UBC's Richard Johnston on a polarizing political year

Richard Johnston, Canada research chair in public opinion, elections and representation at University of British Columbia, is a leading expert on how democracy works in Canada and abroad. He is co-author of 2007’s award-winning The End of Southern Exceptionalism: Class, Race, and Partisan Change in the Postwar South, and co-editor of  2005’s Strengthening Canadian Democracy, a collection of essays on democratic reform issues. Johnston spoke to Maclean’s this week about how the federal political landscape changed this year.

Q: It looks like 2011 might be remembered as a watershed year in Canadian politics. Do you see the May 2 election and its aftermath that way?

A: There’s a task of further consolidation of the coalitions for the Conservatives and the New Democrats, especially the NDP. But I would say the starting point is to realize that the fate of the Liberal party is no longer in the hands of the Liberal party. Superficially, at least, the system has now clicked into an orientation that would be pretty familiar to someone from Australia, New Zealand or the UK.

Q: What’s the significant of Canada’s party alignments looking more like those other Commonwealth, parliamentary democracies?

A: It is now sort of a simplified left-right system. Each of the two primary competitors has a real support base out in society. There’s a kind of natural basis for the debate between the two of them.

Q: More “natural” than the position the Liberals long occupied?

A: What was extraordinary about the Canadian system for many years was the domination of a party of the centre. That’s an unnatural thing. We need to ask ourselves how the Liberals kept it going for as long as they did. The answer has to be primarily that they were better at managing the Quebec file, however that was defined. For much of the twentieth century they were able to put 65 seats from Quebec on the table at the start of an election and dare everybody else to beat them.

Q: Why can’t they thrive without that base?

A: Well, the fate of parties of the centre in most systems is pretty dire.

Q: Assuming you’re right, and international patterns suggest the prospects of a Liberal revival look slim, what will change about our political life?

A: Part of what was distinctive about Liberal rule—precisely because the Liberals didn’t stand for a particular thing, apart from keeping the country together—was that they were more likely than a lot of governments around the world to actually look to expertise. So Royal Commissions, that sort of stuff. It was a great run for academics.

Q: As an academic yourself, you must feel a pang of regret then.

A: I remember being quite struck, oh, eight, nine years ago, being at a conference in Montreal on social cohesion and civil society. In conversation with academics from elsewhere, they said they loved coming to Canada because it seemed people could have rational discussion about these things. Well, I think that’s over.

Q: You mean because we’re more polarized?

A: The good news is that the two sides that now dominate debate start from somewhere. They know what they are about. That’s part of their political strength. But it also means they tend to dogmatism and pre-formulated solutions. They’re not as amendable to arguments from evidence as a party of the centre is likely to be.

Q: That sounds like a grim prognosis.

A: Polities that have evolved into an alternation of the left and right are not necessarily badly governed. It’s just that there’s a different tone. What may happen is if one party becomes dominant, as they get comfortable with that role, they may start to look to evidence more often. But it’s too early to say that in the Canadian case because we’re just into this novel situation.

Q: Is there any particular reason to doubt that the Liberals can rise again as a serious contender for power in a three-party system?

A: It’s never happened among the obvious comparators. Sometimes you get votes for the centre that are kind of a-plague-on-both-your-houses votes. So the recent rise of the Liberal Democrats in the UK was like that. But my hunch is we’ll look at the 2010 UK election was a blip on the screen. The Liberal Democrats must surely deeply regret going into coalition with the Conservatives, and I suspect at the next election they will pay the price.

Q: And you see the British Conservative and Labor parties as more enduring?

A: Labor itself almost broke up in the early Eighties. But the resilience of the old parties is pretty remarkable, and it can involve learning to be moderate. The recovery of Labor did involve moving to the centre.

Q: Let’s assume the Conservatives and NDP will dominate for some years to come. What does the electoral history of countries with long experience of this kind of left-right dynamic tell us we’re in for?

A: A lesson from the history of the comparator countries is that when it comes down to left vs. right as the primary axis of choice, the right usually trumps.

Q: By “comparator countries,” you mean those with something like our first-past-the-post system?

A: Yes. It’s as if the right plays a game of bluff with the people in the middle, and most of the time the people in the middle will fold and join the right. In proportional representation systems, the left does much better.

Q: We’ve been talking international comparisons. What about the provinces? Are there lessons there that might be applied at the federal level?

A: I think the template is British Columbia. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation’s early growth was in B.C., it wasn’t in the Prairies. The moment the CCF was formed, in the 1933 B.C. provincial election they had 31 per cent of the vote. We had a Liberal-Conservative coalition from 1941 to 1951, which formed precisely to block the CCF [predecessor of the NDP] from winning. So the NDP has been strong now for 80 years in this province and yet has governed for a grand total of 13 of those years. Now, that’s an extreme case.

Q: What about Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan?

A: Saskatchewan has now turned into a much more Alberta-like political economy. This era of Saskatchewan as a beacon for the left is over.  In Ontario, you’re talking about a four-year NDP interregnum under Bob Rae, in which they got 36 per cent of the popular vote—they were primarily a beneficiary of Meech Lake. So, for the NDP optimists, [the model] has to be Manitoba.

Q: You spoke about how Quebec was the centerpiece of Liberal electoral strategy for many years. Could it now become the same thing for the NDP?

A: They do have 59 of 75 seats. Those are the kind of numbers the Tories were able to turn in when they captured Quebec. The NDP have pushed the Liberals aside. One part of pushing the Liberals aside was their surge in Quebec in the polls leaking into the consciousness of voters elsewhere, primarily in Ontario, such that it gave the NDP about a dozen seats and the Conservatives about a dozen seats. Now, a further move to the NDP could transfer some of those seats from the Conservatives to the NDP, and I think that’s more likely than a transfer of seats back to the Liberals from the NDP.

Q: So they hold Quebec and pick up more seats in the rest of the country. Sounds good for the NDP.

A: But what’s the deal with that surge in Quebec? We still don’t really understand it. One could argue that Quebec is further to the left than the rest of the country, and the NDP has its historical opportunity to build links to Quebec’s civil society and labour movement, and detach those segments from the nationalist project and attach them to the social democratic project more squarely. But it strikes me that they could easily blow it.

Q: While we wait to see how the NDP leadership race plays out, and whether the new leader can consolidate those Quebec gains, how should we view the Conservatives?

A: It’s a critically different Conservative majority than the ones of the past. Less Quebec. There’s a sense in which they have an electoral coalition that’s more sustainable than in the past. But they are going to lose ground. To govern is to choose, and to choose is to lose friends. So they have to start thinking about where their hedges lie.

Q: Hedges against what risks?

A: Chances are some of the Toronto-area seats they picked off this time will be lost to the NDP next time. If the Liberals really are toast, it means some of those Liberal votes will go to the NDP in suburban Ontario. Some of those seats that were narrow victories for the Conservatives could easily go to the NDP.

Q: So Conservatives need to look for where they could make up those losses.

A: They only have a 12-seat majority, after all. Could they move into the federalist niche that the Liberals used to occupy in Quebec? The Liberals were holding onto at least a federalist rump in Quebec, as long as they were a credible alternative. I think this is a moment in Quebec politics in which Prime Minister Harper ought to consider making a play for that residual centre and right federalist vote in Quebec, which would buy him some insurance against what are inevitable losses of ground elsewhere in the country.

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