Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Explaining the Liberals

One role of any immigrant is as a sort of armchair anthropologist-cum-ambassador, explaining both the culture of origin and the culture of choice to anyone who asks about them. As such, I've often found myself in the position of giving an international perspective on the peculiar situation of the Liberal Party of Canada, to both Americans and Canadians.

The recurring problem in these discussions is a perceptual divide. The Americans, for their part, will tend to listen to what I have to say and simply not believe me. There's no way the Liberals actually view themselves as the "natural governing party," they'll say, and there's no way Canadians really tend to think the Liberals have the divine right to sit in the big chair simply by virtue of being Liberals. There's no way that corruption, entitlement, incompetence, and thuggish behaviour are dismissed with an eyeroll and reelection-by-rote. I must be exaggerating because I tend to favour another party, right? The Canadians, on the other hand, will listen to what I have to say, shrug, and say: "So? Yeah, you're right, things have been bad with the Liberals for a few years now, but that's why it's good that they're going to get their time-out. They'll regroup, and they'll come back all better. It's happened before, it'll happen this time, too. That's the way of things, and we'll all breathe a little easier once things are back to normal."

It's almost enough to make an idealistic pragmatist wish she could get both groups in a room together and take herself out of the equation entirely, since each one is making her point to the other so impressively well. Since that hasn't been logistically possible so far, though, I'll continue to try to make it on my own, to both sides.

For the Americans, then, an election anecdote:

From day one of this last election, the Liberals campaigned to try to lead soft NDP voters astray by scaring them into an "anyone but the Conservatives" vote for the Liberals. They got a prominent labour leader to endorse them, and even had Prime Minister Paul Martin wearing a union jacket. I found this unfortunate, but understandable--the political "war" was on, after all, it was every party for itself, and the Liberals had to run their reelection campaign in a way that they thought would win them votes. But then the Liberal fates shifted in the second half of the campaign with the advent of yet another scandal, and a Conservative government started looking likely. In response, the NDP shifted their message, and started attempting to take votes away from the Liberals.

The reaction was immediate and harsh, both from the Liberals and from many lefties: the NDP was "betraying their progressive values" by turning on the Liberals. And yet what had they done? The exact same thing that the Liberals had been trying to do to the NDP all along--bleed votes, during an election, away from a party that was vulnerable to being bled. When the Liberals turn on the NDP, it's just the way of things, but when the NDP turns on the Liberals, they're perpetrating a betrayal. Worse yet, as far as I've been able to discern, I'm the first Canadian to point this double standard out in so many words. It's just that self-evident that the Liberals' God-given role is to occupy the entire centre-left, and the NDP's role is to kowtow, forever and ever amen.

And for the Canadians, a good old-fashioned rant:

If you grew up in this country, the example I described above for the Americans probably didn't shock you very much. Maybe you're even mentally responding with a "Yeah, so?" reaction like the one I described in my second paragraph. Maybe you, too, are looking forward to the day when the Liberals have had their "time-out" and are back to being the "natural governing party." I'll be frank: what shocks and dismays me most about this attitude isn't the way it hurts the NDP, because eh, all's fair in love, war, and politics. It's the way hardly anyone in Canada seems to recognize that this is a sign of a sick, sick political culture. A one-party system is not beneficial to any country, no matter how many good policies that party manages to come up with. The arrogance, the corruption, and the culture of entitlement didn't come out of nowhere--they're a direct result of the position Canadians have given the Liberals in this culture. And I vehemently agree that they needed some time on the opposition benches, but disagree that they should automatically be entitled to be let back in with a majority as soon as they've chosen a new leader and shown that they're not all corrupt thugs. IT SHOULD BE HARDER THAN THAT.

I can get just as frustrated, mind you, with the people on the left who think the NDP should be trying to obliterate the Liberals and "replace them as the party of the centre-left." Putting aside the question of whether that would actually be good for the NDP, there's no way that would actually be good for Canada. A rather large proportion of Canadians tend to like what the Liberals stand for, and would like to see them succeed. And whether or not you agree with those people, in a democracy, that is their right. What it comes down to is that a multiparty system should actually get to function as a multiparty system. It should be a given that other parties will exist, and that the business of governing will be about working with them, not trying to snuff them out of existence. After all, the whole point of having more than one party at all is to make an honest stab at representing the diversity of Canadian political opinion. Otherwise, we might as well be living in East Germany or Burma.

I'm not interested in seeing any party enjoy a singular triumph, including the one I'm a member of, unless that's what Canadians actually vote for. All I really want is a colourful political scene in which there's a healthy Liberal party, and a healthy NDP, and a healthy Conservative party or parties in whatever conglomeration they end up in, and yes, a healthy Green party too--all sitting in Parliament in proportion to however many Canadians voted for each. A political scene where the parties have to work together to make new legislation, rather than having to twist any party into being everything to everyone. Where no single party gets to play God by winning 40% of the vote, and where neither the West nor the East has to fight tooth and claw to get "in." A political scene that really represents what Canadians voted for, in all its diversity. Is that too much to ask?


[Note: I started working on this post before Ian Welsh at Tilting at Windmills posted his latest opus, but you know what they say about "great minds" (or possibly deranged ones?). Go read.]

21 comments:

Clearcut Blogging said...

Yay for prop rep. What's ironic is that the Tories just might bring it in. (I hope I'm not dreaming...)

I think the reason the Liberals have become the "natural governing party" in Canada is because they have positioned themselves in the middle. And that's where Canadians like to be. We don't like going too far right because then we're not left enough; and we don't like going too far left because that won't work. So the middle looks just right. It feels safe.

Note how Harper had to position himself closer to the middle to attract enough votes to win a minority government.

Prop rep won't change that, but it will force the Liberals to form coalitions with other parties, which means closer scrutiny, more blended policies, and a wider range of ideas. Prop rep is really the best chance we have against Liberal domination of Canada.

I wish we could get the Tories and NDP to understand that.

Simon Pole said...

The Liberals have also been the natural governing party since Laurier, because they have been the only ones capable of building ongoing federalist bridges to Quebec. The French-English partnership is one of the fundamental pillars of the country, since before Confederation.

No other national party has been able to build those bridges. The Tories under MacDonald occupied that position, but after he executed Riel, the Liberals inherited it.

Borden alienated Quebec with a vehement approach to conscription during WWII (King finessed it in WWII, and was on record as opposing the draft in WWI). Deif carried Quebec, but he never felt comfortable with Roman Catholics and his alliance with Dupleseis fell apart. Mulroney put together a coalition with Quebec nationalists, not federalists, and this also fell apart. Will Harper be able to succeed permanently where so many Tories have failed? I wonder.

I don't think you can explain why the Liberals are the natural governing party without the Quebec dimension.

late said...

Natural governing belongs to the centre, and the Liberals manage to keep a very firm grip on the centre. They manage to attract both the majority of Canadians who are economically minded (aka what some people call fiscal conservatives) and also the majority of Canadians who are social progressives.

It is very easy to say: "the left is too left, and the right is too right." And the Liberals get in power by either stealing from or working with the NDP or whatever conservative party is malfunctioning least at the moment.

There is no conspiracy, just that each the NDP and the CPC manage to attact people who are not hugely tied to the extremes of either side. For a lot of people, the CPC are a bunch of apes who want to enslave women and expel minorities. For another group of people, the NDP are a bunch of tree hugging hippies who want to double taxes. If you're scared of either socialists or barbarians, the uneasy centre between them has a lot of pull.

And it's not so bad for the country either. We get a progressive supreme court and a booming economy. Is it any wonder that Canadians keep on voting for the Liberals except in times like now when the inevitable massive corruption of a one-party political system become obvious?

Anonymous said...

What a very odd thing to say IP. If the NDP replaces the Liberals as the main center left party after "obliterating" them it will because more people voted for them. In which case they will represent the beliefs of more Canadians than the Liberals.

Imagine that.

Yet another NDP supporter who wants to be the thrid party forever.

Ian

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

late,

I never said 'conspiracy'. If you look closely, I think you'll find I said 'skewed voting system'. Or do you think those "majorities" the Liberals won before the last government actually represented most Canadians? "Natural governing" doesn't belong to anyone at all in Canada, not even the centre. And "good governing," actual good governing, would need to mean more than one party working together in order to get anywhere close to being truly representative. The system lies.

Ian,

Being the "third party" in a system where the NDP actually received 18% of the seats for 18% of the vote would be an entirely fair and reasonable place for the party to be. And then they wouldn't have to give up their soul for the privilege, either. Remember, I'm looking at this from an international perspective, not through the lens of Canada's ridiculous voting system.

As for why I think hugging the centre and obliterating the Liberals would be a bad move not just for Canada but for the NDP, well, I've talked about that before.

MarkC said...

IP, the thing you need to bear in mind is that Ontario was essentially founded by those Americans who were willing to leave their homes, property, and friends, rather than kick out King George III. We have a tradition of going to great lengths in order to be mistreated by the powers that be, and many people certainly believe in government by divine right.

MarkC said...

Your commenters illustrate my point. You argue that the very idea of a "natural governing party" is intrinsically undemocratic. They explain why the Liberals occupy this role, never addressing your actual position. The point is: most Canadians just don't get it. What can we do, though, except to keep trying?

LeoPetr said...

The Natural Governing Party notion may be surprising, but would Americans truly be puzzled by the Liberal-NDP relationship? After Gore conceded defeat to Bush in 2000, numerous Democrats blamed the Greens and Ralph Nader for something kin to "betraying the progressive cause". Their circumstances are even rather more amenable to the argument than ours. America's political system is less healthy in that respect than ours.

Herbinator said...

"international perspective"?
You always reveal more about you than about us.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Leons,

The Americans I've been talking to are aware that the NDP is a Canadian anomaly, and don't tend to compare them with the U.S. Greens. If anything, they compare the U.S. Greens with the Canadian Greens, which is probably equally inaccurate, though for different reasons.

herbinator,

I'm not sure what point you're making--of course my post is from my own perspective. All I'm saying is that that's a perspective formed by someone who's lived in many different countries, and that fact affects the way I see Canada.

Pyesetz the Dog said...

I think your jump from "natural governing party" to "one-party" state is rather extreme, as is the "sick sick political culture" comment (but then extremism in the defence of liberty, etc.)

A minority government is hardly a one-party state. To call the US a one-party state is an exaggeration (yes, the Democrats are completely shut out of all decision-making, but they are not silenced). Burma is a one-party state: the government denies that opposing parties have any right to exist.

If 40% of Canadians have political positions that match the Liberals, then it is and should be the natural governing party. Some have argued that Republicans are the natural governing party of the United States and have been since the Civil War. When they get too corrupt, the Democrats get a chance for one term, then things go back to normal with Republicans getting multiple terms in a row (Roosevelt was a gigantic exception). Canadians are just more comfortable with their similar situation.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

pyesetz,

You're certainly right that a minority government isn't a one-party state--I'll give you that. I'm glad for it, too. It's not a terribly stable situation, though, either. It's very hard to argue that Canada would be better off with a string of minority governments than it would be with actual stable majority coalitions. A minority government is the best we can do under the current system, but it's absolutely not the best we can do.

You seem to be missing the point of what I'm saying, though, which is that if we have a one-party culture, it's the closest thing you can get to a one-party state within a democracy. If most Canadians think it's inevitable that the Liberals will have a majority government sometime within the next couple of years, and all they have to do to achieve that is pick a new leader, come up with a few new ideas, and prove they're not corrupt thugs, then that has an effect on everything from the economy to feelings of political disenfranchisement. It's not good for the country--or, for that matter, for the Liberal Party. I would love to see the Liberals dig themselves out of the culture they're in and become contributing members of the Canadian political scene again, but that achievement will be hollow if we're just going to start the whole cycle all over again.

As for your comment about how 40% of the vote should enable the Liberals to be the natural governing party ... well, that just makes me shake my head. 40% of the vote for one party would mean that 60% of Canadians voted against them. Where's the mandate in that? Where's the justification for the sort of free rein that comes with a single-party majority government, much less achievement of "natural governing party" status?

late said...

idealistic: When I say that natural governing belongs in the centre I don't mean towards a particular party, I mean that in our FPP system all the parties need to appeal to a majority of voters which pushes them to be more centrists than the hardliners on each side would prefer. I just mean that a political party has to be near the centre to be palatable to the majority, and it's natural that a centrist party would do well under those circumstances because a majority of people are usually frightened by parts of the other side. The Liberals are effectively a resting place for people who can't stomach either of the more idealistic and principled parties.

Were we to abandon the FPP electoral system for a typical PR-ish system, there would be very little place for the Liberals because that system does not naturally skew towards the centre as hardliners can vote for their hardline party which can join a coalition with the various moderate groups to form a majority.

Finally, I apologizing for misapplying the term conspiracy to you.

Anonymous said...

Bravo. You've expressed the beautiful vibrancy of Canadian politics (politics can never be said to be beautiful, I suppose, but in the broader sense, Canadians can) in a way that shows a real, perceptive appreciation of the value, and the flaws, of our system. And you did it better than I could have. You make *me* proud to be Canadian, and hopeful for the future of this country, and I was born here.

Maybe one day, voting NDP in Alberta will have a real effect in Parliament.

So, belatedly then, welcome to Canada! I'm glad you're here. And though I'm not living there any longer, watch over that Edmonton-Strath riding, ok?

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

late,

Apology accepted, and thanks.

Centrist politics would almost certainly prevail under PR as well, actually, but it would arise in a different fashion. Rather than making one party responsible for twisting itself into a pretzel to make itself fit Canadian centrist views, it would involve different parties compromising with each other and coming up with solutions together. It would be a far more creative politics, with ideas arising from multiple points on the political spectrum before going through the Centrism Generator. And it would also be more consensus-driven. Centrism would still triumph--as it should, in a country like Canada--but it would be a far better situation all around.

anonymous,

My goodness. Keep that up, and I won't be able to fit my head through my office door! Thanks.

Pyesetz the Dog said...

I left out the effect of prop rep, which seems like a great idea for countering voter apathy. The Liberal's 40% makes them the "natural governing party" in the sense of naturally being the dominant member of a coalition government. Certainly it does not grant them a mandate for a majority government on their own.

I don't understand the "one-party state" in Canada, not having lived there (my app for permanent residence is still pending). But it may be similar to what the US will have in 2008, with a judiciary and bureaucracy stuffed with Republican appointees who block the moves of the new Democratic president and Congress. If that goes on long enough, people will start to expect that such is the way American government works.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

pyesetz,

I really don't think being the dominant member in a coalition government is what Canadians tend to mean when they call the Liberals the "natural governing party." If that is what they mean, though, then by all means, bring it on!

Good luck with your permanent residence application, by the way! Despite all my criticisms, I wouldn't want to be living anywhere else. What country are you living in now?

Josh Gould said...

No, "national governing party" simply refers to the fact that the Liberals have governed federally for most of the past seven decades, interrupted only by three Tory majorities and three short minorities (not including the present one). The "one-party state" argument is misleading at best. The Liberal Party has been dominant since the Depression, but it hasn't ruled without interruption, nor has it routinely governed in most provinces. They've been sucessfully primarily because they haven't been overly ideological, generally following the winds of popular opinion, and effectively co-opting or adapting some of the policies of significant opponents (eg. the CCF in 1945 and Reform in the mid-90s).

Interestingly, in this past election, the Liberals obtained their lowest share of the vote in Quebec since 1867, which doesn't exactly bode well for them.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Josh,

Yes, "one-party state" is an exaggeration. My point, however, as I already stated in response to another comment, is that as long as we have a one-party culture, we might as well have a one-party state.

And honestly, I don't care if the Liberals got that way by their lack of ideology or because of their dealings with Quebec or by being the best cha-cha dancers. If Canadians expect that having a Liberal government is just "the way of things"--that it's just inevitable no matter what they do or how badly they screw up--then that's not a healthy situation for either the country or the Liberal party. Surely you can see that?

Josh Gould said...

Oh, certainly. What I'd like to see is a three-party system with the Conservatives and NDP as contendors for power, like here in Nova Scotia. The Liberals, meanwhile, after going so long with no more principles that the pursuit of power, fade away as a declining third force. In NS, the NDP is dominant in Halifax, the Conservatives in the rural mainland, and the Liberals in declining Cape Breton.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Josh,

I have my preferences on how I'd ideally like the Canadian political landscape to look, too, but that takes a very strong back seat to the fact that no single party should be seen as the "natural governing party." I'm not interested in seeing the Liberals--or any other party--completely demolished, just demoted from that bloated status.