Time for a new political party

The only thing that can pull federal politics from its death spiral is a new option—a coalition of the serious

Time for a new party

Reuters; Photo illustration by Taylor Shute

It’s only March, but in Quebec the signs of a political spring are unmistakable. Decades of obsessing over the national question, it is now widely recognized, have stifled other debates, leaving the province’s politics frozen in time. The bitter federalist-separatist divide has only made more rigid the bipartisan consensus in favour of the “Quebec model,” forestalling action to trim the province’s bloated public sector, reduce its massive debts, or liberalize its constricted, underperforming economy.

And so the more disaffected among the province’s citizens, rather than endure this stagnation, have of late been attemping to break up the duopoly and crack open the debate, by means of a series of new parties and political movements: first the Action Démocratique du Québec, then Lucien Bouchard’s “lucides,” later the Réseau Liberté du Québec and now Francois Legault’s Coalition pour l’Avenir du Québec, all calling for a fundamental rethinking of the province’s social and economic policies. The CAQ’s inaugural manifesto struck many as disappointingly vague, but Quebecers’ openness to its broad aims was clear: a poll released last week showed the CAQ, a group that at present has neither platform nor candidates nor a leader, leading both the Liberals and the Parti Québécois.

Something similar is afoot in Alberta. Fed up with the big-spending, machine-politics conservatism of the province’s reining Conservatives, unhappy with the lacklustre alternative offered by the provincial Liberals and NDP, Alberta’s restless political culture has thrown up not one, not two, but three new parties in recent years: on the right, the Wildrose and Alberta Alliance parties, now merged as the Wildrose Alliance, and on the centre-left, the new Alberta Party. If an election were held tomorrow, the Wildrosers would have a decent shot at winning. At the very least, they have injected excitement and interest into the province’s politics, a sense of possibilities where none existed before, as the new political movements in Quebec have done.

Hmmm. A moribund political culture, dominated by two established parties that refuse to address the real problems confronting society, declining even to debate policies that are commonplace everywhere else. A nominally conservative governing party that has lost its way, willing to pursue any means to preserve itself in power, unchecked by an ineffectual Liberal opposition. Sound familiar?

Then why isn’t something similar happening at the federal level?

BY NOW it will have occurred to many people that there is something deeply sick about our national politics. It is not the ordinary eyewash that is a part of politics in all times and all countries. Nor is it the vitriolic rabble-rousing characteristic of politics in societies under stress, as in the United States at the moment, where there is nonetheless a robust and genuine clash of views on which course the country should adopt.
It is something worse: worse than it was, worse than elsewhere. And it is not going to get better. Politics in this country – federal politics, at least – is in a kind of death spiral, whose terminus is not dictatorship but irrelevance. It exudes a sense of anomie, a corrosive cynicism that is not just indifferent to principle but hostile to it.

Part of this is institutional: the decline of Parliament as a forum for debate, the weakness of our mechanisms of accountability, the utter meaninglessness of an MP’s life. The parties themselves are in long-run decline, attracting ever smaller numbers of voters – turnout fell to 59 per cent last election, will it sink below 50 per cent the next? – yet seemingly incapable of reforming themselves, still controlled by the same cliques, still hostage to the same interests, still tolerant of the same abuses as ever.

Which is to say that the problem is also cultural. It is learned behaviour, each party taking its cue from the other, each pushing through some new boundary of what had previously been unacceptable behaviour – the ease with which each has discarded the most iron-clad election pledges; the vicious attack ads and constant spin; to say nothing of more serious abuses such as lying to Parliament, defying its conventions, and even ignoring confidence votes – and each justifying its own trespasses in light of the other’s.

Now graft onto that long-term decline the particulars of our current situation: the end of the Liberal empire, the political dynasty that defined Canadian politics for a century; the series of minority Parliaments that followed, with the two major parties no longer able to command more than two-thirds of the vote between them; the consequent obsession with tactical victories and short-term gains amid the perpetual fever of election speculation.

And all this at a time when we are facing historic challenges: the continuing war around the world with fanatical Islamists; the crisis, in the preponderant scientific view, of global warming; and the fiscal calamity implied by the inexorable arithmetic of population aging. Yet as distressing as it is that there should be so little political debate or even interest in these large matters – issues where the best course of action is a matter of dispute among experts – what is more disturbing is how little connection there is between the policy and the political worlds even where a solid expert consensus does exist. That contempt for expertise is most overtly expressed by the Conservatives; but it is as prevalent, on other issues, among other parties.

Everybody knows, for example, that supply management in agriculture is indefensible, and has to go: a blight on consumers, an embarrassment in international trade negotiations. Yet not a single party is willing even to say so, let alone act. No informed observer thinks our health care system is sustainable in its present form. Yet the matter remains impermissible for politicians to discuss seriously, federally or provincially. Ditto Employment Insurance, or equalization, or the rest of the archipelago of federal-provincial transfers. A vast body of economic literature supports reforming the tax code, breaking up and privatizing state monopolies, ending corporate subsidies – policies that in other countries are part of the ordinary currency of political debate. Yet they are no longer even mentioned here.

There is simply no party that is willing to talk frankly about any of these, certainly not from a literate economic perspective. No party may be willing to deal seriously with the deficit, either, but at least they’re required, given our experience of recent decades, to say something about it. The same cannot be said across broad swaths of public policy.

THERE ARE two gaps in the current federal political landscape, then: one of political decency, and one of policy seriousness. The two are related. When substantive policy differences are suppressed, mere partisanship takes their place – and the more rigidly politics divides on party lines, the greater the control exercised by the party apparatus, and the less likelihood anything will change.

So we arrive at our current dilemma, a political scene resembling in remarkable detail the situations faced by Quebec and Alberta: closed to debate, uninterested in principle, driven by cynicism and tinged with corruption. The difference is: they did something about it. If the answer in those situations, where one or two parties had too tight a grip on the political marketplace, was to start a new party, why is that not the answer to the malaise of federal politics?

The idea is hardly unprecedented. It was in reponse to the perceived failure of either major party to deal with the social and economic needs of the day that the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, forerunner of the NDP, was founded in 1932. The same was true of the Reform party in its time. To be sure, neither party was able to expand sufficiently beyond its base – farmers and unionists in the CCF/NDP case, Westerners in Reform’s – to form a government. But both had enormous impact, through their influence on other parties.

To be sure, as well, it is more difficult to start a new party at the federal level than the provincial: the problems of distance, and of regional differences, are real. But difficult is not impossible. If there is sufficient public appetite for such a party – if the level of public discontent with the existing political choices is as great as it appears – and if a strong enough team could be assembled, there’s no reason it could not at least get off the ground.

And what is the alternative? If there were any prospect of the legacy parties reforming themselves, they would have done so by now. They are too wedded to existing interests, too steeped in traditional (at least as these traditions have now evolved) ways of doing things, too close to power, too risk averse. The culture of any organization, let alone one as tribal as a political party, is strongly path dependent: once it starts down a particular track, it is very hard to push it off it.

In particular, those die-hard Conservatives who still expect that, come the majority, whenever that is, the party will shed its free-spending, autocratic ways and reveal itself as the small-government, free-market, democratic reforming party of their dreams – in other words, that there really is a hidden agenda – should think again. That party no longer exists.

In any case, I do not think what is needed is an NDP of the right – in part because the sorts of policy challenges we face, and the answers required, cannot easily be filed into boxes marked “left” and “right.” The failure of any federal party, post Stéphane Dion’s Liberals, to deal seriously (read: carbon tax) with a climate change problem in which they all profess to believe is but one example. Rather, I envision such a party as a party of the centre, but of a redefined centre – not some mushy compromise based on half measures of everything, but drawing from left and right as appropriate, in full doses of each. That requires no more than that it represent the views of mainstream, orthodox economists, who are far less divided, and far less categorizable in conventional right-left terms, than is popularly supposed.

What is needed, in a sense, is a party with nothing to lose: new enough, and sufficiently free from interest-group obligations (those will come), as to be able to say what everybody knows to be true, to put on the table the policy choices the legacy parties would prefer to ignore, and force them to respond.
Likewise, what is needed is not some new or utopian vision of politics, but rather a reassertion of some fairly old-fashioned notions of how politicians should behave. The point is not to reinvent politics but to revive it. One should beware, of course, of falsely idealizing how politics used to be in this country, but one should equally steer clear of the lazy assumption that “it’s always been this way.” It hasn’t. It’s worse now. And it’s better – clearly, markedly better – elsewhere. Have a look at the British Parliament, and the men and women who lead that country, for an example.

THERE ARE men and women in this country of equal calibre. But they are either out of politics or are mired, hopelessly, within the legacy parties. They need to be brought together under the banner of grown-up politics, a coalition of the serious. (That lets out the Green party, which might once have fulfilled some of the purposes here described, but which seems to have succumbed to a case of terminal unseriousness.) At the very least, they could provide an example of what politics could be – and examples are powerful. With any luck, they might win a few seats, and really force the other parties to take notice. After that, who knows?

The opportunity for a fresh start may have to wait until after the next election. If the Liberals are in as much trouble as I expect, and if talk of coalition or even outright merger with the NDP becomes reality, there will be a number of right-leaning Liberals – the John Manleys, the Frank McKennas, who must find the party an inhospitable place as it is – with no political home. Yet no more so than whatever demoralized free marketers are left within the Conservative party. Is there enough between them to form a new political party?
A pipe dream? Perhaps. Have you got a better idea?

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