Over the past nine months or so the Centre Ice Canadians group has been holding a series of conferences aimed at rehabilitating the centre ground of Canadian politics – deserted territory, many believe, given the present direction of both the Liberal and Conservative parties. Now the organization’s leadership is considering whether to turn it into a political party in its own right. A decision is promised for September.
I was a participant in those conferences, as I thought this was a conversation worth having. If the movement is now to become a political party I’ll have to keep my distance. Still, it strikes me that there is room, in principle, for a new party in the Canadian political landscape – that we are not currently blessed, by some happy accident, with exactly the right number of parties in exactly the right configuration – and that there is a particular opening in the centre.
Of course that presupposes that we know what we mean by the centre, or why it matters that it is currently being neglected. Centrist parties tend to attract a fair degree of scorn from political sophisticates, to whom they appear as wandering naifs, unsure of what they believe in except their own superior virtue.
And in truth, if centrist is defined simply to mean a dogmatic determination to come up the middle on every issue, always splitting the difference between the two main parties but never taking a distinctive stand of one’s own – centrism for centrism’s sake – there would be some justice in that verdict. Who’s to say the middle is always right? Maybe the Liberals have it right half the time, and the Conservatives the other. Or maybe, on any given issue, one of the parties to the left or right of them does.
Or if, as is so often the case, the centre ground is defined as the status quo, a party that mindlessly aims for the centre would not really change much of anything.
But there’s another way to define centrism, less as a matter of positioning and more as a matter of temperament – moderation, in other words, and all that that implies: judgment, reflection, open-mindedness, level-headedness. And there are a set of positions and policies that would fit that description – that would offer a sensible, distinct and above all useful alternative to those on offer from the other parties.
These can be organized into three categories. The first would be what might be called rarefied common sense: policies that command a high degree of consensus among expert opinion, backed by a substantial body of evidence, but that for one reason or another – interest-group pressures, regional politics, the tyranny of the status quo – none of the established parties is willing to take on.
Free trade was once like that – universally supported by economists, absolute anathema to politicians – until the Mulroney government worked up the courage to embrace it. Now it’s the centre ground.
Some current examples would include ending corporate subsidies; abolishing supply management; opening our remaining protected enclaves in transportation, telecoms and financial services to foreign competition and foreign investment; and increasing defence spending in line with our NATO commitments.
If it were really bold, a new party might also advocate for reforming military procurement – to make defence readiness and value for money, not industrial strategy and regional development, its primary drivers. It might offer a serious plan to bring our public debt back to sustainable levels. It could reclaim the federal government’s historic role as the guarantor of minority rights.
And it could adopt a climate-change policy based almost entirely on the cheapest known means of reducing emissions, carbon pricing, rather than the costly subsidies and regulations that are the mainstay of every existing party’s program – yes, even the Liberals.
These are radical policies, but they are not extreme: They did not just suddenly occur to someone, nor are they nice ideas in theory that have been examined and rejected as unworkable in practice. On the contrary, they are almost tediously well-grounded, the subject of decades of research and advocacy. They just never get done.
A second category of policies for a centre party would represent a synthesis of left and right, achieving the objectives of the first by the means of the second, and vice versa. Such a party would, for example, seek to combat economic inequality, but without the use of quotas or legislated wages. It would take seriously the concerns of marginalized social groups, dismissed as “woke” on the right, while avoiding the excesses of the left.
It would protect universal health care that was publicly funded and free of charge at the point of care, while embracing competition and private providers within the system: a model known as “internal markets.”
It would argue not simply for tax cuts, but tax reform: lowering rates, yes, but broadening the base to pay for them, eliminating scores of tax credits, deductions and exemptions that are both inefficient, in that they distort economic decision-making, and unjust, in that it is mostly the rich who take advantage of them.
In all, it would be guided by what has been called the “social market” approach: one that is not afraid of intervening, where intervention is warranted, but that does so by “redistributing market results, rather than distorting market processes.” For example, it would guarantee a minimum income, in place of a minimum wage. It would fund daycare by providing cash to parents, rather than subsidies to daycare providers.
More broadly, it would insist that any redistribution of income be achieved openly and transparently, by means of the tax and transfer system, and not by fixing prices or wages; as such, it might be easier to ensure it was redistributed from rich to poor, and not from west to east, or city to country, or young to old, or any of the hundred other ways that governments now stealthily reapportion income.
And the third category? Nothing says a centre party could not freely borrow policies from the other parties, where it thought they had merit. Maybe the Liberals have the best approach to immigration. Maybe the Conservatives are better on national security. Maybe the NDP or, who knows, even the People’s Party (they’re the only party calling for ditching supply management) have something to contribute.
A centre party might differ with the other parties not on the merits of this or that policy, but on the ways in which these policies are currently packaged together. No, voters can’t pick policies à la carte: Parties exist for a reason. But there is no reason why these policies could not be packaged in a different way, in a way that arguably makes more sense – or at least expands the range of options on offer.
And there’s another niche a new party might fill. It might behave better. Its leaders might attempt to comport themselves with more dignity. They might avoid moronic oversimplifications, bad-faith arguments, calculated attempts to divide and inflame. They might talk to the public like adults, laying out the challenges that confront us and the trade-offs these imply.
We have been taught not to expect this, indeed to believe that such minimal standards of behaviour – none of the above requires either a saint or an Einstein – are not just unattainable, but inconceivable. Why? Because that’s all we have ever known? Then perhaps we are ready for something new.
Would such a party have a chance of winning? God, no. Certainly not in the short run; probably not even if it were to survive beyond that. This is perhaps the most important contribution it can make: It should not try.
Experience should have taught us that a party does not have to form a government to effect meaningful change. It does not even have to come close. It just has to be a threat to the other parties. The NDP has had enormous impact on Canadian public policy over the years, without ever winning power federally. The Reform Party in its day was equally influential. The Greens and the Bloc Québécois have also had an impact, for good or ill, as in its turn may the PPC.
Indeed, the more crowded the political spectrum has grown, the more contested each slice of the vote has become. A centrist party may start out, paradoxically, on the margin. But let it win even a few percentage points, in a few swing ridings, and it will be right in the thick of things.
(That would be even truer, of course, if we had a more proportional system of representation, rather than the present single-member, winner-take-all system. Ideally a new party would also champion electoral reform, if not on principle, then as a matter of self-interest.)
Probably it won’t even get that far. Probably it will go the way of most new parties. Its leaders will fall out, consumed by personal ambition and petty spats. Its candidates will be a motley collection of malcontents and single-issue zealots. Its platform will be a collection of meaningless bromides – “let’s do politics differently” – or irrelevant hobby horses. The media will ignore it, or laugh at it. Probably.
But maybe it won’t. Maybe people are tired of just voting for the lesser of five evils. Maybe they’re ready for a grown-up party, that treats them like grown-ups. Maybe a new party, without the accumulated baggage of the old-line parties, can start fresh, take chances, represent the unrepresented – and redefine the centre ground. Maybe.
We’ll see. I hope the Centre Ice leadership decides to take the plunge. If so, I will be the first to congratulate them – and, I am sure, the first to find fault with the result.