Is there a need for a centrist party in Canada?
May 25, 2012

Is there a need for a centrist party in Canada?

There have been times in history when there is a wide political space between the right most and left most parties. On the far left, one had advocates of something in the communist/socialist spectrum, and on the right one had not just Milton Friedman-esque free market advocates but perhaps more importantly were in a time when the modern social state with universal healthcare, old age supports, and the like, did not yet exist. There was room - ample room even - for a centrist party. A party which supported many of the social issues we all now take for granted, which implemented the modern, dare I say liberal, state. A party which did not fall to the egregiousness of the far left nor maintain the conservatism that would have retained a traditional, minimal, state.

Today, however, the differences between the parties are far smaller. The NDP under Jack Layton moved considerably into the center and undoubtably will continue to do so under Mulcair. Indeed, much of the rise of the NDP into opposition status can be credited not to the country moving in the direction of traditional NDP policies from the eighties or nineties, but by the NDP moving into the space once occupied by the Liberals. The word "socialism" remains in the NDP constitution as a vestigial organ not quite politically able to be excised. Conversely, the Conservatives, despite all that I may criticism them on, are objectively to the left of, say, the Republicans and even in many issues the Democrats in the US.

Somewhere between the Conservatives and the NDP lies the Liberals. I am not entirely surprised that they performed so badly in the past election; outside of an appeal to pragmatic moderation, they have struggled to identify core sets of values or policies that separates themselves from the other parties. With those options out, one is left with their reputation (strong, but tainted) and the leadership of the day which was very weak under Dion and Ignatieff. This is partly an issue of variance; overtime all parties will have relatively strong and weaker leaders but they need a strong party identity to fall back on during the weak times - this is what the Liberals lacked.

Take the Liberal's national convention last year on which there were two major discussions in terms of policy: the monarchy and marijuana. They were unable to ditch the monarchy what with the Conservatives fetishizing it so heavily. But they managed to jump to the left of the NDP's Thomas Mulcair by approving legalization of pot. Ideological consistency seems absent and instead they are all over the map poaching from both sides of the spectrum at once.

Perhaps the best measure of the space between parties can be seen at the level of tax rates. Since coming to office, Harper's Conservatives have reduced first the GST and then the corporate tax rate by a few percentage points. Liberals and NDP have opposed this in principal (although Liberals have supported such budgets over the years to prevent elections). Where exactly is the space for three parties here? When it comes down to merely adjusting rates by a few percent up or down, these are not gigantic differences to which multiple parties can make discrete and coherent claims to different parts of the spectrum. No party is proposing a radical transformation (despite their rhetoric) of the system, largely restraining themselves to relatively small fiddles with the existing system.

It is easy to argue for or against the relevance of a party depending on whether one supports that party politically. Perhaps a relevant non-partisan metric for whether a party is being relevant is this: are they bringing to the national table a body of values and ideas which are not already important parts of the discourse? They can be ideas I vehemently disagree with (such as many of the nationalist, anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim fringe parties on the right in Europe) but as long as they pass this litmus test than I cannot say they have no relevance in the national conversation. This is a perennial challenge for centrist parties because their ideas are being poached and extended on either side, just as they in turn poach from either side. Too bring something genuinely new is difficult and it is increasing difficult the less political space there is along the boundaries. The Liberals, I would argue, have broadly failed in the last half decade to bring new and independent ideas to the table.

It is also worth remembering that it is not as if the Liberals are the only centrist party to face decline. Across Europe, many of these parties with names such as Labour, Social or Christian Democrats, and Socialists, have or are currently suffering similar fates. My guess (and it really is only that) is that this larger trend has more to do with a declining relevance of political identity and loyalty in today's interconnected and global world, and the relative rise of single issue based politics (like abortion, say) which tend to be polarizing by nature. Or perhaps it is simply that accepted political ideas have narrowed in scope, particularly after 1989 and the fall of communism, which reduces the amount of political space available. Regardless of the reason, the centrist parties of the first world do seem to be in an inexorable decline.

The ball is certainly in the NDP's court. The Liberal claim that the NDP is inexperienced or unrealistic remains to be tested. Should they perform ably and demonstrate a capable position in the center-left, I see no added value to the Liberals as part of our national dialogue. However, the existence of the Liberals and the NDP (a much closer alliance than Liberals and Conservatives) puts a distinct disadvantage to the left in terms of winning elections. This disadvantage should only be tolerated should both parties be representing distinctly different sections of the political section such that each provides its own body of ideas. As yet, this is not the case. Whether the Liberals fade to irrelevance or make some form of merger with the NDP I don't much care, but there is little remaining value in the status quo.

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