Photo by Adam Jones/Global Photo Archive CC-BY-SA 2.0

In late September, the Liberal government delivered a throne speech outlining plans for economic recovery from the pandemic. Predictably, the official opposition decried the inadequacies of the government’s plans and signalled its intention to vote against the speech at its first opportunity. The Conservatives were joined by their provincial partisan counterparts in Alberta and Saskatchewan, all three pointing to shameful neglect of the oil and gas industry as the main failing of the federal government’s recovery plan.

A minority government could fall over a defeated throne speech, so attention shifted to the NDP. Although in broad agreement, the New Democrats discerned two major drawbacks in the Liberal plan: less money per week ($400) in the successor to the Canada Emergency Response Benefit than in the original ($500), and inadequate federal assistance for sick pay. They hinted they might even vote against the speech.

No worries: the very next day the Liberals announced they were accommodating the two NDP demands. The NDP indicated support for the throne speech, but reiterated that Liberals never do anything progressive without being pushed by the NDP.

The Alberta and Saskatchewan premiers continued muttering about Ottawa encouraging western separatism. In the National Post, John Ivison discerned a dark secret unfolding: a centre-left Liberal-NDP alliance threatening to take control of Canada. A failed candidate in the recent Conservative leadership contest wrote in the same paper that she had discerned a “socialist coup” underway at Justin Trudeau’s direction, one that relied not on force of arms but on the redistributive tax system.

The Liberals presented the most ambiguous face: were they really socialist zealots out to remake the country? Or were they reactionaries led into captivity by the NDP?

The Liberal Party of the last century was resolutely centrist in an age when catch-all brokerage parties, as opposed to programmatic parties, tended to be dominant. Political marketing in the pre-internet era favoured broad appeals to as wide a group of potential supporters as could be feasibly targeted. The old Liberals were masters at responding to shifts in public opinion from whatever direction. Were they facing the old Liberal Party, the NDP could justifiably fear that their partners in the de facto alliance might bolt to the right at the first opportunity. Now this fear would be misguided, but not because the Liberals have undergone conversion into a principled party of the left. The Liberals have adapted to a new age in political marketing by becoming a different kind of party, one that opportunistically recognizes the left of centre as more attractive than the right of centre for hunting Liberal votes.

The Liberals weren’t the only centrist brokerage party. Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives formed a broad centrist government in the late 1980s. But the PCs were virtually wiped off the electoral map in 1993, losing the West to the hard-right Reform Party and Quebec to the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois – two programmatic parties.

It’s largely a matter of political marketing in the new media age. In the past, party platforms were directed like aerial bombing in World War II: fly over the general area, open the bomb bays, and hope for the best. Broad centrist appeals to be all things to all people seemed the best approach to voters. However, new information technologies have enabled marketing that resembles the computer-guided precision targeting of missiles in contemporary warfare, with party advertising no longer designed to be all things to all people, but instead particular things to particular people.

The dirty secret of this political marketing is that it plays on divisions. When appeals can be calibrated to particular targeted groups, what one group gains, others lose. Successful party brands are as much defined by who are against it as by who are for it. “Our enemies are your enemies” is the implicit message to carefully targeted supporters. One result: across the Western world, what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., long ago dubbed the “Vital Centre” has been eroding. The fierce implacable tribalism of American politics marks the apex, or nadir, of this trend, but similar signs can be found elsewhere.

When the Conservative Party of Canada was born out of a hostile takeover of the remnant of the PCs by the Reform/Canadian Alliance in 2003, the new party staked out a more sharply defined centre-right position. The Harper governments (2006–15) established a near monopoly of the centre-right for the Conservative brand, for the most part displacing inroads the Liberals had made over the years among more conservative voters.

Though partisan divisions have never attained the brutally divisive levels of recent American politics, the rock-hard solidity of centre-right support for the Conservatives since Harper has been remarkable and has formed one of two broad clusters of political opinion. It appears to be diverging, at an accelerating rate, from the other cluster, which is moderately centre-left. The two clusters are not equally balanced. Public opinion research regularly shows the centre-left to represent about two thirds while the centre-right represents about one third of voters.

This imbalance has less political impact than might be expected, since the smaller centre-right is united behind the Conservative Party, yielding it political reach and seats beyond its base. This advantage is magnified by the fact that the centre-left is split among four parties: Liberal, NDP, BQ and Green. On a range of issues and values, supporters of these parties tend to be indistinguishable from one another, even as they maintain fierce partisan rivalry. True, BQ supporters are out of step with the rest of the centre-left on Quebec sovereignty, but differences tend to stop there. One particularly interesting survey compared Quebec sovereigntists to western separatists. The westerners were way to the right of mainstream opinion on a wide range of issues, while the Quebecers, except on the one issue of Quebec sovereignty, were situated squarely in the Canadian mainstream.

The partisan implications of the centre-left/centre-right distribution are further distorted by the regional distribution, starkly evident in the 2019 election results. The centre-right cluster is not only concentrated behind the Conservative Party but is regionally skewed. In Alberta the Conservatives swept 33 of 34 seats with a towering 69 per cent of the popular vote; in Saskatchewan the haul was all 14 seats on the basis of 65 per cent of the vote. This helped produce a Conservative popular vote plurality of 34 per cent in the country but a shortfall in seats, given all their “wasted” votes on the prairies.

It was also apparent, even before the results were in, that the only way Andrew Scheer could have become prime minister was with an outright majority of seats. None of the other parties could have countenanced supporting a Tory minority, except at the cost of alienating their own voters. The reason for this is the yawning policy divide between the Conservatives and all the other parties over the crucial issue of the environment versus economic development (for the latter, read pipelines and oil sands exports). Analysis of the centre-right/centre-left opinion clusters shows that a dramatic acceleration of differences over the past decade has been over this very issue. Centre-right voters increasingly privilege development of oil and gas and constructing pipelines over protection of the environment, while centre-left voters increasingly place the need to combat climate change ahead of further fossil fuel development. Pro–fossil fuel views are concentrated not only in partisan terms within the ranks of Conservative voters but also regionally in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

When the Conservatives made opposition to a national carbon tax the centrepiece of their 2019 campaign, they set in motion potent symbolic politics that were interpreted in diametrically opposite ways. For Conservatives, it seemed to be a case of saving the Canadian economy from environmental radicals out to tear it down. For the centre-left parties, it looked like saving the environment from climate change deniers. Exaggerations on both sides, no doubt, but the raw psychology of symbolic politics goes a long way toward explaining the predicament of a Tory party shut out of power in Parliament, as well as Alberta and Saskatchewan threatening western separation.

Andrew Scheer has departed but his successor, Erin O’Toole, owes a great deal of his successful leadership campaign to early intervention on his behalf by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Nor has O’Toole forgotten this. Since taking over the party reins, he has persistently raised western alienation as the most pressing problem facing the federal government, demanding major concessions from an “anti-western” Liberal government. The Conservatives continue to campaign against the carbon tax, in the courts and on the hustings, as if this were their signature brand.

The federal Conservative alliance with Alberta and Saskatchewan faces greater problems than being temporarily shut out of Ottawa. Not only has the pandemic brought the oil and gas industry close to disaster territory, but the place of fossil fuels in the post-pandemic economy is also in serious question. Major investors, state and private, have begun pulling out of fossil fuels, and oil and gas giants like BP, Shell and Total are joining the flight, shifting to greener alternatives to avoid being left holding stranded assets as the world’s leading economies set net zero-emission standards for the next decades.

The Liberals, in what may well prove their last effort at an old-fashioned centrist compromise, used billions in tax dollars to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline from the Texas owners who were bailing out. If they imagined this would bring any gratitude and political benefit to the Trudeau government, they were badly mistaken. Liberal political standing in Alberta could not be any worse if they had simply left Trans Mountain to die on the market. On the other hand, they have lost serious credit with environmentalists. Yet plans for guiding economic recovery by encouraging Alberta to shift its petro-economy to greener alternatives are angrily rejected as Ottawa interference, as Kenney doubles down on his oil sands cargo cult.

The centre does not hold.

There are a few cracks in the Conservative façade. Under pandemic pressure, Ontario Premier Doug Ford has become an enthusiastic booster for the federal Liberals, and has let it be known that in a future federal election he has no intention of supporting the federal Conservatives. In 2019, the federal Tories shut down Ford, judging him a liability, but invited Jason Kenney to campaign in Ontario for Andrew Scheer, so this may simply be payback time for Ford. For his part, the new Tory leader O’Toole has been quick to criticize Ontario’s handling of the pandemic recovery, contrasting it unfavourably with Kenney’s Alberta. Personal politics aside, Ford’s doubts about a united Conservative front may reflect a dawning recognition that the manufacturing heartland of Ontario has interests that diverge from the western petro-economy. Significantly, two major auto companies, Chrysler-Fiat and Ford, have announced plans to convert Ontario plants to manufacture of electric and hybrid vehicles.

From another direction, the Conservatives face a threat from the far right in the form of the “western” (read Alberta/Saskatchewan) separatist movement, now taking form as a political party under the leadership of former Conservative MP Jay Hill and calling itself the Maverick Party. If Kenney fails to gain major concessions from Ottawa or, less likely, if he compromises what separatists consider core western interests, the Mavericks just might cut into the Tory support base enough to render serious damage.

Over on the government side in Ottawa, it does seem most likely that the Liberals will continue to tack to the left on purely practical, opportunistic grounds if nothing else. Some may advocate further grand compromises with the petro-economy along the lines of the pipeline purchase, although with the forced departure of Bill Morneau, those Bay Street voices may have grown fainter. Smart hunters go where the ducks are, and there are precious few ducks for the Liberals on the right. On the other hand, the Liberals face the daily challenge of competition from their left in a fractured left-centre. The dangers are exacerbated by the first-past-the-post system. The more ground the Liberals concede to the NDP, BQ and Greens, the more likely it becomes that a regionally based Tory minority, if it can seal the cracks in its own base, might just slip back into majority government.

The political landscape for the post-pandemic recovery is daunting, with frustrating policy gridlock one potential outcome. Given the hard realities of the current political configuration, Liberal leadership of the centre-left toward a socially responsible and more equitable green recovery might seem the best hope. As partisans, the NDP, BQ and Greens will be unhappy about this, but in terms of advancing the interests of their progressive supporters, it may just be the most practical way forward.