Will Canadian politics turn more polarized? - Macleans.ca

Will Canadian politics turn more polarized?

The gravitational pull of the Liberals toward the middle is gone


One of the big questions arising from the Liberal party’s ghastly result in Monday’s election is whether it might mean Canadian politics is about to enter a period of more pronounced polarization.

That’s at least a possibility. By so successfully occupying the centre of the ideological spectrum for so long, the Liberals often forced their adversaries to come to them. Now, that gravitational pull toward the middle is gone.

The Liberals’ brand of centrist politics was often derided as mere muddled thinking. Where to slot Jean Chrétien, for instance? His little-guy persona and social-justice rhetoric often made him sound like a left Liberal.  But he was mentored early on by Mitchell Sharp, a business-oriented Grit who pushed back in the 1960s against economic nationalism. True to his teacher, Chrétien’s deficit-fighting discipline in the mid-1990s wasn’t softened unduly by sentiment about social programs.

It was maddening to his opponents that Chétien, like other winning Liberals, sprawled across so much ideological real estate. If they could seem mushy and opportunistic, they also looked adaptable and ingenious. At least they weren’t hidebound or doctrinaire.

The U.S. and UK comparisons make one wonder which way Canada might now trend.

British politics has for two decades tended toward less ideologically stark choices than of old. The moderating shift started with Margaret Thatcher’s resignation in 1990, and accelerated when Tony Blair began diluting Labour’s lefty heritage in 1997. Interestingly, over about the same period, U.S. politics has go the opposite way, growing more stridently ideological and partisan, mainly on the Republican right, leaving less room in Washington for centre-straddling moderates.

There’s no question that many Conservatives and New Democrats are much more easily defined in ideological terms than are most Liberals. Those tendencies might be given freer expression now that the Liberals are, at least for a while, vanquished.

On the other hand, Stephen Harper won power and Jack Layton gained ground precisely by restraining those elements in their ranks. Maybe they’ll spend the next four years in a disciplined effort to permanently claim the bigger share of what was Liberal turf, rather than squaring off from more clearly delineated right and left corners.

As for the Liberals, they have to hope the other parties now revert to ideological form, leaving the centre to be recaptured. To me, the most puzzling thing about the Liberal party’s decline over the past four elections was their inability to accentuate and capitalize on what looked like an invaluable underlying brand strength: the ability to claim to represent a comfortable compromise.

Instead, Paul Martin desperately wanted to talk about big ideas; Stéphane Dion actually presented a daring policy vision; Michael Ignatieff seemed like the sort of guy who would be bold and inspiring. Maybe what the Liberals need now is the opposite of all that: a leader who seems as middle-of-the-road as the party once was.


Will Canadian politics turn more polarized?

  1. "By so successfully occupying the centre of the ideological spectrum for so long, the Liberals often forced their adversaries to come to them. Now, that gravitational pull toward the middle is gone."

    I think this is ass backwards, Geddes.

    1) Gravitational pull not gone, it is known as voters or electorate. If Canada is midlle of road as everyone here likes to claim, than Con and NDP will move to middle because both sides quite like the view from where they are sitting at the moment and would like to remain. There will be fewer 'punish the capitalist running dog' type policies once Layton starts to watch himself on nightly news leading off Question Period.

    2) Liberals forced parties away from centre because Cons and NDP needed to differentiate themselves. Instead of one party state imposing centrist policies, we have two party state that need to attract voters.

  2. Although it is instructive to look at what happened in other countries to see what could happen in Canada in the future, could we also not look at what happened elsewhere in Canada, at the provincial level for instance. The Liberal party became irrelevant at the provincial level in Manitoba in 1969-1970 when it was replaced by a the New Democrats who got to form a government thanks to the help of the Liberal St Boniface MLA Laurent Desjardins. What happened over time was that the Manitoba NDP became less ideological (after creating a public auto insurance crown corporation and giving it a monopoly which it still holds), to such a point that the Doer NDP government was close to being a Progressive-Conservative government. And so in Manitoba today, you have the Centrer-left liberal which form the NDP and the Center-right which form the Progressive-Conservatives. And it is the suburban seats that decide which will form government. Of course, every so often, both parties do something a bit silly that seem inspired by ideology: the Filmon PC government by privatising Manitoba Telephone System, and the Doer/Selinger NDP governments telling Hydro to build their new transmission line west of lake Winnipeg at a cost of several additional billions of dollars so as to protect a part of the Boreal forest. Power may tend to corrupt; it also seems to take the edge off of ideologies.

  3. I think "sprawling across so much ideological real estate" is apt. The Liberal Party didn't hold the center, they held positions across the ideological spectrum that turned out to be centrist only in the aggregate of all these different policies.

    The Liberal Party under Martin, Ignatieff and Dion actually moved to the center on every issue, and that's why they got torn apart.

  4. The argument that a two-party system will be polarising doesn't seem very solid. We have two party systems in most of Canada's provinces, often with the NDP forming government. In the UK, politics was only "polarised" after the Falklands war when Conservative "wets" had less influence over Thatcher and the Labour party took a turn for total lunacy, helped along by radical union leaders like Scargill. Before that, the Conservatives and Labour were quite similar. By the end of Thatcher's run, John Major and the "wets" had risen again, Labour had recovered and the two parties had become quite similar again.

  5. The Chretien Liberals were fairly right wing with a few feints and some lip service in other directions.

  6. The Liberals have a middle-of-the-road leader; their problem is that he is at Queen's Park.

  7. For once I can honestly say we completely and utterly agree with no caveats.

    The majority of Canadians are centrists, and speaking from the perspective of my own province Ontario: We like our governments boring, thank you very much. Do a good job and otherwise don't make me think about you too much.

    After all, I may eat sausages every sunday morning, but I sure as hell don't want to see how they're made! LOL

  8. And the rightwing would say they were fairly leftwing with a few feints to the right.

    Thus the center. LOL

  9. One has to ask though, how much more polarized could things get compared to the past five years?

    If anything, in their search for the majority center vote, both parties are likely to get less polarized than they've been.

    That said, I have serious doubts about the NDP ever moving right enough to win a majority.

    They're fightning 50 years of their own history as heavy spending socialists after all, and were barely able to run 308 candidates, the quality of which is certainly wanting. They're going to face intense scrutiny as the only viable opposition, while most of their MPs are from Quebec, so they're going to have to seriously change their issue focus to reflect that. That's a steep bloody learning curve if I ever saw one, and Quebec voters are not very forgiving. They've got this one term to get it right in my opinion.

    • Although they've never had a chance ot implement anything at the Federal level, most of their platofrms have been based on tax plans not out of step with the Martin ear, and trying to find a single populist finanical issue the others won't touch (this has been, in order, capping bank fees, subsidizing heating bills, and capping credit card interest). Their big difference between the other parties isn'tleft or right, they appear to be slightly more regulatory.

      • Raising corporate taxes by 6% is not really consistent with the Martin era.

        • I believe the NDP's plan was to raise the rate to 19% – 2 points lower than the lowest rate under Martin.

  10. I wouldn't rule out a return of the Liberal Party, especially if they finally get off their rears and start rebuilding. The lack of focus on them for a few years is probably a plus.

    In fact sometimes I wonder if this minority situation didn't seriously contribute their decaying state.

    If Harper had won a majority earlier, they could've counted on a few years of down time, instead of having to focus on the next possible election and putting up the pretense of being ready for it.

    To me that explains their obsession with finding "the right leader" more than any other single factor. They didn't want to risk looking weak, which they were, and the time they should've spent rebuilding was wasted, undermining them further.

    That said, they've still got the machinery of a national alternative, the branding in the minds of Canadians and a few years to work it out.

    The only thing left is to hope the NDP can't climb the incredibly steep learning curve they're facing over the next couple years and there's hope for Liberals on that score too, given that the NDP is the only opposition. All the focus is going to be on them, at a time when they need to learn and grow stronger too.

    • This is why I'm not too displeased with their majority. It's win-win for a centrist like me:

      It gives us 4.5 years for the Liberals to rebuild, after being thoroughly convinced of the need. The Tories either stay in the centre and implement policies amenable to me and disappoint their base, or they appease their base and alienate centrists, opening a gap for the Liberals in many areas. I think they'll go with the former option. As long as the Liberal Party lives, they can't afford to tack right. Good reason to keep the Libs around, if nothing else!

      • I also don't think that the Conservatives in the west are all that far to the right as you think.

        Even the religious right in Canada is made up largely of Catholics and mainline protestants. We aren't the American South which is dominated by non-denominational evangelicals.

        Now urban conservatives on the other hand…

    • "The only thing left is to hope the NDP can't climb the incredibly steep learning curve they're facing over the next couple years and there's hope for Liberals on that score too, given that the NDP is the only opposition"
      And the learning curve can be done given four years time although it would be tougher in a minority situation. Essentially, while a Liberal revival is possible, it is up to the other parties to mess up whereas if they had at least a decent showing in this election, their fate would still be in their own hands.

  11. And Ontario is an interesting example. The Liberal party is pretty damned strong at the provincial level. They may lose in October, but they aren't going away any time soon. If they lose then, you might see a bunch of top-flight Liberal MPPs jump into the federal Liberal party, a little like how the Harrisite refugees moved to the federal Conservatives after their rout in 2003. People may want to save their eulogies for the federal Liberals while the Ontario party still breathes.

    • That's an interesting point. Especially since David McGuinty's brother is already in the House of Commons.

      • You mean Dalton's brother…

    • Indeed. I personally think that if McGuinty, against all odds, wins a third election this fall, leadership of the federal party will be his for the asking — if he wants it.

  12. The Liberal party will only provide ideas for the left-NDP and the right-CPC. They will not be able to define a center. So yes we will be polarized for a long time to come. The only space for a party would be left of a center moving NDP.

  13. It has always been polarized between between the doers and the takers. To borrow Kennedy's speech; "Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country.", sadly the mentality of demanding "what the country can do for them" has been institutionalized here in Canada.

    For journalists to just notice it happening after this election, just tells me how blind and less intuitive and perceptive many of them are. No wonder they are so blindsided and surprised by the results.

    • I can agree that you should be willing to contribute to your country, but I wouldn't take it as far as "ask not". After all, the state is there to serve you, not so that you can fall into line and take orders from the state. I don't elect political leaders to lead me into a better tomorrow, but to seem my concerns and desires addressed by public policy.

      • No one likes to take orders from anyone more specially from the state; that has never been my argument. I doubt Jack Kennedy had that in mind either when he gave that speech. The more a person expects and depends on government to serve his/her every individual desires and concerns, it is like giving the government the key and license to intrude/stepped on one's rights and personal freedom. A government can not and should not be anyone to everyone. It is not meant to be there to serve every individual's desire and concern. It should be there to make policies and laws to govern society fairly. It can only facilitate programs/policies to make the economic environment attractive so citizens have the chance to serve and meet his/her own needs and desires legitimately, without infringing on the rights and safety of others. It can also facilitate and provide programs which help those who are physically and mentally unable to fend for themselves. However, it should not be in the business of perpetually providing and institutionalizing dependency for individuals who have control of their limbs and minds, as this robs those who are most in need of these limited resources.

        • Jack Kennedy?

          • My apolody for using John F. Kennedy's nickname.

    • "It will be a Just Society," said Trudeau. Those six little words captured me, and I was his forever. To me a government of a country is not just a technocratic management to keep things on an even keel, but is a Vision that can inspire a population to pull together and strive to improve, even strive to perfect society. It is more important to me that I should see where the government wishes to lead us, than to get a list of tawdry promises to cater to specific market segments of the electorate.

      It seems to me that JFK's admonition was aimed at this idealistic dream of a better society.

      It also seems to me that it is precisely this call that appeals to the youth of a country. They are idealistic and filled with fervent passion which we old fogeys have lost or had beaten out of us. It is a youthful call to arms (not weapons) and it is something that makes a country youthful and appealing, hopeful and passionate. "The shining city on a hill."

      I don't care about tax breaks for installing a high efficiency furnace. Well, I do actually, but never mind that for now. What I do care about is that the society I live in has a compassionate heart for the poor, the sick, the unlovely. That there is not a great impassible divide between rich and poor. That justice is truly blind and even-handed. That great Persons and great Corporations do not tread small people into the ground, and that Canadians do not freeze to death in bus shelters.

      I don't care much about the "left" and the "right" as they are not far apart in Canada – it's like that episode of Star Trek in which a race seemed to be fighting against itself … and Kirk could not understand what the enmity was based upon. Finally one of the locals said, "But they are white on the right and black on the left, whereas we are white on the left and black on the right." Exactly so.

      I want a country I can be loyal to and proud of. You cannot be proud of tax regimes. You can be proud of the IDEA of a country. You can be loyal to it. I look at the Americans, and though I do despise the hyperbole of their politics, I admire their pride in their concept of America. I want Canada to be real, just, truthful, caring and pragmatic.

  14. Campaign from the left, govern from the right, wasn't that the old mantra?

  15. If NS serves as any kind of example (it rarely does),there are three viable parties. The Liberals
    and PCs gathered some baggage of incompetence and minor corruption over the years, so when
    the NDP moved gently toward Red Tory territory they were rewarded with a majority … and ,as is a
    common pattern, are trying to get the hard things done in the first two years. We'll see.

  16. I read an interesting viewpoint today. Forget who wrote it. But they said that in recent elections, Canadians have been less interested in the broad social objectives or nation-building, and a lot more interested in how the government of choice will affect their wallets. Both the NDP and Conservatives capitalized on this with their platforms. The Liberals tried a little, what with their learning passport, but they still focused much of their efforts on appealing to broad, lofty concepts like "democracy" and "community".

    I know most people assume this election was not about policy. But that would be a mistake. While the policies on offer might be a lot more vacuous and facile than they used to be, they are targeted at specific voters like never before. Many voters are interested in policy, particularly as to how they perceive it will affect their wallet, and will vote in a very self-interested fashion. This applies across the political spectrum. This is why Harper and Layton repeat the word "families" and "working Canadians" ad nauseum. Their policies – regardless of how meaningless and ornamental (the fitness tax credit comes to mind – *barf*) – are designed to appeal to very specific demographics.

  17. The liberals are not centrist – they are left-leaning.

    This is why the conservatives got the majority that they did. I don't agree with a lot of what the conservatives say – however, being truly centrist leaning very slightly to the right (according to the CBC ideology test: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canadavotes2011/v… I have no choice but to vote for them. The liberals are actually quite far to the left.

    The issue is not that the liberals are centrist – but rather pretend to be centrist while pretty much claiming the same space as the NDP and Green Party. The centrist right have nowhere to go except the conservatives. Meanwhile, the NDPs define themselves better on the left.

    Canada needs a truly centrist party.

    • The last time they had a majority, they reduced a deficit at the expense of destroying social programs, a feat that is nearly unequaled by any party in the Western world. Many right wing parties around the world can only dream of doing what the Liberals did. During that period they were one of the staunchest free-trade parties in the world, they were brokering trade with anyone and everyone.
      They have lots of token left-wing policies ( a good word in for minority rights which of course its quite cheap) but the larger drift of their party was solidly to the right for the past two decades. Its amazing that the NDP took so long to capture the neglected centre left.

  18. The Liberals weren't centrist, they were pragmatic – there is a difference. They moved in whatever ideological direction would handicap rising threats. After WWII that meant embracing the welfare state. In the 90s that meant attacking the deficit. Moreover, there are many important questions in Canadian politics that do not fall on left-right lines. Federalism is the best example – and it was one on which the Liberals were generally extreme centralizers, while the other parties supported more decentralization of power.

    We do not need a centrist party in order to prevent ideological polarization – in fact the absence of the Liberals opens up the centre for both the Tories and NDP. Whichever of the two is best able to occupy that ground will become Canada's natural governing party. Some may say "ah, but the US is very polarized", and they would be correct. However, US polarization is a more recent phenomena, originating around the 1970s with the advent of primaries and the end of the Southern Democrats. The US has been a two-party system for much longer than that.

  19. One final stop at this liberal cesspool to say my final farewell to all you ner-do-well Liberals who are sup[porting a losing cause. As I have said so many times on this site, Liberalism as an ideology is dead in Canada. Have fun with your next 15 years searching for a new ideology. The country will see 3 consecutive conservative majorities before the left even has a chance to form government.

    • I can’t imagine anyone being more out of touch than yourself!

      Liberals are not dead; however more than slightly wounded.  If the NDs find a center ground they will find a home for Liberals who were betrayed by the right stance of the Libs prior to the last election.   Voters could not forgive them.

      We heard Ray saying parties can only survive now if they do not follow party lines rather, see k the populace vote.

      I say to him a bit of openness and honesty with the rank and file would have saved their part y. 

      As far as a Conservative Majority goes, when Canadians get a taste of the pain that Harper and his crew are about to hand down I suggest they won’t even be able to form an opposition.
      Canadians, totally afraid of the NDP extreme stances opted for a Conservative vote as the lesser of two evils.  They didn’t agree with the agenda as the Conservatives are now saying.

  20. "More pronounced polarization"? How is that possible? Has Geddes not read the terms in which conservative politicians and people have been described the past few years? A lot of people have either forgotten that it is customary for different parties to hold majority governments or have decided they managed to grow the prize to such heights that is is now impermissible to share it.

  21. The assertion that the "Liberals" are, or were a centrist party is a myth, a myth that has been dutifully sold to an unsuspecting public for about 40 years. Surely, changing the flag, spending 100's of billions on "bilingualism" or dividing Canadians into ethnic ghettos disguised as "multiculturalism" while provoking and maintaining separatist causes, destroying, distorting, and denying Canada's real history and traditions, plunging the country unnecessarily into massive unsustainable debt would not normally be described as… centrist. Revolutionary, extremism, radicalism, maybe, but certainly not… centrist.

  22. Check out Centrist Party of Canada on facebook and help create a new party that is centre to centre-right. Since Canada has no moderate conservative party I feel it is needed now more than ever. The party would try to especially attract those in the centre who are red tories and blue liberals who are dissatisfied with both the two major parties. I feel if we followed the traditions of moderate conservative parties around the world the party would be successful.

  23. Check out Centrist Party of Canada on facebook and help create a new party that is centre to centre-right. Since Canada has no moderate conservative party I feel it is needed now more than ever. The party would try to especially attract those in the centre who are red tories and blue liberals who are dissatisfied with both the two major parties. I feel if we followed the traditions of moderate conservative parties around the world the party would be successful.

    The party would try to grow the economy using moderate tax cuts, and it would focus on growing the middle class as well. The party would be centre to centre-right and would want a moderate social safety net, protecting health and education for the most vulnerable and all Canadians and for making sure our social programs are there for future generations.

    That is something moderate conservatives, one nation conservatives and those in the centre we believe most people would want.

    Thank you and remember the site to find out more about the party is on facebook and the name of the party is called the Centrist Party of Canada. Centrism does not have to end but if parties focus on certain areas then it is not death but they need to adapt.

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  25. Jack did well for his party!~ Whether or not he can find a center spot for the party remains to be seen.  If he can, there is a bright future for them.