How healthy is Canada’s political market?

As of 2011, Canada has five parties represented in the House of Commons. They are the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), the Liberal Party, The Bloc Quebecois, and the Green Party.

The last three federal elections in Canada have been quite clearly polarized as the Conservatives vs. everyone else. Progressive voters tend to have three or four parties to choose from while conservative voters only have one.

The Conservative Party currently holds a majority position in the House of Commons and thus has all of the decision-making power until the next election in 2015. It may thus sound strange to say that it is the conservative voters whose choices are being taken away from them the most in this political market.

A fiscal conservative would probably like to have a fiscal conservative party to vote for. They might even be bothered by the social conservative baggage (male chauvinistic, anti-gay, militaristic, prisons instead of the more effective paths of prevention, rehabilitation, and social programs, etc) demonstrated by the actions of the Conservative Party.

This voter has an ideology but no clear party to support. They either have to stomach the social conservatism of the Conservative Party or they have to abide by the less drastic fiscal conservatism of the Liberals or the other left-leaning parties.

It seems to us that according to almost any measure, every major party in Canada is quite fiscally conservative when compared to world averages. the Liberal party in particular has demonstrated the highest degree of fiscal conservatism of all the Canadian parties. They are the party that showed tremendous fiscal discipline in the 1990’s during Canada’s worst debt crisis. By the time the Conservatives took power in 2006 the debt had been steadily paid down for about a decade. However, without deep reading into government history, a voter would likely not know that. They would likely believe the self-labelling of the Conservative Party as a force for fiscal moderation (when in fact their political actions are not in line with that ideology).

Canada’s two party system?

People have said that in 2011 Canada made a huge shift towards a two-party system (Conservatives and NDP). This is because the Bloc Quebecois were effectively destroyed and the Liberals were smashed down to 34 seats from their previous 77. This is particularly important because the Liberals were the de-facto ruling party of Canada for decades prior to the last three elections, having always been in government or the official opposition.

We at Vision of Earth hope that we do not end up with a two-party system. We do not want to slide into an American-style system that will destroy the diversity of positions and ideas in the political market. For more information on the dangers and pitfalls of the current American political market, see our previous piece on the unhealthiness of the US political market.

In our current system in Canada, we need meaningful options at the ballot box, not a polarized and deadening standoff like that currently found in the US. Even at its best, the party-based representative democracy (without proportional representation) can only approximate the voter’s choices in government policy, but 5-10 parties is much better than two.

Vote-splitting is what has led to Canada’s current majority government when the Conservatives received 39.6% of the votes cast but gained 54% of the seats. It is an interesting situation because the conservative voters are technically getting far more power than they should (compared to a parliamentary result that is actually representative of voter’s choices), but they are also unable to meaningfully choose the policies that their party implements. They are unable to show at the ballot box what sort of conservatism they support.

The Conservative Party is currently attempting to appease both social and fiscal conservatives to some extent. This is very likely to leave both groups somewhat disgruntled by the results because these two ideologies cannot be fully reconciled with one another. A good example of this would be the socially conservative moves of this government to:

  • pursue a ‘tough on crime’ stance, which includes a war on drugs,
  • include a lot of mandatory minimum sentencing for crimes,
  • invest heavily in US-style mega-prisons,1
  • step up military spending,
  • shift power into the hands of Ministers and the Prime Minister’s Office and away from Parliament,
  • make many government meetings and decisions secret rather than open.

A genuine fiscal conservative is likely to disagree with some or even all of these decisions. A truly fiscal-conservative party would minimize government spending quickly, especially on money hogs like the military and prison system. If they were unshackled from the limitations of the social conservative values, a fiscal conservative government might even consider drug law reform including the legalization of marijuana. They are also relatively likely to conduct their business in the light of day because fiscal conservatism tends to value government transparency and accountability very highly.

The addition of a strong national fiscal conservative party would effectively double the options for voters who currently believe their best choice is the Conservatives.

What Canada needs is not a united left, it needs more options on the right.

The current dominance of the Conservative party is due in part to our antiquated electoral system. The ‘first past the post’ system lends itself to substantial distortions in the results of elections. With non-conservative votes split among three or four parties, the Conservatives currently win a far higher percentage of seats than their percentage of the popular vote.

There is currently a substantial push for electoral reform in Canada, including it being officially endorsed by the NDP, the current Official Opposition party. A transition towards proportional representation is reasonably likely in the next decade or two of Canadian politics. In such a case, much of the discussion here will be moot because the barriers to entry into the political market will be vastly lowered. Parties with no regional strongholds but some nationwide support will be able to establish a presence in the ruling chambers. Such a transition will certainly improve the health of the political market in Canada and make the advent of a primarily fiscal conservative party very likely.

To conclude, Canada has a political market that is relatively healthy compared to the United States. On the so-called ‘left’ the market is quite strong and has a number of meaningful options. On the ‘right’ the only major party is the Conservatives. For a socially or fiscally conservative voter, the market is thus not very kind. The Conservatives are attempting to hold a monopoly on those ideologies in Canadian political discourse. So far they are doing so successfully. No competing conservative parties have challenged them in a number of years. The Conservative movement has sacrificed choice in order to dominate the ‘first past the post’ system.

They have solidified their base to such an extent that my only current hope for the creation of a fiscally conservative party would be a break within the ranks of the current Conservative Party. This is rather unlikely in the near future due to the intense party discipline instituted by Stephen Harper and the other leaders of the Conservatives.

In short, we can hope that electoral reform (likely spearheaded by the NDP) will eventually give conservative voters more real choices in future elections, but for now the ‘right’ is stuck with the awkward alliance of fiscal and social conservatism in the Conservative Party.

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  1. Government building de facto mega-prisons: critics. Ottawa Citizen. August 1st, 2011. UPDATE Nov 17th, 2011: This piece has been removed from all news agencies website. The only mirror of this article that we can currently find is here. []