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.