Sometime over the holiday season some of us probably played Jenga. The concept of the game is simple – take a fixed number of bricks and build a tower. You can quickly build a strong foundation, but as you get higher you have to carefully remove bricks from lower levels to increase the height of the structure until it topples over. The past year – and moving into 2014 – is turning into a Jenga moment in Canadian federal politics.
The past year saw a number of events that point to rising frustration with our party system. And they have a common thread – the tension between the desire of representation versus the drive for partisan discipline. All parties have been affected by this in one form or another.
The Conservative Party of Canada was likely hit the hardest by this tension. This is not surprising for a party that has been in power for almost eight years, an uneasy mix of moderate conservatives and former Reform Party members, and under the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
June saw the resignation of backbencher Brent Rathgerber over a transparency bill (C461). He was blunt in his departure referring to members of caucus as “trained seals” under direction of the Prime Minister’s Office. After a rough by-election in Brandon-Souris in November, backbencher Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills) introduced The Reform Act with three pillars “to strengthen Parliament by proposing to restore local control over party nominations, strengthen caucus as a decision-making body and reinforce the accountability of party leaders to caucuses.”
Things got even odder in December when MP Stephen Woodworth introduced a petition for proportional representation to Parliament.
Further, a recent spat between ministers Jim Flaherty and Jason Kenney over Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s problems highlighted a emerging problem with their partisan base – Mr. Flaherty and his commitment to Mr. Ford versus Mr. Kenney’s desire to maintain and build upon the goodwill and equity he created in the Greater Toronto Area that was instrumental in delivering the Conservatives’ majority in 2011. This is another dimension of this partisanship-representation tension – when appealing to your core support is in conflict with maintaining credibility and growing voter affinity with a party’s brand.
The New Democrats also had their own issues. While Thomas Mulcair’s performance in The House since summer has been stellar, polling indicates that the benefit associated with the Conservative’s Senate-related strife from centrist voters has mostly gone to the Liberals. The recent defection of Bruce Hyer (Thunder Bay) to the Green Party reinforces another dimension of this partisan/representation conundrum. As he broke with party policy in voting to scrap the long gun registry, his motivation to move to the Greens was that “they’re the only federal political party that not only accepts but values democratic representation. The party does not and will not force their members to vote against the wishes of their constituents.”
Justin Trudeau and the Liberals were also not immune from this phenomenon. While riding the roller coaster in the polls all year, Mr. Trudeau’s leadership strategy has been perplexing – from photo opportunities, disclosure of marijuana use to taking Jack Layton’s words to frame the Liberals as the party of hope. Mr. Trudeau’s meandering may likely be intentional – he has to balance the interests of the most partisan faithful, many of whom feel that they, even now with 36 seats, are still Canada’s “natural governing party,” against his need to redefine the Liberal brand and inspire support and reaffirm the party’s place with the electorate. While many Liberals feel that with their improved position in opinion polls there is strong equity in the brand, the party caucus recently approved the “Bolstering Canada’s Democracy” for vote at the Montreal convention next year. The resolution’s first two statements go straight to this conflict of partisanship versus representation: “Whereas a healthy democracy depends upon an informed and engaged electorate, and many Canadians are concerned about declining voter turnout levels”; and “Whereas Canadians want their elected Members of Parliament to be effective and responsible voices for their communities in Ottawa, and not merely automatic mouthpieces back home in their communities for an all-too-powerful Prime Minister.” Even Liberal Party members recognize that partisan politics are affecting the electorate’s motivation to vote.
With parties preparing for the fixed-date October, 2015, election, this tension will become more amplified. The Conservatives would love to have more members like Joan Crockatt, who was more than happy to embrace her role as a backbencher and support the Prime Minister’s agenda. However, at present, Parliament is exhibiting the worst of partisan politics, and hit an all-time low this November with the antics of Paul Calandra. Federal parties are clearly sensing that their demands for partisanship – from candidate nominations to “whipped” votes – are turning off a growing share of the Canadian electorate.
This partisanship/representation tension will be amplified in 2014. Those who are able to best elevate representation over party loyalty, simultaneously with alignment to their brand and values, could return bricks to their base and strengthen their foundation for 2015. While unrealistic and in contravention of our party system, the payoff could be to reconnect with Canada’s underserved centrist voters who are hungry for representation over blind partisanship.
Brian Singh, the president of Zinc Research, is a political consultant based in Calgary.