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The trouble with parties

The trouble with our electoral system is not the method with which we vote, it is simply that our political parties are far more interested in power than in their basic philosophies. Across the country it is apparent. The Bloc does better philosophically with a Conservative government, but better politically with a Liberal government. The NDP does better philosophically with a Liberal government, but better politically with a Conservative government. In both cases, in order to maintain the political advantage of those governments, they must vigorously oppose them.

The Bloc Quebecois ostensibly wants a decentralised federation and a separatist Quebec government that will ultimately lead to a separate Quebec. This ultimate goal is unattainable and for reasons of survival, the Bloc Quebecois knows that separation must never actually take place. No political party that has found a source of power is going to will itself out of existence. In a separate Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois and its membership will no longer have a role in Quebec politics.

With separatism not therefore being the first priority of the separatist party, what is? Philosophically, it is more money and autonomy for Quebec without outright separation. The current Conservative government is the best vehicle for this the Bloc has ever had. But the trouble is if the federal government is giving in on these demands based on its own governing philosophy, the Bloc Quebecois becomes redundant and its electoral fortunes risk declining. Thus getting what it wants is bad for it.

With a Liberal government, a party that strongly supports a united Canada and a useful central government, the Bloc gets a party that will not pander to its interests. Philosophically, this is terrible. With the Liberals in power, especially with a Quebecker leading as is usually the case when the Liberals actually win, Quebec gets treated as an equal instead of as a superior being by the federal government. The Bloc then has an issue to go to the Quebeckers with: we need independence from this nonsense of being called a province of Canada! It is the only way the Bloc Quebecois's electoral fortunes can improve.

This rather odd situation means that the Bloc Quebecois benefits the most politically from the party that is furthest from it philosophically. It also means that the Bloc's philosophy of independence for Quebec is contradictory in its own right and can never be fulfilled.

Because the Bloc cannot admit to this reality, we find incidents like the Bloc resentfully supporting yesterday's federal budget because of the billions of dollars it gives to Quebec. If their priority was philosophy and more for Quebec was their primary objective, they would be waving this budget enthusiastically in Quebec to say 'look, we accomplished part of what we set out to accomplish', and Duceppe would not be coming out mid-speech to announce they will be supporting the budget in an effort to get this good news for the Bloc's objectives out of the headlines as fast as possible.

The NDP is in a similar situation of contradiction.

The NDP has accomplished the most on its agenda through its history when there is a strong Liberal minority that needs the NDP's balance of power for support. However whenever that happens, the NDP's fortunes drop in the next election because the Liberal party has moved slightly to the left, encroaching on the NDP's narrow band of support.

The NDP does best in federal elections when the Conservatives come to power, as evidenced by Ed Broadbent's leadership during the Mulroney years. He is hailed by the NDP as their most successful leader, even though he accomplished nothing whatsoever of the NDP's left-wing agenda, because under his leadership next to a strong Conservative majority they scored 44 seats, although could do nothing with any of them.

With the recent election of Stephen Harper, Jack Layton has also achieved some level of success for the party, bringing it up to 29 seats although the NDP is finding itself unable to meaningfully push any part of its agenda even with a Conservative minority government. Unlike a Liberal minority, there is no part of the Conservative government that shares any beliefs with the NDP. While the NDP had a balance of power, albeit a very marginal one, with the Paul Martin Liberal minority, they squandered it in an effort to gain more seats.

In order to appeal to its left wing base, the NDP must vigorously oppose a Conservative government, but not too harshly, lest they get a Liberal government back which is bad for their electoral fortunes. The result is that the NDP spends as much time attacking the Liberals, if not more, than attacking the Conservatives, even now, over a year after the election. A strong right wing means a consolidated left wing for the NDP to tap and so its fortunes are tied to the presence of a Conservative government. A Liberal government is a centrist government which adopts, and thus moots, some of the principles of the NDP and is therefore bad for the party's survival, even if it is good for the party's philosophy.

The Liberals and the Conservatives are themselves not immune from this game. Their counterparts are, rather, the provincial governments of Quebec and Ontario.

While counter-intuitive, it is in the Conservative party's interests to keep Liberal governments in power in both Quebec and Ontario. For whatever reason, it is extremely rare for a Liberal government to be in power in both provinces and federally at the same time. This is made easier currently by the Quebec Liberal leader being a former federal Progressive Conservative leader. Arguably, the Quebec Liberal party would be better named the Quebec Conservative party, as it tends to be far more aligned with Conservative than Liberal principals. Similarly, the Conservatives perform better when there is not a Conservative government in Ontario, although many of the cabinet ministers in the current federal Conservative government are former Ontario provincial Conservative cabinet ministers.

The Liberals on the other hand do best federally when the Liberals are not in power in either province. This is a direct correlation with the Conservatives doing better when the Liberals are in power in both provinces. The Liberals do best when the PQ is in power provincially: there is a clear need for an uncompromising federalist party when that is the case lest the country disappear in a puff of separatist smoke.

I am still trying to figure out how, exactly, the Green party figures into this formula of interdependent opposites, but from their push for proportional representation it is clear that seats are more important than philosophy for that party as well. Proportional representation further strengthens the parties and weakens core representative democratic principals.

What solutions do we have?

The simplest, best, and least likely ever to happen, is the outright abolishment of parties in Canada. Our first past the post representative electoral system was built around the principal that each community would send one person to represent their local interests in the government. That person would be answerable only to the people who elected them and would sit in the Commons on their behalf.

Parties have gained too much power in this country and must be returned to being a vehicle for loosely representing common philosophies rather than merely existing as a means of acquiring and retaining power. Our representative democracy is meant to represent us to the Commons. It is not meant to have the parties send representatives to us via the Commons.

When parties put their own interests ahead of their own philosophies, our democracy is broken.

Posted at 09:36 on March 20, 2007

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Let's get Guelph back on the GO | elections politics | Thoughts on the Quebec election a couple of days later

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