Image via People’s Party of Canada.

All the political parties in Parliament at dissolution could see 2021 as the Groundhog Day election, from the movie in which Bill Murray is fated to relive the same day over and over. The Prime Minister called an election that nobody wanted, in which everyone lost and all the parties ended up pretty well where they started.

Easy to miss in this static situation were signs of ground shifting on the Right. Erin O’Toole led the Conservatives to two fewer seats than in 2019, but a more significant development was his effort to move his party toward the more moderate centre-right, especially by embracing carbon pricing to combat climate change (anathema in 2019) and hinting at a more egalitarian postpandemic economic recovery. Intelligent Conservatives are well aware that his strategy of tacking toward the centre is the only viable way forward if Conservatives are to have a future in a country where two thirds or so of voters do not share or identify with enough core conservative values to make the party consistently competitive. The problem for O’Toole was that the hard right continually pulled him back from moving far enough to the centre. On gun control and the vaccination mandate, O’Toole was forced into flip-flopping and evasion. This added to the aura of inauthenticity that already attached to his image stemming from his cultivation of the right wing to win the leadership followed by his policy volte face after taking over.

In the postelection period, the recalcitrant and unrepentant Right poses a continuing threat to O’Toole’s leadership and to the centre-right strategy. Stephen Harper built a rock-solid core base for the Conservative Party – united, it could outperform a much larger centre-left that was split four ways. In the face of Justin Trudeau’s quasi-unification of the centre-left under the Liberal banner in 2015, the Conservatives doubled down on their base and its peculiar obsessions, which served only to drive centre-left voters further into the arms of the Liberals.

The Conservative base survived intact through Andrew Scheer’s term as leader. However, under stress following the 2021 election, the possibility of its splintering rightward can no longer be ruled out. This leads to the one new development coming out of an election in which little changed at all.

The weirdest thing of all about the 2021 election is that if the five parties with seats in Parliament were all marginal losers or at best at a standstill, the one party that failed to elect anyone might be seen as a kind of winner. Maxime (Mad Max) Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada (PPC) put up a slate of candidates across the country, and despite being excluded from the leaders’ debates broke through to near 5 per cent of the national vote, while managing to assert its presence at the centre of political controversy. The PPC represents the only new element in the 2021 mix. Its initial run in 2019 yielded little sign of sustainability, but two years on it has demonstrated at least the potential to become a permanent fixture, as opposed to a brief spark soon to fizzle out.

The future of Bernier’s party is an important question, given the unprecedented infusion of Trumpian-style far-right populism into a Canadian political scene that has been exceptional for the relative absence of illiberal and authoritarian movements. Take for instance the virulently racist anti-immigrant thinking introduced by the rise of neofascist parties in Europe or by the premptive conversion of existing conservative parties like the Republicans to aggressive anti-immigrant policies. Neither has occurred in Canada, yet. Now we have the PPC seizing the opportunity. If it becomes a permanent presence in our politics, Canadian exceptionalism will have ceased.

When do third parties survive?

Looking at the history of the rise and persistence of third parties in Canada offers some clues as to the PPC’s staying power. We now have a full century of third parties challenging the Liberal-Conservative duopoly at the federal level. In 1921 the Progressive Party displaced the Conservatives as the second largest grouping in the House, but it disappeared by the end of the decade. In the 1930s, in the midst of the Great Depression, a number of new parties appeared, two of which were to survive: the social democratic CCF, which lives on today as the NDP; and the right-wing populist Social Credit, which carried on for decades, disappeared, and was then reborn in the Reform / Canadian Alliance, which subsequently took over the Progressive Conservative remnants and transformed itself into one of the two dominant parties. At the same time that Reform was rising in the west, the Bloc Québécois arose in Quebec, where its core base continues down to today. More recently yet, the Greens have appeared as a fringe party.

Over the past century, there were other new parties that tried and failed to catch hold. Will the PPC be enduring or ephemeral? One way of answering this question is to examine what the relatively successful third parties have had in common.

First, each of them has presented at its inception a more programmatic, ideological vision than the pragmatic brokerage catch-all duopoly parties. Crucially, the ideological program these parties wished to represent was inadequately represented by the duopoly parties – there was an underexploited political space open. Over time the new party’s ideological distinctiveness may fade but the party persists even on a reduced difference scale or finds more mundane grounds for survival. The BQ has morphed from the aggressively sovereigntist party of 1993 to the parochial pork-barrel Quebec First party of today, while still offering a home to the dwindling band of true believers in sovereignty. The NDP has become much more a political party than the social movement the CCF once was, but it is also home to recurrent attempts at radicalization, from the Waffle of the 1970s to the Leap Manifesto of today. The important point is that at their inception these parties caught a strong enough wave of public discontent to build a lasting presence.

In this context, the PPC case is ambiguous. There is no doubt about its ideology: neoliberal economics (echoing the libertarian lines that Bernier as a Tory minister often invoked); anti-elitist cultural resentment of perceived favouring of immigrants, ethnic and racial minorities, feminists and LGTBQ persons; authoritarian ordering and the invocation of violence and intimidation against opponents as legitimate weapons to restore the rule of the “People” defined in an exclusionary manner. In short, very much a Canadian version of Trumpism. As such it might be seen as having roots in an underexploited political space that has only sporadically and hesitantly attracted the attention of the Conservative Party in the past.

This space existed in the 2019 election, yet the PPC went nowhere. Why did it ignite a small conflagration on the far right of the spectrum in 2021? The very specific conditions of the late pandemic period certainly played a role. The nerves and patience of ordinary people have been stretched further than ever before by state regulation of their behaviour and the imposition of strict rules like mask mandates, quarantine periods and limitations on public gatherings, with promise of victory over the virus and a return to normality receding in the face of the Fourth Wave. The anti-vaccination movement, already well established prior to the pandemic, has now joined forces with the libertarian fringe, the climate change deniers, the enemies of science and the Q-Anon-type conspiracy theorists to form a virulent rabble of dissidents ready to be mobilized for mischief.

Cue Maxime Bernier who, Trump-like, dropped all pretence of civility and respect for the rule of law and turned to inflammatory incitement of the hotheads. The kind of publicity generated by PPCers throwing gravel at the Prime Minister, while others held posters depicting Trudeau being strung up for execution, might disgust mainstream opinion. But this publicity was pure gold for a new party seeking to bring attention to itself among the angry, violence-prone mobs it was seeking to mobilize politically.

Even this might not have been enough to push its national vote to 5 per cent except for another fortuitous factor: Erin O’Toole’s decision to try to move the Conservative Party back to the centre-right once occupied by the old Progressive Conservative Party but abandoned by Harper and his harder-line Reform faction. Resentment at this ideological moderation may well have hived off enough fringe Conservative supporters to actually defeat a few Conservative candidates in close contests, although it did not add up to any actual PPC wins.

The key question is whether this volatile brew whipped up in 2021 is a lasting part of the political culture, in which case the PPC might well have a longer shelf life than most observers have accorded it, or a momentary one-off reaction to the current crisis configuration, in which case it will be quickly forgotten.

The voting system dimension

There is another condition for successfully launching a third party in Canada that cuts across these other variables. The first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system imposes one stringent survival demand on hopeful new parties. Every new party that has outlived its inception has done so on the basis of establishing a regional base or bases of concentrated support where popular votes can actually be translated into seats, as opposed to being lost by being diffused across the country. Social Credit and its Reform successor were rooted in Alberta (and briefly and weirdly in rural Quebec in the early 1960s), the CCF in Saskatchewan, the BQ in Quebec. The Greens, with support a mile wide and an inch deep, would have struggled to gain a foothold were it not for their success in establishing a small base on Vancouver Island, generating a handful of MPs and MLAs in British Columbia.

The PPC has no real regional base but looks like a model of a party with a small number of votes diffused across too many constituencies to add up to a single elected member. Twice it has failed to elect its would-be charismatic leader in his former constituency, where he once had a formidable personal following as a Conservative. If the PPC is to survive, it has to find an effective regional base, but it’s not obvious what that might be. Even a deeply alienated Alberta and Saskatchewan could turn instead to a western separatist party.

The rise of Donald Trump shows an alternative path to success for an insurgent force, although less suited to the Canadian than to the American situation in which the two-party system is more porous and absorptive and more embedded than the Canadian duopoly. Third parties have never become a permanent part of the national political system in the United States. Donald Trump, instead of running as a third-party disrupter, fastened parasite-like onto the Republican Party as host, and used it to gain national office while seizing control of the party apparatus, a control outlasting his defeat in 2020.

The takeover of the Progressive Conservatives by the Reform / Canadian Alliance followed this path, but it was only possible after Reform had far surpassed the PCs in House seats, winning 52 seats in the 1993 election while the PCs were reduced to a derisory two MPs, and retaining its advantage in subsequent elections. The PPC is hardly in a comparable position relative to today’s Conservatives. The only real possibility here would be if O’Toole were to be ejected as Conservative leader by the party’s right wing, which would then invite the PPC into a more extreme hard-line Conservative Party. But this would constitute the absorption of the PPC by the Conservatives rather than a PPC takeover. It might also signal serious trouble for the Conservative Party, as O’Toole’s “leftward” tack was no more than a recognition that the hard right was out of touch with the mainstream. The inclusion of the unruly rabble-rousing PPCers would only add to the extremist odium.

On the other hand, if O’Toole survives internal challenges to his leadership and is able to steer the Conservative ship to the centre-right while successfully discouraging enough CPC breakaways to avoid serious vote-splitting on the right, then the PPC’s sudden rise in 2021 may be bookended by its equally quick demise by the time of the next election.

If a PPC takeover of the Conservative Party lacks plausibility, so do PPC prospects for life as a permanent third-party presence in the Canadian system. Only in the event of an unending pandemic crisis, with all the chaos and upheaval that implies, can one discern a likely afterlife for Bernier’s dissidents.

These prognostications on the PPC’s future have all been based on the existing FPTP voting system. The production of yet another minority Parliament in 2021 – the fifth minority in the past seven elections and the 11th in the 22 elections since 1957 – has once again stirred critical voices calling for a more proportional system of representation. The steadily declining proportion of the total vote captured by the old-party duopoly offers further evidence that a traditional justification of FPTP – that it produces viable majority governments – has clearly failed. Worse, the parliamentary process is structured around the idea that governments will normally command a single-party majority, making minority Parliaments volatile and unstable. They rarely last more than two years before a government suffers defeat or Parliament is dissolved by a prime minister seeking – and often failing, as Justin Trudeau failed this time – to secure a majority.

Interestingly, while Trudeau notoriously broke his promise that 2015 would be last election carried out under FPTP, he threw out the possibility of a renewed vote reform effort on the 2021 campaign trail. While this was rightly received with much cynicism, Trudeau may have been alluding to a possible precondition for gaining NDP support in another minority.

If PR supporters have been reinvigorated, supporters of the FPTP status quo have pounced on the rise of the PPC as yet another argument against any voting innovation. PR backers are being warned, or scolded, that they would be opening the door to extremist parties. The rise of the far-right AfD in Germany is cited, as well as the parliamentary presence of other extremist parties in European PR systems.

It is a valid question for PR proponents. Extreme radical parties are more likely to find a foothold in PR systems, even when cutoff thresholds like the German threshold of 5 per cent of the national vote are imposed (the PPC might have passed this threshold if PR had been in effect in 2021). Is it a good or bad thing to allow a parliamentary platform for parties that spread racial hatred and democratic distrust, and have little or no respect for constitutional norms? Is it more democratic to allow representation of even repugnant views than to exacerbate feelings among marginalized voters that they are are being silenced and ignored, which may only inflame their potentially violent alienation? This is worth a debate in itself, and there is no time to enter it here. But if electoral reform is raised again, the PPC question will loom large.

There is a final irony in the 2021 electoral debacle. Just when a consensus seemed to be forming across party lines around the central issue that divided parties in 2019 – the carbon tax and climate policy – and with it a common front on the most serious issue facing the country postpandemic, the prospect of a reckless new radical party directly challenging civility, trust and respect for due process and the rule of law might seriously disrupt the entire system. as Trump did to such devastating and apparently lasting effect in the United States. We are by no means there yet and hopefully never will be. But even a small dark cloud on the horizon that will not dissipate is worrying enough.

For more on the 2021 Canadian election, click to read The East is (Still Mostly) Red, by Patrick Webber. And for the rest of our Inroads 50 elections coverage, check out Elections Bring Change (Except in Canada).