Third Parties in Canada

Color Field, Mark Rothko, No 61 (Rust and Blue), 1953

Third Parties in Canada

Seasonal fare for anoraks, courtesy of MARK WEGIERSKI

“Third parties” are an endlessly fascinating topic of study. The notion arises in polities characterized by “first-past-the-post” voting systems, where there are usually only two major parties. Polities characterized by proportional representation (PR) voting systems tend to have a multiplicity of parties. Particular popular attention – although scant electoral support — is given to “third parties” in the U.S. – where the “two-party” system is so strongly entrenched. Since the 1850s, with the rise of the Republican Party, there have been two main parties in the U.S. – although both of them have undergone tremendous permutations. Since that time, there has never been  a “third party” in U.S. politics which achieved the electoral breakthroughs that a considerable number of “third parties” have been able to do in Canada. Indeed, these “third parties” are sometimes not easily categorized as conventionally conservative or liberal. For example, the candidacies of both Ralph Nader (Green Party), and Pat Buchanan (Reform Party) in the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, had elements that were neither conventionally conservative, nor conventionally liberal. “Third parties” often amount to a salutary “shaking-up” of the political system – actually making it more truly populist.

The Reform Party of Canada

One of the main differences between Canada and the United States is the presence of relatively successful “third parties” in the former. It should be stressed that the Canadian and U.S. Reform Parties were considerably different in their outlooks. Some have argued that Preston Manning’s Reform Party – a classic “third party” – had effectively become the “first party” — as a result of the 2006 Canadian federal election.However, in light of Harper’s centrist-tending policies – and his failure to win the October 19, 2015, federal election – the notion that the Conservatives were “the Reform Party – Version Three” – is spurious. The Reform Party vision of Canada was already defeated when Preston Manning felt compelled to broaden the party into the Canadian Alliance.

The two main parties in Canadian politics have been the Liberals, roughly corresponding to the post-1930s U.S. Democrats and the Conservatives, roughly corresponding to twentieth-century U.S. Republicans – although rather more moderate. The Conservatives changed their name to “Progressive Conservative” in 1942. One of the ostensible reasons for the name change was to attract the support of a popular third party of the Western Canadian provinces – the Progressives.

The Liberals in Canada, between 1896 to 2004, were much more electorally successful than the U.S. Democrats. Ironically, in the 2011 Canadian federal election, the Liberals slipped to third party status, winning only 34 of 308 seats. However, they came roaring back to power in the October 19, 2015, federal election, under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, the son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister from 1968-1984 (except for nine months in 1979-1980).

In earlier years, there were such ephemeral protest parties as the UFO (United Farmers of Ontario). The Communist Party of Canada famously won a seat in the federal Parliament in the 1940s. The federal-level Christian Heritage Party, the provincial-level Family Coalition Party in Ontario and the Libertarian Party, have never won a sitting member in the legislatures for which they have run.

The most prominent of the Canadian third parties was probably the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), renamed as the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961. There was also the Social Credit Party, based loosely on the ideas of C. H. Douglas, who criticized big banks and which arose both in Western Canada and in Quebec – where it had a Quebec-nationalist focus. The founder of the Reform Party, Preston Manning, was the son of the longtime Alberta Social Credit Premier, Ernest C. Manning, and the accusation was sometimes made that the Reform Party were “re-tread Socreds”.

The Reform Party, co-founded in 1987 by Preston Manning, transformed itself into the Canadian Alliance, officially called the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance, as a result of the so-called “United Alternative” process of 1998-2000. The Canadian Alliance then merged with the federal Progressive Conservative party in December 2003, renamed together as the Conservative Party. In Canada, only this federal-level party calls itself “Conservative” without the adjective. Among the various provincial wings where they exist the name “Progressive Conservative” has been retained. The Conservative Party won 166 seats in the 2011 federal election. However, they fell to second place with 99 seats in the 2015 federal election. Another symptom of the general rout of the Conservatives is that provincial P.C. parties (where they exist) do not currently hold power anywhere in Canada, except for the 2016 win in Manitoba. Note that the Liberal Party of British Columbia is sometimes considered to be a centrist or even right-leaning party.

According to some observers, the triumph of the Conservative Party in 2011, which finally won a majority, after their minority governments of 2006 and 2008 was a belated triumph for Preston Manning. In the 1980s, the P.C. party was mostly hostile to so-called “small-c conservatism”. Manning’s Reform Party certainly divided the broader “right/centre-right/centre” vote, but it introduced a salutary clarification into Canadian politics. However, the Conservative collapse in 2015 appears to have undermined the long-time endeavour to build a true, “small-c conservative” federal party in Canada.

The re-unification of the CA and P.C. parties could only occur after Joe Clark (briefly Prime Minister in 1979-1980, and the leader of the federal P.C.s from 1976-1983 and again in 1998-2003) had left the leadership of the federal P.C.s. Joe Clark played the role of a “spoiler” to the bitter end. But, after the merger in December 2003, the “vote-splitting” was definitely over, and, under the leadership of Stephen Harper, the Conservative Party became seriously competitive. While some have argued that the Conservatives could have won a majority already in 2004, Harper still had some work to do to establish his credibility with the Canadian public. He won a minority government in 2006, a strengthened minority in 2008, and finally a strong parliamentary majority in 2011. There was, however, little attempt to move in the direction of more pronounced conservatism, after that major win. So, in retrospect, there was no belated triumph for Preston Manning.

Third Parties in Quebec

Some of the most significant “third parties” have existed in Quebec. A major Quebec-nationalist but also Catholic-traditionalist party that flourished on the provincial level in Quebec before 1960 was the Union Nationale. The party and the province was led for decades by Maurice Duplessis – a figure somewhat similar to U.S. “strongman” Huey Long – who was called “Le Chef”. In 1948, Duplessis gave Quebec its distinctive, traditional-looking flag – the blue cross with the Bourbon lilies. Duplessis’ support for the Diefenbaker Conservatives in the 1958 federal election led to Diefenbaker winning one of the largest majorities in Canadian history – but Diefenbaker was unable to make the support from Quebec more permanent.

The Ralliement creditiste, which existed in various embodiments at the federal and provincial levels in Quebec, was sometimes together with, and sometimes apart from, the Social Credit Party of Canada. The Ralliement’s main leader was Real Caouette. In the 1962 federal election, the Ralliement won 26 seats in Quebec, while the Social Credit Party won only four seats in English-speaking Canada. The unwillingness of the English-Canadian leadership of the Social Credit Party to allow Real Caouette to lead the whole party resulted in a split in 1963. Although some years later, Real Caouette became the leader of the whole party, by that time it had lost all of its federal seats in English-speaking Canada.

There have also been separatists (or sovereigntists) in Quebec — called the Parti Quebecois (PQ) in the province, and the Bloc Quebecois (BQ) in the federal Parliament. The PQ has frequently formed the government of Quebec – and has been able to shepherd through two referendums on sovereignty, in 1980, strictly-speaking, a referendum on “sovereignty-association” and in 1995. The 1995 referendum came close to success.

The Bloc Quebecois won most of the Quebec vote (obviously, they ran candidates only in Quebec) in the federal elections of 1993 to 2008. However, in the 2011 federal election, they were routed by the NDP – winning only 4 seats. The Quebec triumph of the NDP in the 2011 federal election, winning 59 of 75 seats – especially in regard to the victories of some very young and inexperienced candidates – is difficult to explain. In the 2015 federal election in the province of Quebec, NDP support was greatly reduced, and the Bloc Quebecois was able to win 10 seats.

In recent years, there was also a more conservative provincial party in the province of Quebec, the Action democratique du Quebec (ADQ) which tended to support the Conservatives federally. It virtually collapsed in the 2008 Quebec provincial election. There is now a centre/centre-right third party in Quebec, the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) into which the ADQ has folded itself. There is also now a hard left party in Quebec called Quebec solidaire, which holds three seats in the Quebec legislature.

The Conservatives/Progressive Conservatives disappeared from provincial politics in Quebec many decades ago. At the federal level, the support of Quebec voters for the Conservatives/Progressive Conservatives was fitful and sporadic. In the enormously important federal elections from 1963 to 1980, the Progressive Conservatives were usually barely able to win one or two seats in Quebec. The Liberal majority in the federal Parliament, especially under Trudeau, was based on holding nearly every seat from Quebec. One of Brian Mulroney’s great successes was the huge support the Progressive Conservatives received from Quebec voters in the 1984 and 1988 federal elections. It was a success, however, that did not last into the 1993 federal election.

Between 1989-1994, the Equality Party held four seats in the Quebec legislature. They were representatives of the province’s Anglophones i.e., the English-speaking minority, which is mostly centered in West Montreal and the so-called Eastern Townships, which are actually in the western part of the province of Quebec. These were the eastern-most areas of British-demarcated administrative units (townships). The Equality Party also drew support from the so-called “Allophones” – the minorities in Quebec whose first language is neither English nor French.

One of the most enduring “joke-parties” in Canada, the Rhinoceros Party, was centered largely in Quebec. In earlier decades, it was snidely said of the NDP and its prospects in Quebec that some of its candidates in Quebec ridings in federal elections actually got fewer votes than the Rhinos. (And the profile of the earlier CCF in Quebec had actually been even lower.) The Rhinoceros Party has never elected a member of a legislature.

Third Parties in Western Canada

Western Canada is another area in which many third parties have arisen. The Green Party, which has contested more recent federal elections, finally elected its first MP in the 2011 election. The leader of the federal Green Party, Elizabeth May, won the British Columbia riding. She also won again in the 2015 election. The federal Green Party won about 4 percent of the vote in successive elections. However, under the “first-past-the-post” system in Canada, it is difficult for smaller parties whose support is widely scattered, to win any parliamentary seats.

The Canadian federal system — which consists of provinces that are fewer in number, typically territorially larger, and more regionally and culturally delineated between each other than most U.S. states – is clearly one factor that has encouraged the emergence of “third parties”. There are also the northern territories in Canada – which are symbolically quite important to Canadian identity – but have very small populations relative to the rest of the country. There is a Yukon Party in the Yukon. That party was formerly called the Yukon Progressive Conservative Party.

Both the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and Reform Party arose in Western Canada. Preston Manning insisted that the Reform Party exist only at the federal level in order to focus strictly on winning the federal government, and not to be diverted into battles in the particular provinces.

On November 7, 2007, the Saskatchewan Party, a coalition mostly of former provincial Progressive Conservatives, and former provincial Liberals, won a decisive victory over the provincial New Democratic Party – which had held the provincial government in Saskatchewan since 1991.

In Alberta, the Progressive Conservatives were challenged in the 2012 provincial election by the distinctly more conservative Wildrose Alliance – a party which existed only in Alberta. Although it was widely predicted that they would win the 2012 election, the Wildrose Alliance fizzled out in the end. Albertans seemed to have been scared to vote for a party that was seen as ultra conservative. Indeed, Alison Redford, the P.C. winner, was called by some pundits as “Alberta’s first NDP Premier”. Ironically, in the May 5, 2015 provincial election, the NDP won a strong majority, with the Wildrose Alliance in second place with 21 seats, and the P.C.s reduced to only 10 seats. The P.C. leader, Jim Prentice, was considered arrogant – although he did manage to attract most of the previously sitting Wildrose Alliance parliamentary members to the P.C. Party, before the election. It was widely expected that the Wildrose Alliance would simply fold, but they in fact rallied to win more seats than the P.C.s, who fell to the NDP juggernaut. The NDP victory was tied to the worsening economic situation in Alberta (which has now worsened still further, because of the dropping price of oil in world-markets).

In 2017, the Wildrose Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives were able to merge, to form the United Conservative Party (UCP). Jason Kenney, who had been a prominent federal Conservative, won the leadership of the new party.

Speaking of Alberta, one should mention the small “Western separatist” parties of the 1970s and 1980s, as well as the anti-official-bilingualism Confederation of Regions party, which also had a sporadic existence in Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Ontario. The height of its achievement was becoming the Official Opposition in New Brunswick in 1991-1995 – before it disintegrated as a result of factional conflicts that often seem to plague such small, protest parties. There was also a small, libertarian-oriented, Freedom Party of Ontario which continues to exist today.

In 1992, Mel Hurtig, known mainly as the publisher of The Canadian Encyclopedia, tried to form a party called the National Party. Of course, the name was mostly a reference to left-wing, progressive Canadian nationalism, rather than something more right-wing. And the quixotic figure Paul Hellyer, hitherto both a prominent Liberal and Progressive Conservative, eventually established a small party of his own, called the Canadian Action Party.

In the Canadian Parliamentary system, there have by tradition been no set election dates – an election can take place at any point within five years from the previous election, at the discretion of the Prime Minister or Premier. (The leader of the party which holds the majority of seats in the federal or provincial parliament.) In more recent years, there have been experiments with legislating a defined date for the upcoming election shortly after winning office. This is in response to criticisms that the ability of the Prime Minister or Premier to call an election at a most politically propitious time, confers too much of an electoral advantage to his or her party.

When there is a minority government, i.e. when the ruling party holds less than a majority of seats in the legislature, an election can take place any time that an important bill, termed “a matter of confidence”, is voted down. Sometimes, the opposition parties may try to form a coalition government without an election being called. In late 2008, there was an attempt to form an anti-Conservative coalition in the federal Parliament, consisting of the Liberals, NDP, and Bloc Quebecois. However, Stephen Harper’s skillful political maneuvering (and the fact that the coalition idea was extremely unpopular among most Canadians) meant that the putative coalition never took power.

The New Democratic Party (NDP)

In the 2011 federal election, the NDP won 103 seats, thus becoming a “second party” – the so-called Official Opposition. The Liberals were reduced to 34 seats, the lowest number they have ever held in the federal Parliament. However, in the 2015 federal election, the Liberals came roaring back with a majority, and the NDP were reduced to 44 seats.

In light of the 2015 federal election campaign, a partial reassessment of the role of the NDP in Canadian politics may be called for. They were certainly more “centrist-tending” in the 2015 federal election than the Liberals. Under the leadership of Tom Mulcair, the NDP promised a balanced budget – unlike Justin Trudeau, who said he was quite willing to run a deficit. However, the post-federal election NDP convention called for the replacement of Tom Mulcair. In the leadership contest of 2017, the NDP selected Jagmeet Singh as their leader – marking a move to increased political correctness.

While the NDP in earlier decades may have been the “ice-breaker” for left-liberalism and the so-called “progressive” agenda – it could be argued that it is actually the Liberal Party that is carrying out that agenda to ever greater degrees.

Until the breakthrough federal election of 2011, when they won 103 seats (59 of them from Quebec), the NDP had held only about 25 to 30 seats (out of a total of about 300) in the successive federal Parliaments. In the 2015 federal election, they were reduced to 44 seats. Currently, they hold one provincial government (unexpectedly, Alberta). However, they have great influence on municipal politics, especially in Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. Until the federal election of 2011, the official NDP appeared to be a comparatively minor force in Canadian politics. There had also been some talk in the 1990s of the supposed triumph of free-market neoconservatism in Canada – which would appear to make things more difficult for the NDP.

But the fact is that the NDP possesses an unusual degree of ideological strength and depth rarely seen in any of the other Canadian parties, and so has had more real influence, despite never forming the federal government, than, for example, the federal Progressive Conservatives. Indeed, the NDP was able to effect such major, transformative changes in the Liberal and federal P.C. parties, especially in social and cultural areas that it hardly needed to be in power.

The NDP has enjoyed the support of tens of thousands of university and college professors, journalists, civil servants, dedicated social activists, and teachers – all of whom wielded a far greater amount of influence on politics and social life than the large number of  “average” people who supported the centre-right Reform Party in the 1990s, or the federal Progressive Conservatives in the 1980s and before.

Quite apart from the gradual percolation of their social and cultural ideas into Canadian society, the NDP has been able to enter into highly advantageous political collaborations with the Liberal Party, at critical junctures in Canadian politics. The NDP has often been able to put significant political pressure on the Liberal Party. They also powerfully influenced the Progressive Conservatives in Ontario during the Bill Davis era (1971-1985). This has usually meant that the Liberals (or sometimes, P.C.’s) have largely carried out NDP policies.

Until the 2011 election, the NDP appeared to be in retreat, with the apparent triumph of free trade and fiscal or economic conservatism. Even with the NDP’s breakthrough in 2011, the Conservatives were, after all, able to win a strong majority. However, it could be argued that the perception of a right-wing triumph in Canada in 2011-2015 is highly misleading. Indeed, the Conservatives were decisively swept away in the 2015 federal election, without having accomplished much.

In reality, social conservatism, i.e. a focus on upholding traditional notions of nation, family, and religion, is weak in Canada. Most people embrace the latest variants of multiculturalism; to wit, high immigration, feminism and gay rights. To a social conservative, the triumph of fiscal conservatism is all-but-irrelevant in view of the cultural, social, moral, spiritual, and religious crisis of late modernity.

Ironically, old-fashioned social democracy, such as that represented in Canada by the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) – the much-different precursor to the NDP — was socially-conservative. While doggedly fighting for the working class and for social programs that benefited the broad Canadian majority, it supported traditional notions of nation, family, and religion.

What has occurred since the 1960s, however, is the transformation of old-fashioned social democracy into left-liberalism. While becoming ever more conciliatory to capitalism and fiscal conservatism, it at the same time adopted an increasingly hostile outlook towards traditional notions of nation, family, and religion. Its claim to represent the working-class majority became less and less credible. Indeed, such cutting-edge theorists as Frantz Fanon despised the traditional working class.

The savants and elitists who represented the leadership of the New Democratic Party realized that they could exercise meaningful power within the structures of current-day capitalism. Today, the NDP wraps itself in the cloak of compassion, decency, and concern for “average, ordinary people” – but it has acted against the interests of the working majority of Canadians for over three decades. In those places where it has avoided the excesses of left-liberalism (for example, in Saskatchewan), its success has been largely congruent with the remnants of social conservatism. However, the typical impact of the NDP in Canada, when deployed in support of the excesses of left-liberalism, is as damaging to society as the consumerism and globalization which it criticizes.

Regardless of the partial return of fiscal or economic conservatism in Canada, especially under Chretien, the NDP fundamentally transformed the social and cultural ideas and policies of the Liberal Party and of the P.C. Party. At the same time, it has continued the CCF traditions of fighting for a more generous welfare state – whose universality is now being undermined not only by fiscal conservatism but ironically also by the NDP-led promotion of “designated groups” rather than the commonweal.

Is a successful, “third party” movement possible in the United States? The history of the NDP in Canada on the left and of the Reform Party on the right, seems germane.

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher


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