Political Perspectives is produced by the students and faculty of Carleton University's School of Journalism and Communication, Canada's oldest journalism school.


Liberal convention post-script

Posted by padams under All

Paul Adams

Something that occurred to me only after the Liberal convention ended was how there had been absolutely no discussion — at least within my earshot — of the realities of the five-party system that we have in Canada today.

Between 1993 and 2000, the Liberals were able to win majorities on the cheap because one of the main features of the fractured party system was a division on the right between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform/Alliance. In 1997, the Liberal majority was achieved with just 38.5% of the popular vote. Stephen Harper fell less than one percentage point short of that mark in 2008, but came more than 20 seats short of a majority.

After the two parties of the right united as the current Conservative Party, and the Greens appeared as a significant force (in terms of votes if not seats), the party arithmetic shifted. With the Conservatives now being able to claim something in the order of 30% of Canadians as their “core” support and the Bloc Québécois likely being able to claim a large share of Quebec seats for the foreseeable future, it is exceptionally difficult for the Liberal Party to win a majority, given that it must share the “progressive” vote with the NDP and the Greens.

Put another way, while the Liberals can reasonably hope to be competitive to form the next government, based on recent polls, they would have to catch an unusual wave to sweep them back to a majority. A mere swing of the political pendulum will not do. It would likely require a re-energization of our politics, bringing a significant number of the current mass of non-voters off the bench.

This could happen, of course, if the economy continues to sour, or if somehow Michael Ignatieff breaks through to a Trudeau-like or Obama-like level of popularity. 

It is much more likely that it does not. If the Liberals win the next election — still a big if — it will probably be as a minority.

There certainly was no sign at the Liberal convention that this reality has sunk in.

There are some people who are hopeful that the Liberals will recognize their precarious situation, and that this will lead them to greater cooperation with the left — in particular the NDP. Former Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy has argued for this. Former NDP apparatchik Robin Sears, who supported the coalition, is now arguing in Policy Options for electoral as well as parliamentary cooperation between the two parties.

This is by no means the only available avenue for Liberals in their current situation. Before the coalition was even on the radar, and when Stéphane Dion was still Liberal leader, I argued in the Globe and Mail that the from the point of view of their own self-interest, Liberals would be unwise to ignore soft-Conservative supporters who might be wooed their way, especially since NDP and Green supporters might be more attracted to their party if this made them a more genuine threat to topple the Conservatives. A little bit of that seems to be happening now.

All that having been said, all the parties need to start reckoning with the implications of the multi-party reality in which we now live. Liberals should be having a vigorous debate on this subject, just as New Democrats are. They should be considering how their parliamentary  and electoral tactics should be adjusted to accomodate this new reality.

What has happened instead is that the Liberals learned a simple lesson from the failed coalition last fall and the huge fillip it gave the Tories in the polls: Don’t go there.

The truth is that the idea of Dion as prime minister was probably more poisonous to the coalition than the idea of parliamentary cooperation between parties, along with the Conservatives’ strenuous efforts to taint the idea with its association with separatism because of the support of the BQ.

But for now the Liberals are not doing any hard thinking about how to thrive in this 21st century environment. Mostly they hope that with a new leader, refilled coffers and a reinvigorated organization, they can resume their role as Canada’s “natural governing party” — the natural governing majority party, that is.

Not likely.

Paul Adams teaches journalism at Carleton and is researching a book on the Liberal Party of Canada.