Jonathan Malloy is the Bell Chair in Canadian Parliamentary Democracy at Carleton University.
Popular culture seems to be caught in the throes of repetitive, circular narratives. Prequels, sequels and remakes abound in Hollywood; reunion tours and reliable reruns dominate music and TV. But the 2019 election is serving as a striking example of how everything old can be new again. And Canadian politics seem set to feature the same tired storylines, too.
A Liberal government is trying to move past a major scandal, but has left in its wake an accompanying perception of arrogance and entitlement. A Conservative Party is working to reach for issues and ideas that go beyond the obvious low-hanging fruit. The New Democratic Party is struggling to articulate why a third party is valuable and relevant. The events themselves change, but the images of these organizations have become so hardened that it feels like we’re in a time loop.
How have we gotten here? The answer, in part, lies in the history of each party and the way they’re structured. But it’s also about how the parties relate to each other in the election-season face-off. Parties alternately enjoy and fall victim to their time-tested brands, but those only become reinforced by the party systems of the time – and on that front, Canadian politics is looking like another familiar script.
Party systems, as defined by political scientists, are the shape by which the full array of parties compete and adapt to each other, and the common themes and factors that animate the arrangement. Canada went through three distinct national party systems in the past. One began in 1867 and stretched to about 1921, a period that saw a traditional two-way struggle between the Liberals and Conservatives, heavily greased by patronage and local quirks. The arrival of new Western Canadian protest parties, first the Progressives and later the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and Social Credit, heralded a second system, from the 1920s to the 1960s. A third-party system then emerged with three perennial contenders: the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, and New Democrats (and the last gasps of Social Credit).
That system fell apart in 1993, with the collapse of the Progressive Conservatives and the surge of the Bloc Québécois and Reform Party, and for the next 20 years, political scientists worked to identify the fourth Canadian party system. But every few years, things shifted. In 1997 and 2000, we seemed headed to a permanent five-party system. Then it was a four-party system, seemingly leading to permanent minority governments. That went out the door with the 2011 election and the surge of the NDP to second place, briefly suggesting a total realignment and the potential demise of the Liberals – a long-anticipated fall, given that it has no counterpart in the Anglo-American world, where a clear polarization between two major parties of the left and the right is the dominant party system.
But 2015 saw, in many ways, a restoration to something that looked an awful lot like the pre-1993 third system. A Liberal government formed the centre of gravity, around which the other parties revolve and respond, with a Conservative opposition and an NDP in a respectable third. While the Bloc Québécois and Greens are in Parliament as well – along with Maxime Bernier under the People’s Party banner – the Canadian ballot looks a lot like it did in the late 20th century.
This familiar party system only highlights how old narratives about these political parties become all the more reliable. While political parties do have parts that are nimble and entrepreneurial, these machines are ultimately creaky, cranking beasts that lurch and lumber through parliamentary sessions, with a distinctive brand that is difficult to shake. Parties and their leaders are encumbered and shaped by their histories and internal and external expectations. Even if there have been some unexpected twists at times, each occupies a distinct space in the Canadian political system. And each is prone to following its past patterns and pathologies.
Let’s start with the Liberals, for whom the image of a government plagued by a corruption scandal is not new. Many will remember the sponsorship scandal of the Chrétien-Martin government in the early 2000s, which revolved around a long-term scheme that siphoned government funds into Liberal-connected pockets. Revelations of the affair crippled the party in the 2004 election, and the subsequent Gomery inquiry led to almost a decade spent in the wilderness, starting in 2006.
In contrast, the Conservatives (and their Progressive Conservative predecessors) have often been left sassembling the leftovers from those disgruntled with the Liberal Party. As a coalition of the unhappy, the party is consequently always better at articulating what it is against, rather than what it is for. Conservatives also decry Liberal influence in public institutions, but much of this stems from their own suspicious nature; because they never quite trust the institutional establishment, the establishment is reluctant to trust them in return.The government invoked closure to ram the necessary legislation through Parliament, before even introducing the bill itself – an unprecedented act, at the time – and the resulting “pipeline debate” was enormously damaging for the government, which fell the next year.
The pipeline issue was led and directed expressly from the top. It was about public policy, rather than explicitly about lining pockets. And it embodied the modern stand-by attack on the Liberals: that they were arrogant and impatient, and seemingly convinced of their own rightness in conjoining the interests of a private firm with the public interest.
Sixty years apart, both the pipeline debate and SNC-Lavalin affair speak to the Achilles heel of the Liberal Party of Canada: its excessive comfort with the levers of power and power establishment in this country, and its resulting blind self-righteous belief that it always knows best for Canada. In both cases, the government blundered into a huge problem without realizing, until far too late, that they were doing anything wrong. Only in retrospect, if at all, did they realize just how bad it looked from outside, and ultimately that they may have been in error. And even then, the party struggled to apologize to the country and make amends.
The Liberals’ comfort with power isn’t entirely bad – and in fact, it’s the inherent flipside of what essentially makes the Liberals the party that they are. The Liberals know how to govern and to use the public service rather than being suspicious of it, which in turn strengthens further the links between the two. It knows the best place from which to retain power is in the middle, and so the Liberal Party has prospered by straddling the centre and cramming in as much as it can under its big tent.
In contrast, the Conservatives (and their Progressive Conservative predecessors) are forced to assemble iterations of the party out of leftovers – from those disgruntled with the Liberal Party. As a coalition of the unhappy, the party is consequently always better at articulating what it is against, rather than what it is for. Conservatives also decry Liberal influence in public institutions, but much of this stems from their own suspicious nature; because they never quite trust the institutional establishment, the establishment is reluctant to trust them in return.
Historically, it has also been more unstable. Brian Mulroney assembled a coalition of Western Canadians and Quebec nationalists to win a massive national victory in 1984, but the challenge of keeping this unholy alliance together led to tremendous strains that eventually doomed the entire party. The retooled Conservative Party under Stephen Harper avoided this tendency toward implosion by eschewing the traditional strategy of allowing anyone into the Conservative tent as long as they weren’t a Liberal. The Conservatives instead chose a more disciplined approach and were not afraid to give up on unlikely prospects such as urbanites, environmentalists and intellectuals.
Andrew Scheer has largely copied Mr. Harper’s smaller-tent approach. But it is not a growth strategy. Rather, it depends on Liberal missteps more than anything the Conservatives themselves do. And this is the longstanding pathology of the Conservative Party – its historic role as a permanent opposition party, keeping the style even when in government. It frames itself constantly against the hated Liberals, and hopes public resentment with their arrogance boils over to their benefit. The party easily grasps the low-hanging fruit of scandal, entitlement and regional grievances – especially in the West – that seem to bloom perennially from the Liberals. But that makes it harder to articulate a vision that shows why they would be better in power.
Then there is the NDP, a party in permanent identity crisis. Identity crises are common in modern social democratic parties – look at the current unrest in the British Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. But identity crises are especially bad for the NDP because the Canadian party system has been cruel to the party. It struggles to own sufficient space on the progressive left against, again, the Liberals.
With the Liberals sucking up so much of the oxygen on the centre-left of Canadian politics, the NDP keeps trying new approaches. And success is always relative for the NDP. Historically, it has been most successful in times of minority government, when the party can swing deals to prop up governments, as it did at various points from the 1960s to the 2000s. But running deliberately for third place is not very fun, and again dependent on the other parties. It is hard to craft into winning messages and there are many ways for this to go wrong. Witness the reaction when Jagmeet Singh said he would never prop up a Conservative government, implying that the party was not going to form government itself.
Under Ed Broadbent in the 1970s and 1980s, the party played a comfortable role as the respectable third-place party, playing familiar ideological tunes but avoiding anything too edgy. But in the 1990s, the NDP struggled to articulate its relevance to moderates and radicals alike, and had a bad run from 1993 to the mid-2000s, only once winning more than 20 seats. Compared to that period, the current NDP is actually not in bad shape; its much-maligned showing in the 2015 election actually produced the second-most seats it had ever won.
Like the Conservatives, the NDP’s fate revolves around the Liberals, though more on matters of policy. The NDP’s more moderate platform in 2015 allowed it to be outflanked on the left, an opportunity created by the Liberals’ flexible centrism and their long history of holding the country’s progressive vote. They also chose Mr. Singh as leader in part because the party felt it needed to create its own young, energetic, progressive icon to match Mr. Trudeau, even though this is no longer a strategic concern.
Can any of this change? Are Canadian political parties destined to always follow the same paths, revolving around the Liberals’ decisions?
The answer is that they continually try, individually, to articulate new stories for themselves. But to truly do so, the system as a whole would have to change and realign. As much as they would like to completely control their own fate and scope of action, each party must operate in relation to each other. They compete for voters’ attention, to keep each other off-balance, to steal groups and blocs from each other’s tent, and to wield the old stories against them, to try to keep them stuck in place. And they must fend off smaller parties such as the Greens, the People’s Party, and the Bloc Québécois.
Things do realign from time to time. The Liberals receive humblings and come back renewed, only to fall back into the trap of arrogance. And from 1993 to 2015, the entire system was caught in a continuous loop of renewal, before resetting back largely where it started. But barring some major breakthrough by the smaller parties, this current election is unlikely to usher in a change in the overall party system – or an end to the dominant position of the Liberals within it, win or lose.
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