The Canadian right is united in Parliament and in elections; to its left are three national parties that are divided in Parliament and in elections. Left politicians complain that this is unfair; only a handful wants to do something about it.
Canada, it seems, must carry on as a multiparty democracy alongside 315 million Americans who organize their public affairs within two big tents. Canadian reformers believe Americans are too impatient. They’d rather spend their intelligence struggling to be in a good place, when sometime in the future, things change.
The latest half-measure on the way to party unification—electoral co-operation—is not making much progress. Professional Liberals and professional New Democrats would rather try once again to beat Stephen Harper—and each other—in the next election. Co-operation’s governing logic—parliamentary coalition—is played down.
Most critics focus on emotions and messaging problems. Old wounds and professional jealousies are more keenly felt, and expressed, than hope. Furthermore, electoral co-operation requires mutually acceptable messaging and public declarations that any three opposition leaders would better lead the country than Stephen Harper.
The idea is weak tactically. Its only virtue is that it’s more democratic than the left’s 2008 parliamentary attempt to persuade the Governor General to form a coalition government without the bother of a national election.
The most attractive case against the idea was expressed by Adam Goldenberg in an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen. He actually wants more genuine debate and differing ideas in our public discourse and sees no national emergency to justify splitting up the “center.” He prefers to see the two main opposition parties as distinct standard-bearers.
“Liberals are, or should be, committed first and last to equality of opportunity and to individual freedom — freedom from unreasonable government interference, freedom from fear and discrimination, from the indignity of poverty and the financial burden of disease.
“Social democrats are, or should be, more concerned with equality of outcomes, achieved by imposing confiscatory taxes on high incomes and inherited wealth and by championing the cause of labour against capital.”
That said, Goldenberg asserts accurately that Liberalism is not a “left-wing” ideology. Fair enough. The Greens, for that matter, needn’t cluster exclusively on the left. Socialism, in practices, has hardly been great for the environment.
He goes on, however, to assert inaccurately that the Liberals are not a “left-wing” party. He implies that they are the “center” and, at the same time, rejects putting ideologies on a left-right spectrum.
This is unpersuasive. Ideas are always roughly treated in power politics and never permanently housed in partisan organizations. Classic liberalism and socialism do not guide either the New Democrats or the Liberals and hardly keep them apart.
Indeed, the center of the new Conservative Party thought they elected a classic liberal last time and probably will replace him with a classic liberal next time.
Socialism is as much a conceit in the NDP as Toryism is in the Conservative Party. Both ideas, of course, are kept alive and refreshed. The former is sheltered in university campuses and the latter in cottage country in Eastern Canada. Partisans who still call themselves "socialists" have a night reserved at each national convention to honor the past—and the "Tories" get to see the word "royal" on military uniforms.
Once you set aside the romantics and bigots, Canada is rather evenly and loosely divided on a number of persistent national questions: need the federal government inspire or just keep the country open and secure? Must the federal government drive reform in health and other public services? Should we invest more in creative government or ambitious individuals? Should we be closer to the US or polish our own brand?
On these questions, today’s so-called “left”—Greens, Liberals, and New Democrats—say almost exactly the same thing.
With heating and operating subsidies shrinking, they’d be wise to get into one tent and do politics pretty much the way their sister factions play politics in America’s Democratic Party.