Robert Laird Borden and Wilfrid Laurier circa 1910. At the time of this photo, Laurier was Prime Minister of Canada, and Borden was Leader of the Opposition

With time, the federal election of 2011 may be seen as a crucial realignment election, like 1935 or 1993. In realignment elections, the party system undergoes a fundamental structural change. In 1935, two new parties appeared, the social democratic predecessor of the NDP and a right-wing Alberta-based populist predecessor of the Reform Party that in 1993 wrecked and then eventually swallowed the old Progressive Conservatives. 1993 also saw the rise of the Bloc Québécois as a sovereigntist presence in the federal Parliament.

2011 saw the destruction of the BQ by an NDP tsunami in Quebec. That, combined with the collapse of the Liberal Party across Canada, gave the NDP Official Opposition status and the Harper Conservatives their longed-for majority. The Liberal collapse sent a shock wave through the Canadian political system. With deep roots going back to pre-Confederation Canada, the Liberals are the centrist brokerage party that dominated the country from the 1890s through the 1990s and have marked every aspect of Canadian life, from the economy to the constitution to the cultural symbols of the nation. They are the party of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau, icons of Canadian statesmanship.

George Dangerfield, author of The Strange Death of Liberal England, detailed the collapse of British Liberalism on the eve of the First World War. A century later, it is time to analyze the “strange death of Liberal Canada.” To understand this “strange death,” it is best to focus not on the fate of a political party, but on the deeper meaning of the party’s passage from domination to collapse. Parties are important not in themselves, but for what their success, and failure, can tell us about the politics of the country. Something very important has happened to our politics: the disintegration of the political centre. One need not have any loyalty or emotional attachment to the Liberal Party to conclude that this is not necessarily good news.

We might start with the dimensions of the Liberal collapse. Between 1896 and 2004, there were 30 federal general elections: the Liberals won 21, the Conservatives nine. During these years Liberal governments were in office 72 per cent of the time, the Tories only 28 per cent. This was the long Liberal century. The Liberals were the “Government Party,” the most successful political party in the Western world throughout the 20th century.

That was then. After Jean Chrétien’s third straight majority in 2000, the Liberals under Paul Martin limped to a minority in 2004 while polling 269,811 fewer votes – a loss of 5.1 per cent of their 2000 support. In 2006, Martin’s party lost government, and polled 502,805 fewer votes – a loss of 10.1 per cent. In 2008, under Stéphane Dion, the Liberal losses accelerated: 846,230 fewer Liberal votes than two years earlier, a loss of 18.9 per cent. And finally, in 2011 under Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals fell to third place, in the process polling 850,010 fewer votes, a loss of 23.4 per cent. In four elections in 11 years, the Liberals have lost a staggering total of 2,468,856 votes, close to half those who voted Liberal in 2000. And of these losses, 1,696,240 were recorded in the last two elections, in 2008 and 2011.

This is a profile of a party that is heading downhill, and picking up speed as it goes. It is perhaps conceivable that the Liberals will bounce back to edge ahead of the NDP as official, if distant, opposition to the Conservatives. More likely, they have now become a marginal third party that will linger as a shrunken shadow of its former glory. Perhaps we are actually witnessing the death throes of Canadian Liberalism, just as we witnessed the death throes of the old Progressive Conservative Party from 1993 to 2003. Whatever happens, the Liberals will never again be the Government Party of old. It is not their vertiginous loss of popularity that has led to the demise of the Government Party model, but rather the demise of the model itself that has led to the copious Liberal bleeding.

The first pillar: Quebec

Looking back over the years of Liberal domination, three pillars of a successful Government Party stand out. The first and most obvious is Liberal domination of Quebec, which dates back to the late 19th century and Canada’s first national unity crisis, the hanging of Louis Riel in 1885 by Sir John A. Macdonald. Formerly dominant in Quebec, the Bleus never really recovered. Wilfrid Laurier, the first French Canadian leader of a national party, brought the Liberals to power in 1896 on a Quebec wave.

Laurier finally lost his grip on national office in 1911, when a combination of anti–free trade Tories under Sir Robert Borden and breakaway Quebec nationalists under Henri Bourassa fatally undercut his support. But the Conservatives proved incapable of reabsorbing Quebec into their fold. In the conscription crisis of 1917, a Union government of Conservatives and pro-conscription English Canadian Liberals succeeded in forcing conscription down unwilling Quebec throats – and also succeeded in crushing Tory electoral chances in Quebec for the next 40 years.

Liberal hegemony in Quebec formed the institutional embodiment of the elite accommodation mechanism that glued the binational state together. The Liberals capitalized on the incapacity of their Conservative opponents to sustain a Quebec base. Twice in the 20th century, the Conservatives made major breakthroughs into the francophone Quebec electorate, thereby yielding national majorities. Twice they fumbled their opportunities. In 1958 John Diefenbaker won 50 of 75 Quebec seats. Four years later, in the face of Tory incomprehension of the emerging Quiet Revolution, the foothold was lost. In 1984, under Quebecer Brian Mulroney, the PCs swept Quebec, a feat repeated in 1988. Yet by 1993, the party’s Quebec wing was virtually destroyed by massive defections to the new BQ led by Mulroney’s former Quebec lieutenant, Lucien Bouchard.

In contrast, the Liberals from Laurier to Trudeau more or less competently managed the delicate negotiation of elite accommodation between English Canada and Quebec. Laurier effectively finessed the contentious Manitoba schools question that threatened English-French relations in the 1890s. During the Second World War, Mackenzie King’s studied ambiguity (“Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription”) manoeuvred Canada past the jagged reefs of intercommunity crisis that had shipwrecked Borden in the previous war. Pierre Trudeau faced down the challenge of Quebec secession in the 1980 sovereignty-association referendum with an ambiguous promise of “renewed federalism”; 15 years later, Jean Chrétien faced down a more acute challenge in the second referendum, and left office in 2003 with the sovereigntist threat considerably diminished.

The positive Liberal record on the national unity file in part may represent simply good luck and good timing, but sustained success over the decades cannot be entirely attributed to chance. Facing the one challenge that has always held the potential to tear apart our federalist state, the Liberals knew how to manage Quebec nationalism. This was a particular Liberal skill in governance.

To understand the Liberal knack for managing an always restive Quebec, one must understand what Liberals meant by “national unity.” To the indignation of Quebec nationalists and sovereigntists, and to the bafflement and frustration of critics in English Canada on both right and left, the Liberal sense of national unity deliberately lacked content. It contained no vision of the Good, of the ideal Canada to be counterposed to the vision of a sovereign Quebec. Normally, it meant “more of the same” or, at most, a rejigging here and there of existing arrangements with the end goal of preserving the system intact. But this was the point: any attempt to articulate a “Canadian” countervision would open up a hornet’s nest of competing and sometimes mutually exclusive notions of what kind of Canada and Quebec was desirable. Thus the fiascos of Meech Lake and Charlottetown, when Mulroney unwisely “rolled the dice.” His Liberal successor Chrétien stoutly resisted any so-called “Plan C” for English Canada in the wake of the 1995 near-miss referendum, and he was prudent to do so.

The closest any Liberal government came to erecting a countervision to Quebec sovereignty was Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, his “people’s package” in the patriation debate. But even though the Charter raised controversies over the relative place of First Nations, women, gays and lesbians, etc., in the end it too conformed to the Liberal emphasis on procedural rather than substantive justice.

National unity became a watchword of Liberal politics, indeed a virtual Liberal campaign slogan, one largely successful for decades. This, however, never meant that English Canada and Quebec shared a positive vision of federalism, even in the eloquent and powerful articulation of Trudeau. It finally came down to this: the Liberals represented federalism in a Quebec that was, following the creation of the Parti Québécois in the late 1960s, rent by a sovereignty-vs.-federalism dichotomy that tended to displace all other criteria for political choice. That Liberal federalism was without much social or economic content long appeared to be strength rather than weakness. One could choose to block the sovereigntist project by voting for a party that covered over the issues that otherwise divided federalists.

Over time this conjuring trick fooled fewer and fewer. First the Liberals lost francophone voters to Mulroney’s Tories, then failed to regain them with the emergence of the BQ. Chrétien’s three majorities were built not on a Liberal Quebec but on a Liberal Ontario. The sponsorship scandal discredited Liberal federalism in the eyes of both Québécois and Anglo-Canadians. In 2006 Harper eked out a minority government. When francophone voters finally grew weary of the BQ’s fixation on sovereignty, they did not turn to a party defined by little more than its federalist faith. Instead they decided to shrug off the tired sovereignty-federalism polarization and vote for a party that had a social and economic agenda that accorded with the BQ’s social democratic philosophy, minus its overriding nationalist preoccupation. In other words, Quebec voters tentatively opted to rejoin the larger Canadian political community by choosing a pan-Canadian social democratic alternative to a right-of-centre government. With that decision, the Liberal Party’s ancient Quebec pillar finally collapsed.

The second pillar: executive federalism

The second pillar of the Government Party model was related to the first. As the national unity party, the Liberals were also the party of the federal – the national – government. It was the Liberals who managed, without benefit of coalition, the national war effort from 1939 to 1945. It was the Liberals who managed the transition to peacetime with no Depression-era unemployment and who orchestrated a quasi-Keynesian “Ottawa knows best” era of prosperity into the late 1950s. It was the Pearson Liberals who presided over the biggest increase ever in the welfare state with the introduction of medicare and the Canada Pension Plan. It was Pearson who gave us the maple leaf flag as a distinctive symbol of national pride (craftily linked to the red-and-white Liberal logo).

Despite attemps by the right to label it as such, the Liberals neither intended nor sold their policies to the electorate as dirigisme or socialism. If anything, they defined themselves as ideologically neutral, as managerial and technocratic. In the Liberal telling, the national government was more competent than the provinces in protecting the interests of the Canadian community – including French and English Canada, the western and Atlantic regions, rich and poor, the private and public sectors.

In associating themselves with the national government, the Liberals were always careful to maintain their federalist credentials, which meant dealing with provincial governments in a quasi-diplomatic manner. Under Liberal guidance the distinctive Canadian form of executive federalism emerged: a Liberal Ottawa would deal evenhandedly with provincial governments of all partisan and ideological stripes. From the late 1930s through the late 1950s, Liberal governments in Ottawa faced Maurice Duplessis’s Union Nationale in Quebec, and federal Liberals in Quebec and the UN observed a mutual nonaggression pact in federal and provincial elections. A somewhat similar situation existed de facto in Ontario where the provincial Tories remained in office from the early 1940s to the mid-1980s: Tory Ontario was often the ally of Liberal Ottawa, as in 1981–82 when Tory premiers Bill Davis of Ontario and Richard Hatfield of New Brunswick were Trudeau’s sole provincial allies in the great constitutional patriation battle.

The point here is that Liberal nationalism – if we can call it that – was nonpartisan or at least very low-key partisan. Ottawa Liberals were never eager to put their own party on the line on behalf of provincial Liberals who in office often proved more formidable antagonists than provincial governments of a different colour – witness the warlike relations between Ontario’s Mitch Hepburn and Mackenzie King in the 1930s, or the tough negotiations between Lester Pearson and Quebec’s Jean Lesage in the 1960s.

Starting with John Diefenbaker’s 1958 electoral sweep, the Liberal identification with the national state began to flash warning signs. The west, especially the prairies, grew restive about federal governments that seemed disengaged from western concerns. With the exception of Trudeau’s “just society” 1968 election, the federal Liberal vote in the western provinces never recovered. Rejection of the Liberals in the west reached new highs under Trudeau. In Trudeau’s 1980 return to power, only two Liberal MPs were elected west of Ontario. The Trudeau government then embarked on the National Energy Program that was, and has remained to this day, anathema in Alberta. The rise of the west was imposing a new reality on the Canadian political economy, and the Liberals’ identification with the national state pitted them in a structural conflict with powerful province-building projects across the west. This weakened the national government, and the Liberal Party.

Events beyond Canada also spelled increasing difficulty for both the federal government and the Liberal Party. The decline of economic growth rates in the 1970s led to the rise of Thatcherism in Britain and Reaganism in the United States. Faith in the Keynesian welfare state faltered. Liberal identification with the national government had always been about Liberals as sound economic managers, and the federal bureaucracy as the competent custodian of the national interest. As markets came to be favoured over politics, and government came to be seen as more the problem than the solution, this second pillar of the Government Party model was seriously undermined.

The third pillar: the Liberals as chameleons

The third pillar of the Government Party model was the agility of the Liberal Party over many decades in identifying and capturing for its own electoral benefit the prevailing direction of the ideological winds in the country. Observers who have chosen points at which the Liberals veered left might conclude that the Liberals are “really” socialists in slow motion; observers who chose points at which they veered right might conclude that they are “really” conservative wolves disguised as moderate sheep. The best description of Liberal policy and ideology over the decades is neither of the above. The Liberals were chameleons: lizards able to change colours to match the immediate environment, so as to minimize the risk of exposure to enemies.

At crucial points in the 20th century, the Liberals veered leftward to co-opt a spike in left-wing public sentiment and thus pre-empt the potential rise of a rival party to the Liberals’ left. In the 1945 election, following the rise of the social democratic CCF, the King government promised a “New Social Order”: family allowances, a national housing policy, a strong federal role in maintaining full employment, etc. In the 1960s, after the founding of the NDP on a solid trade union financial base, the Pearson Liberals brought in a national medicare scheme (after its tumultuous introduction in Saskatchewan by the CCF-NDP) and the Canada Pension Plan. From 1972 to 1974, Trudeau managed a minority by working closely with the NDP. In 1980, Trudeau made a startling return from the dead by campaigning against an austerity budget by the short-lived Clark government, and then moved in office to the ill-fated National Energy Program, foreign investment review and other left-of-centre policies. One last gasp of Liberal leftism came in 2008 with the doomed Liberal-NDP coalition bid that was only averted by Harper’s prolonged prorogation of Parliament.

There is another side of the historical ledger. After returning to office in 1935, Mackenzie King led a government that was, in the desperate context of the Great Depression, one of the most conservative in Canadian history. The Louis Saint-Laurent–C.D. Howe Liberal governments of the 1950s were thoroughly rooted in corporate capitalist Canada. In the 1990s, the Chrétien-Martin Liberals slashed spending and eliminated the deficit that had bedevilled the Mulroney governments of the 1980s.

The Liberals were neither left nor right; they were the classic brokerage party, an electoral and governing machine that tries to put together a coalition of voters that can stay ahead of the competition, whatever direction voters move at any given moment. That formula works best when the brokerage party sits astride the political process as the dominant force, and when it is the only credible alternative when in opposition. This latter condition has vanished now that the Liberals have slid to minor party status. Michael Ignatieff appealed to voters in 2011 not so much as a positive left-centre alternative to the Conservatives as with the old refrain that only the Liberals could form a government. Like the cartoon coyote who runs off the edge of the cliff yet continues on thin air until he finally looks down, the Liberals believed their own conjuring trick – until May 2. No longer a credible governing party, nor the only credible alternative, the Liberal Party with its brokerage politics looks much less attractive. It is a party that stands for little, other than the delusion that it is entitled to office.

Mulroney’s failure and what it tells us

Failing Liberal brokerage politics is part of the explanation for the Liberals’ demise. To fully grasp the extent of the changes that have overtaken Canadian politics in the past three decades, we must turn to the Progressive Conservatives’ inability to establish themselves as a governing party. When Brian Mulroney assumed office in 1984, his government seemed to be the fulfilment of the Government Party model. The Tories held a majority or plurality of seats in every province and region. A Quebec leader had stolen that province from the Liberals and added the west, which had abandoned the Liberals since Diefenbaker. Mulroney in office eschewed the harder ideological examples of his fellow conservatives Thatcher and Reagan to follow a more pragmatic brokerage model. No axes were taken to social programs; he introduced a major new tax, the GST, to pay for pensions, UI, transfers to provinces and so on. A confident national government negotiated free trade with the United States. Mulroney also negotiated the Meech Lake agreement that promised to “bring Quebec back into the Constitution” after its isolation over Trudeau’s patriation. Grasping all three pillars of the old model, seemingly with more conviction than his opponents, Mulroney appeared poised to inherit the mantle of the Government Party.

It did not happen. A populist backlash in English Canada defeated the Meech Lake Accord, and disaffection with pragmatic PC policy flared on the right. In Mulroney’s second term, the PCs were riven by massive defections – in Quebec to the BQ and in the west to the Reform Party. After Mulroney abandoned the field to Kim Campbell, she won a derisory two seats in the 1993 election. The PCs never recovered.

The crucial point of this story is that the Mulroney attempt at brokerage failed because of two new parties that were quite different in nature both from each other and from either the PCs or the Liberals. Both Reform and the BQ were resolutely ideological in origin, explicitly rejecting the centrist policies that had characterized the Mulroney years. The BQ’s raison d’être was independence for Quebec, a goal to which all other policy was subordinated. Reform rejected the economic and social policies of the centre, calling instead for strong economic and social conservatism and radical populist innovations in direct democratic control of representatives (free votes, initiatives, referendums, recall).

The PC collapse of 1993 was not just another electoral setback for an old-line brokerage party; it was a signal of how politics would henceforth be played. To be sure, the BQ failed in its raison d’être. Reform underwent one transformation into the Canadian Alliance and then took over the PCs, forming the new Harperite Conservative Party. Superficially, we seem to have returned to the old party system that prevailed prior to 1993. Appearances are deceiving. The BQ took francophone Quebec out of the old game of elite accommodation, with consequences yet to be fully counted. Equally important, the ideological DNA of Reform/Alliance that went into the new Conservative Party has produced a hybrid beast that has branched off from the old Lib/Con Government Party evolutionary tree.

The Conservatives’ wedge politics

When the new Conservative Party was founded, it quickly shucked off the direct democracy component of Reform ideology. The sole surviving remnant was fixed election dates, which Harper enacted – then promptly ignored in 2008. This is no surprise since Harper had long been a critic of the direct democracy element of Reform ideology. While populist democracy was a mainly western enthusiasm, the Calgary-based but Toronto-born Harper drew on Mike Harris’s Common Sense Revolution in Ontario as inspiration both for the new party’s economic and social ideology and for its political and electoral strategy.

The Harris program for Ontario was largely Thatcherite and Reaganite in content, sharply to the right of the bland Red Toryism of the Frost-Robarts-Davis years. As important as the changing content of policy was the changing shape of the party as a vote- getting enterprise. The Harris party was rebranded for the new political science of micromarketing. It was no longer a party but a virtual party: the Conservative franchise chain sold a product, the Common Sense Revolution, and Mike Harris was its public face. What was new was the marketing concept: the product was not designed for the largest possible number of possible buyers, and thus watered down to the lowest common denominator acceptable to the largest number. That was old-style thinking. New media and polling tools permitted the identification and targeting of niche markets that could be persuaded to vote Tory by specific promises. Political campaigning focused singlemindedly on these microconstituencies. In office the Harrisites were relentless in fulfilling promises to microconstituencies, and were rewarded with a solid vote in their 1999 reelection.

Political micromarketing was an import from the United States. The Clinton Democrats had been adept at identifying target niches (the famous “soccer moms”). The Harris Tories went beyond identifying potential positives by seeking “wedge issues” deliberately designed to be divisive.

All significant public policy creates winners and losers. The Harrisites grasped an important element in the new science of micromarketing: the visible anger of the losers confirms the support of the winners. There was an enormous backlog of resentment built up after years of mildly left-of-centre governance by the David Peterson Liberals and the Bob Rae New Democrats. The Tories tapped into it. “Taxpayers” were pitted against the “special interests.” When these “interests” reacted to attacks on their “entitlements” with strikes and demonstrations, this only deepened the commitment of the “taxpayers” (winners with big provincial tax cuts) by showing that their enemies (unionized workers, students, feminists, gays and lesbians, Aboriginals, etc.) had been made losers. Wedge politics is a zero-sum game, based not so much on class as on ressentiment.

One crucial caveat: this kind of politics works best when the right is united and the centre-left is divided. Such was the case in Ontario where the Liberals and NDP divided the vote to the left of the Tories. In this scenario, a minority coalition of niche constituencies can command power over a divided majority. A decade after Mike Harris, Stephen Harper and his marketing and PR gurus stepped into this opportunity at the federal level. Flush with cash from phenomenally successful fundraising (much of it based on niche constituencies like evangelicals), the Conservatives have launched what Tom Flanagan, insider party scholar-activist par excellence, has called the “permanent campaign.”1 A 24/7 partisan avalanche of negative advertising designed to frame Tory opponents as unworthy destroyed two successive Liberal leaders, Stéphane Dion (“Not much of a leader”) and Michael Ignatieff (“Just visiting”), in the minds of voters before these leaders could define themselves. The permanent campaign rests on relentless partisanship: every issue is infused with partisan rancour in which the opposition parties are tarred with negative invective. The point is not to present the government’s accomplishments in a positive light, but to frame the opposition in the most negative light.

The practitioners of negativity believe that voters can be conditioned more readily by fear than by hope. This is not a new insight. Machiavelli asked long ago if fear or love was the more valuable asset for the Prince. His answer was unequivocal: men love at their own free will, but fear at the will of the Prince, and the wise Prince relies on what is in his power and not in the power of others. Harper as Prince is a good Machiavellian.

Wedge issues fit well into the negativity of niche marketing. Never mind that on a particular issue more people may be on the other side. The hook in a wedge issue is designed for the target niche, not for others, even when the others are in the majority. In describing the “emerging Conservative coalition,” Flanagan reveals the confrontational, divisive nature of the party’s coalition building. After the 2008 electoral reverse suffered by the party in Quebec, the leadership abandoned its earlier attempt to enlist Quebec as the third pillar of its governing coalition (along with western populists and traditional Tories). Instead they targeted ethnic communities, especially in the then Liberal fortress of Toronto.

The roots of this targeting go back to 2005 when Harper seized on the same-sex marriage bill introduced by the Chrétien government. “Harper,” writes Flanagan, “decided to use it as a wedge issue to approach ethnic voters.” $300,000 was allocated to running ads in ethnic media appealing to the conservative moral values of many religiously oriented ethnic voters, opposed to the “lifestyle obsessions of Liberal elites.”2 This was the platform on which the party fashioned its major breakthrough into the ethnic vote in 2011, sweeping 30 of the 45 seats in the Greater Toronto Area. No matter that a majority of Canadians endorse same-sex marriage: as a Tory wedge issue, it was mission accomplished. It is sound electoral strategy, when the opposition parties split the majority vote between them. That it was bought at the expense of pandering to homophobic prejudice and inflaming distrust and division apparently did not trouble Conservative consciences.

Conjuring the Socialist-Separatist Menace

There are already postelection hints of how this negative niche marketing strategy will be extended now that the Liberals have been displaced by a Quebec-based NDP as the official opposition, especially after the tragic death of Jack Layton has left the NDP with a vacuum at the top. Quebec, downplayed in Tory strategy after 2008, has now been written off altogether. Tory spin on Quebec was test-marketed in the propaganda onslaught against the ill-fated Liberal-NDP coalition, which was duplicitously framed as a Liberal coalition not just with the “socialists” but also with the “separatists” – which it was not. This attack on the legitimacy of the BQ continued with the Conservatives’ self-serving plan to scrap public financing of political parties. Real Canadian taxpayers, it was said, were being made to pay for a disloyal separatist party (Quebec taxpayers who voted for the BQ were not, it would seem, “real” taxpayers).

Now that the orange tsunami has swept the BQ off the Quebec map, the Tory spin machine has quickly regeared to unmask and denounce leading Quebec NDPers, starting with interim leader Nycole Turmel, as former Bloquistes or as having had dalliance with separatists in the past. Ponder the implications for national unity: instead of the conversion of former sovereigntists being welcomed, the NDP is denounced as cryptoseparatist.

Contempt for Quebec was further demonstrated when Harper replaced his communications director from Quebec with Angelo Persichelli, an ethnic press journalist who does not speak French and had authored a notorious column in the Toronto Star complaining that that there are too many francophones around Ottawa: “Many are tired of the annoying lament from a province that keeps yelling at those who pay part of its bills and are concerned by the over-representation of francophones in our bureaucracy, our Parliament and our institutions.”3 Even Tory senators from Quebec complained. Winning Quebec hearts and minds is not at the top of the PMO agenda.

For the Machiavelli of Calgary Southwest, this is only part of the plan. Now consider the government’s postelection lurch toward nostalgic celebration of the British monarchy. There was the lavish attention paid to the visit of the newlyweds Kate and William, the return to the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force, the replacement of Quebec artist Alfred Pellan’s mural in the Foreign Affairs building lobby with a portrait of Her Britannic Majesty, orders to hang the royal portrait front and centre in every Canadian embassy throughout the world. Next year a huge bicentennial celebration is planned to commemorate the War of 1812 – patriotism suitably wrapped in the Union Jack. This sudden effusion of British royalist sentiment might appeal to the Colonel Blimp niche in the electorate, which may have been a big constituency in 1940 but is not exactly influential today. The real point is negative: to provoke the Quebec NDP into lashing out at this flaunting of British hegemonic symbolism, thus revealing the disloyal “separatists” in federalist clothes.

When Brian Topp became the first announced candidate for the NDP leadership, the PMO smearmongers were instantly off the mark: “How could Brian Topp speak on behalf of all Canadians, when he is so tied to big union special interests” and was the “NDP leader’s hand-picked negotiator in the coalition talks with the separatist Bloc Québécois.” The next round of Dion-Ignatieff character assassination ads was previewed: “Brian Topp will do anything – including forming a wreckless coalition with separatists – in order to gain power.”4 There you have it: the Socialist-Separatist Menace coming soon to a television screen near you. The cynicism is breathtaking.

But there is yet more political gain for the Tories in this attack. The threat posed by a strong NDP rooted in Quebec is a left-centre alliance that would cross the national divide and bring a social democratic government to national office, the very possibility thwarted by the domination of Quebec by the leftish but sovereigntist BQ and by the Liberal-NDP split in English Canada. Conjuring the Socialist-Separatist Menace thus does double duty.

This marks how far we have come from the old Government Party model, whether Chrétien Liberal or Mulroney Conservative. All three pillars have been repudiated by the Harperites.

National unity has been abandoned for the immediate partisan advantage of undermining the Quebec-based opposition within English Canada. Breaking with the traditional Liberal practice of executive federalism, the Harperites have intervened in the Ontario election of 2011, campaigning for their Tory counterparts against a Liberal premier. Three weeks before an election in Prince Edward Island the Liberal incumbents are hit with a federal government probe of alleged corruption from a few years back, charges enthusiastically supported by the Liberals’ Tory challengers. Partisanship trumps executive federalism.

As for centrist pragmatism in policy, it is a relic of the Liberal past. Division is fostered over consensus as group is pitted against group, and ideology against ideology. Opposition is delegitimized. “Conservative values are Canadian values. Canadian values are Conservative values,” Harper declared at the Calgary Stampede, thus implying that liberal and social democratic values are un-Canadian.5

This is a Canadian equivalent of the contemporary American political system, a system in which a hyperpartisan and ideological Republican party, pushed by the Tea Party and cheered on by Fox News, has bombed out the political centre to interdict compromise with the “left” (i.e., the Democrats). It is in this context that the decline and fall of the über-centrist Liberal Party must be set. It is the strange death of the political centre that is more striking and more demanding of explanation than the strange death of Liberal Canada.

Recreating the centre

There are those in the NDP camp who welcome the vanishing centre as the necessary removal of an unprincipled Liberal Party, clearing the way for what was once hopefully called “creative politics”: a sharp, well-defined right-left division between the Conservatives and the NDP. The complaint of social democrats that the deadening hand of the Liberals smothered the emergence of a Canadian version of the British Labour party was memorably expressed in Frank Scott’s poem on the death of Mackenzie King:

He blunted us.

We had no shape
Because he never took sides,
And no sides
Because he never allowed them to take shape.

There is a problem with this call for right-left class politics. Currently the North American right, not the left, has the ideological wind in its sails; the sharper the division, the worse the fate of the left. And this has always been the case. British Columbia is a Canadian case study for what happens when politics is turned into a binary opposition of ideologies. B.C. politics has been the closest thing to European-style class politics ever since the CCF emerged as a contender for provincial office in the 1930s. The right coalesced in reaction, first behind the B.C. Liberals in the 1930s, then behind a Liberal-Conservative coalition in the 1940s, followed by Social Credit from the 1950s through the 1980s, and finally again the B.C. Liberals in the last decade. Whatever name it has gone under, a business-based right-of-centre party has confronted a labour-dominated, ideologically driven CCF-NDP. The results are stark. In 22 elections since the arrival of the social democrats, the right-wing party has won 19 times, the NDP only three times. Over eight decades, the right has been in office 84 per cent of the time. This is not an impressive track record for “creative politics.”

Here is the prime vulnerability for the post-Layton NDP, and the Tory smear machine will gleefully seize on it. Whoever succeeds Layton will be framed as a scary radical, and the party as a dangerous leftist threat to Canadian values and, of course, to taxpayer wallets. As the centre declines, the resulting political narrative favours the right more than the left. True, the Canadian public idolizes icons of the left like Tommy Douglas and Jack Layton – once they are safely dead. But the same public elects and reelects living, acting politicians of the right. The language of politics reproduced through the media and the corporations embeds the dominant theme of the right: the self-interested demands of taxpayers and consumers are prior to the obligations of citizens toward their community. Politicians of the right go with the flow; those of the left have their faces to the wind.

Liberals occasionally got things through, from the left like medicare or from the right like deficit elimination, precisely because they “blunted” debate (in Scott’s lament). Deficit elimination under the Liberals worked because they “never took sides,” refusing to package it as a neoliberal attack on the state. It worked so well that, by the end, all parties (including the NDP and the Greens) were in agreement that Canada’s welfare state, no less than its economy, was in better shape when the books were in balance than when the country was in debt to foreign creditors and the bond rating agencies. Contrast this to the brutal Hobbesian state of nature that characterizes the current war between the Republican Congress and the Obama White House over the U.S. debt problem, where the centre is a no-man’s-land between armies that take no prisoners.

There is a deeper question than the electoral fate of particular political parties. Is the decline of the political centre rooted in the changing social and economic circumstances of our time? Or is it an artificial construct, fostered and manipulated by the right for its own political benefit? Perhaps it is a bit of both. The squeeze on the middle class has in effect narrowed the base for the political centre.6 The fragmentation of the commons and the techniques of micromarketing, both facilitated by the new media, allow wedge politics to deconstruct the “public” into multiple manipulable “publics.”

There is widespread disgust with the negative climate of politics fostered by the deliberate attack on the centre. To the extent that the cultivation of fear and loathing turns many people off politics altogether, especially young people, it may even be a deliberate strategy of the right: shrink the voting population down to a smaller pond dominated by right-wing constituencies. But there is also an enduring yearning for more civility and more common ground on which substantive, as opposed to partisan, debate can take place over public policy.

At this point the continuing partisan divide of the parties to the left of the Conservatives is not only unfortunate but downright irresponsible. The 60 per cent of the electorate that has refused to be drawn into Harper’s coalition of negativity cannot reasonably be described as a “left” alternative; it is a potential centre-left source of effective opposition – if the two or three parties can get their act together and unite to represent this nascent majority. If this happened, the Liberals would probably shed some of their own more conservative elements – the John Manleys et al. – which would bolster the Red Tory minority in the Harper party and be a welcome moderating influence on the Harperites.

Perhaps the centre’s strange death has been, like Mark Twain’s, greatly exaggerated. If Harper has moved the entire spectrum to the right, then it is the centre-left that now occupies the ground formerly contested between the Liberal centre and the NDP left. The three pillars of the old Government Party still remain relevant, albeit in need of renovation:

  • national unity redefined as a common progressive front across the two nations;
  • a renewed and reinvigorated national government as an instrument for the Canadian community as a whole against the fragmenting forces of globalization and private greed;
  • an emphasis on rational public policy as against ideological zealotry.

There is a potential majority around these pillars that needs the encouragement and cooperation of both the Liberals and the NDP. With that cooperation the strange death might then become a not so strange rebirth.


1  Tom Flanagan, “Something blue: Conservative organization in an era of permanent campaign,” Inroads, Winter/Spring 2011, pp. 90–99.

2 Tom Flanagan, “The emerging Conservative coalition,” Policy Options/Options Politiques, July 2011, p. 106.

3 Quoted in Chantal Hébert, “PMO appointment signals Quebec’s fading presence,” Toronto Star, September 3, 2011.

4 Jane Taber, “Tories denounce NDP frontrunner Brian Topp as power hungry union stooge,” Toronto Globe and Mail, September 13, 2011.

5 Chris Varcoe and Jason Fekete, “Harper declares long Liberal era over,” Postmedia News, July 10, 2011.

6 David Herle, “Polarized economy polarized politics,” Toronto Star, September 17, 2011.

Reg Whitaker is the author of the classic study of the Liberal Party, The Government Party (1977). He is a regular columnist for Inroads and a member of its editorial board.