Political Parties Paradoxical
by Margret Kopala

An edited version of this article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, December 17, 2005

Whither goest Canada’s political parties, so goest Canada and, judging by the Christmas season’s policy-wonk stocking-stuffers that tackle just this subject, these are challenging but not insurmountable times for both.

Even as that old Liberal warhorse chronicler, Stephen Clarkson, concedes the reduction of Canada’s natural governing party to an Ontario rump, the newest kids on the political block, Tasha Kheiriddin and Adam Daifallah call for yet another conservative revolution. Meanwhile Lethbridge Community College political scientist Faron Ellis examines the last such revolution in the form of a timely historiography of the Reform Party.

“For citizens who are passionate fans of Canada’s most popular spectator sport after hockey, (‘The Big Red Machine’) provides a wealth of detail, helping them to understand the inner workings of the Liberal party … For specialists, these studies touch on an issue that is the subject of much scholarly debate – the character of Canada’s party system, which some consider is undergoing a historic transformation,” says the book’s introduction. Covering the 9 election campaigns between 1979 and 2004, author Stephen Clarkson delivers in all departments, including telling moments of Liberal party discipline that so famously kept it in power for 78 of the last 110 years. It also supplies a useful rendering of Canada’s four party systems – clientelism (1867-1919), brokerage (1920-57), pan-Canadian (1958-84) and balkanization (1993-   ).

The current, conspicuously open-ended system, balkanization, forms the backbone of this book providing much needed perspective to the 1993 election that destroyed the Progressive Conservative Party. The world’s most successful political party prevails, Clarkson argues, not merely because of a disorganized right but by “being adept at patronage, skilled at brokerage, a purveyor of pan-Canadian messages, and an apostle of globalization….” Most recently, preoccupation with fiscal restraint, deregulation, devolution, and integration into the new global economy made the party veer off course. Similarly, its dependence on Ontario for the majority of its seats has caused a loss of credibility as a national party, he says. Growing public cynicism about the nature of politics and tawdry scandal hasn’t helped, either. Not to worry, however. As a party organization it remains wholly “undemocratic and autocratic,” which is the real secret of its success.

So too much democracy is why the Reform Party failed, you say? Think again. “The Limits of Participation: Members and Leaders in Canada’s Reform Party” by Faron Ellis examines what happens in a political party when members attempt to run the show. The party system, he says, was established by like-minded members of parliaments but “near-universal enfranchisement facilitated the establishment of a new political phenomenon, externally created mass parties.” Organization, though, necessarily involves hierarchy and it is this tension – between the demand for rank and file participation and internal democratic checks and the “iron law of oligarchy” - that Ellis charts.

In the end, the Preston Manning oligarchy skillfully engineered Reform’s demise but it did much to rehabilitate Canadian conservatism along the way. A work still in progress, it’s insufficiently rapid or appropriately directed for authors Tasha Kheiriddin and Adam Daifallah whose “Rescuing Canada’s Right: Blueprint For A Conservative Revolution” is a friendly blend of boosterism and new spins on conventional conservative thinking. Aimed at mobilizing a national movement, it calls for the creation of a privately funded Canadian network of conservative think tanks and advocacy groups to counterpoint the publicly funded and unaccountable foundations that reinforce Liberalism. Since 1997, the authors say, $9 billion in federal funding has been channeled into 15 such foundations. And that’s before any consideration of the Court Challenges Program costing $2.75 million annually that’s underwritten the legal bills of fundamentalist feminist and gay equality rights groups.

Despite nifty facts and statistics, Kheiriddin and Daifallah fail to approximate Ellis’s rigour or Clarkson’s reach and neither they nor Clarkson address the issues that caused Reform to arise in the first place. Taken together, however, and even absent comparable studies of the Bloc Quebecois and the NDP , they reveal a dimension of Canadian politics that policy wonk, party animal and ordinary citizen alike may find compatible with his Christmas cheer. In the words of Stephen Clarkson, “… political parties are the main institutions linking civil society to the executive, legislative and administrative machinery of a democratic state …” The more we understand them and the changes they undergo, the better we understand the evolving nature of our country.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.

Let's make Canada shipshape for the 21st Century