protest party formed in 1920. At its height, it had allied parties in power in Manitoba, Ontario, and Alberta. Most of its members had abandoned it for the Liberals, the left-wing Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), or the right-populist Social Credit movement by this point, so the Conservatives got little more than the name, which the party adopted to get the Progressive Premier of Manitoba John Bracken to assume the party’s leadership in the 1940s. Interestingly, the Progressive Party of Canada ran candidates against Bracken’s Tories, but failed to gain any ground.

    By the 1980s, when Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was in power, the Progressive Conservative party also included conservative populist types from the West with origins in the Social Credit Movement (the most radical were colloquially known during the 1980s as the God Squad because they tended to be very socially conservative born-again Christians) and moderate Quebec nationalists. It goes without saying that they were often united by their disaffection with Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s Liberals, a desire to further redefine the constitutionally framework under which Canada operated (though Western conservative and Quebec conservatives frequently disagreed on everything but decentralization of power and were often at odds with another) their support for free trade with the U.S., and very little else.

    Evidently, a coalition that broad would be quite fragile and susceptible to falling apart, which it did quite spectacularly. The conservative western populists abandoned the Progressive Conservative Party for Preston Manning’s Reform Party by the late 1980s and early 1990s because they felt that Mulroney’s government was too elitist, not sufficiently conservative on social liberals, not sufficiently neoliberal on economic issues, and too accommodating to Quebec. Stephen Harper would also prove to be an important figure within the Reform Party and in the right-wing National Citizens Coalition (NCC) at this time, though he was spending his time behind the scenes and was a political unknown outside of the Reform Party and the NCC.

    Meanwhile, the Mulroney government’s failure to bring Quebec back into the constitutional fold (because the Meech Lake Accord was not ratified by 1990) led Quebec nationalists within the Progressive Conseraties, along with a couple of disenchanted Quebecois Liberals of similar persuasion, to form the Bloc Quebecois (BQ), led by former Mulroney cabinet minister (and future Quebec Premier) Lucien Bouchard. Interestingly, the first MP to win an election with BQ support (technically, he ran as an independent because the BQ was still the processing of registering as a federal party) had no relationship with either the Conservative or Liberal parties. Rather, he was a young ex-Maoist and union organizer of little importance outside, whose father, actor Jean Duceppe, was a founding member of the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP). 7 years later, Gilles Duceppe was leading the BQ. Those up on their political history might find it amusing that NDP leader Jack Layton is the son of Robert Layton, a Progressive Conservative cabinet minister from the Mulroney years while Gilles Duceppe, though his party was initially led by a Tory cabinet minister, is the son of a founding member of the NDP.

    The collapse of Mulroney’s ad hoc coalition, along with the former Prime Minister’s own disgrace and the disastrous 1993 election campaign of his successor as Progressive Conservative leader and Prime Minister, Kim Campbell (the first and only woman to hold the post), decimated the Tories in that year’s election. The Conservatives, who had won 169 of 295 seats in the 1988 election, fell to 151 MPs after a string defections and disastrous by-elections by the time Parliament was dissolved in 1993, and were reduced to two (!) seats once the ballots were counted, good enough for 5th place behind the Jean Chretien’s new Liberal government, the BQ, the Reform Party, and the NDP. Under the leadership of former Mulroney cabinet minister and eventual Premier of Quebec Jean Charest, the Tories recovered to 20 seats in 1997. Charest’s transition to provincial politics less than a year later led former Prime Minister Joe Clark to reemerge as the party’s leader. A centrist “Red Tory”, Clark failed to build on Charest’s success and the party fell to 12 seats in 2000.

    In 2003, Clark was succeeded by Peter Mackay. Later that year would orchestrate the merger between the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance in spite of the fact that he won the party leadership by making a deal with Red Tory and opposing leaderaship candidate David Orchard to not merge. To be fair to Mackay, the party held a number of regional conventions in December of 2003 and 90% of members who attended these conventions supported a merger. Not surprisingly Mackay is currently a senior cabinet Minister (National Defence) in the Harper Cabinet and has been there since 2006, when Harper first became Prime Minister.

    Meanwhile, the Reform Party was facing its own growing pains throughout the 1990s. After its failure to score an electoral breakthrough in Ontario in 1997, it became clear that the party needed to revitalize itself and gain the support of Progressive Conservatives east of the Ontario-Manitoba border, many of which had been staying with the Tories or giving their votes to the Liberal Party. Thus, after two “United Alternative” conventions, they transformed into the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance in 2000, a thinly veiled attempt to rebrand themselves and consolidate the right-of-centre vote under their own banner.

    The convention in which the Reform Party transformed itself also saw the former Alberta finance minister Stockwell Day, an evangelical Christian minister, replace Preston Manning as leader, the hope being that the combination a new brand, a new leader, and a set of policy initiatives would make the party more appealing outside of Western Canada, particularly in Ontario. Fortunately, Prime Minister Stockwell Day would never become more than a punchline for a few Rick Mercer jokes.

    Because the Progressive Conservative remnants were not on board with the initiative and Day’s extreme social conservatism and bizarre anti-science beliefs (a more charitable commentator than myself may frame Day’s views differently, but I personally have a hard time neither pointing and laughing when someone earnestly proclaims that humans and dinosaurs roamed the Earth at the same time nor cringing at the nutty things he taught as a private school instructor) made him the subject of significant ridicule and lampooning during the 2000 election campaign (an early election called by the wily Jean Chretien before Day had a chance to tone down the crazy), the Liberal Party remained very popular in Ontario.

    In other words, the man we all call Doris and the movement behind him failed spectacularly. The Canadian Alliance lost the popular vote in Ontario by over 25 points and won a pathetic two of Ontario’s 103 seats in the 2000 federal election (a gain of one from 1993 and 1997), compared to 100 for the Liberals and 1 for the Progressive Conservatives. Disaffection with Day’s leadership led dissenters within the Canadian Alliance to form the Democratic Representative Caucus, which caucused with the Progressive Conservative Party. Day lost the leadership to Stephen Harper in 2001 (but would go on to be among Harper’s most prominent cabinet ministers from 2006 to 2010), leading many of the dissenters back into the Alliance fold and setting the stage for the 2003 merger that would create the Conservative Party of Canada. Coupled with the Liberals reeling from the Sponsorship Scandal and an NDP that had finally recovered from the party’s disastrous 1993 result, the emergence of a single right-wing party was able to reduce the Liberals, now led by Paul Martin, to minority status in the wake of 2004’s election.

    Ironically, while the Conservative gained more seats than any other party, in terms of popular vote, the sponsorship scandal actually benefited the BQ, the Green Party, and the NDP (all of which can be placed to the left of the Liberal Party) moreso than it did the centre-right Conservatives, who had in fact fallen by over 8 percentage points from the combined PC-Alliance vote share in 2000. In other words, the Conservatives gained MPs because the Liberals bled support on their left flank, allowing the united right to win victories that PC-Alliance vote splitting had previously made impossible, popular vote be damned. Regardless of how 2004 came about (I say boo to Westminster, but will resist the temptation to digress into a discussion on electoral reform), Martin’s minority survived until December of 2005, when the NDP pulling the plug and forced a January 2006 election. The Liberals lost their plurality in the House of Commons, the BQ held their ground, and both the NDP and the Conservative spectacular gains at the expense of the Liberals. Most significantly, the result led to Stephen Harper’s becoming Prime Minister, a victory he would consolidate in the 2008 election and will likely further consolidate in 2011, much as I do not look forward to such an outcome.

    Protest parties consist of individuals and groups who felt that their interests are not represented by the major brokerage parties, namely the Liberals and the (Progressive) Conservatives. They’re generally more populist in their approach and rooted in various types of alienation, regional, agrarian, and labour being the dominant ones. A number of historical protest parties have played a substantial role in crafting the Canadian political landscape today.

    The first, the Progressive Party (mentioned in passing above) is an agrarian movement that was connected to its Manitoba namesake and (more distantly) to the Ontario and Alberta chapters of the United Farmers movement. At its zenith, the Progressive Party won 58 of 235 MPs and 21% of the popular vote in 1921 elections while contesting only 137 seats. Provincially, Progressives and United Farmers would form the government at various times throughout the 1910s, 20s, and 30s in Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. The Progressive Party proved to be very ideologically incoherent, its members and supporters eventually moving to the CCF, the Liberal Party, and Social Credit. What remained was absorbed by the Conservative Party, which as I had mentioned above, become the Progressive Conservative Party.

    The Social Credit movement was also a largely agrarian protest movement born of the more conservative elements of the Progressive/United Farmers and other Western Canadian populists of a more right-wing bent. It was most successful in Alberta and British Columbia. While the movement is named after a monetary theory authored by T.C. Douglas that was ultimately never implemented (save for unsuccessful efforts when it came to power in Alberta for the first time in 1935), its predominant features became its social conservatism, its populism, and its anti-socialism. Conservative evangelical Christians (those hostile to the Social Gospel sort of Christianity embraced by left-wing evangelicals and Catholics, as well as by the mainline Protestant (aka non-evangelical) United Church of Canada) dominated the movement, chief among them being long-standing Alberta Premiers William “Bible Bill” Aberhart and Earnest Manning (father of Preston). Consistent with many other right-wing populist movements of the 1930s, there was significant anti-semitism within the Social Credit movement while Aberhart was in power, though this generally subsided during the Manning years. Alberta Social Credit held power without interruption from 1935 to 1972 (and became a fringe party of avowed White supremacists and religious extremists by the 1980s) while its counterpart in British Columbia was in office from 1952 to1991 (with a single NDP government from 1972 to 1975), falling to 3rd place in that year’s provincial election and winning less than 1% of the vote in 1996 . In Quebec, the Ralliment Credidiste du Quebec enjoyed modest success in the 1970s, but never came anywhere near to forming the government or to even forming the Official Opposition.. Federally, the Social Credit Party of Canada (and other social credit parties such as the Ralliment (des) Creditiste(s)) returned MPs from Western Canada and Quebec in the 1930s through to the 1970s.

    Social Credit’s importance today lies in the fact that many people connected to the various Social Credit movements in Canada (particularly in Alberta) were also involved in the Reform Party. Their influence was still felt in the Canadian Alliance and their remnants and that of other conservative evangelicals (including some with connections to US religious right groups like Focus on the Family) form a significant part of the modern Conservative Party’s base. Harper, convinced by his mentor Preston Manning to join the Christian Missionary Alliance, is a conservative evangelical, but the extent of his religiosity and its influence on his own political convictions is not as clear-cut as it is for Stockwell Day or even Preston Manning.

    The CCF, the NDP’s immediate ancestor, is an interesting party in that it descends from both the left wing of the agrarian movement and from the labour movement. It was formed from these groups in 1932, and its first MPs were members of the Ginger Group, a parliamentary group formed in the 1920s by left-wing dissidents from the Progressive Party and various quasi-independent MPs backed by organised labour. While the CCF never came close to a forming the federal government, the Saskatchewan wing formed that province’s government from 1944 to 1964 (as NDP-CCF from 1961 to 1964) while in Ontario, the party became the official opposition in from 1943 to 1945 and again from 1948 to 1951.

    A formal merger with the Canadian Federation of Labour in 1961 led to the formation of the NDP-CCF. The party dropped the CCF from its name in 1967 and would go on to form the government in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, British Columbia, and Nova Scotia over the next few decades. The NDP currently holds power in Manitoba (as of 1999) and Nova Scotia (as of 2009), though neither government is currently very popular, and forms the official opposition in British Columbia, where its been since 2001 after having most recently held power from 1991 to 2001, and in Saskatchewan. While the NDP formed a majority government in Ontario from 1990 to 1995 and been the official opposition on a number of occasions prior to 1990, it has never recovered from the unpopularity of Bob Rae’s government and remains my home province’s 3rd party. In spite of the success of the party’s provincial branches, the NDP has never formed the government or became the official opposition at the federal level, though the party came close to displacing the Liberals as the official opposition in the 1980s, an outcome that would have radically altered Canada’s political landscape (not that it already hasn’t changed dramatic since the Mulroney years).

    The Bloc Quebecois is a very interesting beast indeed. The party began as an informal alliance of Liberals and (moreso) Progressive Conservatives who left their respective parties over the failure of Meech Lake and Brian Mulroney’s handling of the issue and was initially led by a former Tory cabinet minister (the aforementioned Bouchard). Nonetheless, the emergence of ex-Maoist and social democrat Gilles Duceppe as both its first MP to win in an election and – later – its leader moved the party toward cultural liberalism and moderate social democracy. While there were social conservatives and right-wing nationalists in the party’s early days, the party has grown more ethnically diverse, more cosmopolitan, more left-wing, and more socially liberal under Duceppe’s 14 year tenure. An Ekos poll shortly before the election call (http://www.ekospolitics.com/wp-content/uploads/full_report_march_25_2011.pdf) showed that the NDP was the most popular second choice among BQ supporters by an overwhelming margin. The Consevatives finish 4th. If I were Quebecois, I’d be sick of Day and Harper using me as a rhetorical foil or blaming me for the fact that my gay friends can now get married. Given that Duceppe’s background was in organizing immigrant workers in Montreal’s hospitality industry, is it any surprise that the BQ would become so diverse and move so far to the left under his watch? From the environment, to social policy, to defence policy, there’s not all much daylight between the BQ and its supporters or the NDP and its own. There’s more tension when it comes to questions about federal and provincial relations, the allocation of powers between the two levels of government, and Quebec’s future within confederation.

    The Green Party has recently emerged on the political scene, and does well enough to be included in opinion polls in spite of the fact that nobody has been elected as a Green at the provincial or federal level The Greens definitely skew younger than the other parties and can be placed to the left of both the Liberals and the Conservatives That said, the Australian Greens are definitely to the left of our Green Party, as are the Green parties in the UK and in the US. The difference here is that left-leaning Canadians already have the NDP or the BQ (or both, if you live in Gatineau) as viable options, whereas lefties in those countries are stuck with little in the way of interesting progressive options (New Labour? DLC? Aussie Labor? No thanks. Even Paul Martin’s more progressive.). I could see a lot of disaffected Red Tories (former Green leader Jim Harris was one) and Liberals voting Green at this juncture (a few Greens I know aren’t particularly left-wing), but that’s speculation on my part.

    Expanding on my thoughts about the Green Party, here’s an early projection I’ve written for Saanich-Gulf Islands, the BC riding where Green leader Elizabeth May is running. Admittedly, there’s a good deal of polemic below, so beware.


    Even if the worst polls (from the government’s perspective, anyways) that put the Tories in the mid-30s are true and the ones that have the Tories in the 40s are bunk, I can’t see how Gary Lunn loses here. I acknowledge that this is not a particularly right-wing riding (in spite of the way Tory apologists seem to frame thing) at all and that Lunn hasn’t won north of 40% of the vote since 2000, but at the same time the NDP and Liberals are both too strong for the anti-Tory vote here to simply coalesce around May. In fact, May running here just exacerbates this issue by providing the anti-Lunn vote with one more way to divide itself.

    This comment is not so much a comment about the weakness of Green politics in Canada (as popular support in Canada and Germany is roughly comparable, at least prior to recent German state elections), as it is about the fact that Green apologists should realize that their party is a joke from a organisational perspective and lacks the roots of the Big Three, and that for those reasons, they should not expect their leader to breeze through wherever she’s parachuted. Sadly (as I think May and her party have far more to offer Canadians than either the Liberals or the Tories), none of this will change until we see electoral reform in this country.

    That said, while I am a card-carrying New Democrat, I think the NDP shoots its own progressive ideals in the foot by running against strong Green candidates like May or against left-wing Bloc Quebecois MPs. A Quebec City, Louis-Hebert, riding held by labour activist (who had beaten a right-wing Liberal cabinet minister in 2004) fell to the Tories by fewer than 200 votes in 2006. The activist was a BQ incumbent and the New Democrat won 7,000 votes.

    Obviously, I’m not trying to compare a few islands off the coast of BC to Quebec; rather, I’m merely pointing out that left-leaning parties need to stop their obsession with running 308 candidates if they don’t want to keep needlessly handing ridings over to the Liberals and the Tories. There’s no need for a BQ candidate in Outremont, a Green candidate in Toronto Danforth or Trinity-Spadina, or a New Democrat in Louis-Hebert or Sannich-Gulf Islands.


    There’s obviously a lot more than I could go into here. My treatment of the Liberal Party and of anything before the 1980s is especially lacking, but I’m not sure it’s all that relevant to the point I’m trying to make. If you don’t understand brokerage parties, protest parties, and their relationship to one another and to the current political situation in Canada, you will never truly understand Canadian politics.

  5. FYI, Layton was only acting mayor of Toronto.

  1. Pingback: A Laosy election « Who rules where

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