Saturday, October 18, 2008

Defining the Role of the Fringe

"Fringe" parties can play a vital role in Canadian politics

In an op/ed article appearing in the Winnipeg Sun, Paul Rutherford has a message for Canada's fringe political players:

Go away.

In the course of the column, Rutherford describes Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe, Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Reform party founder Preston Manning as "the worst thing to happen to Canadian politics in the last 20 years".

Rutherford accuses these parties of stealing votes from "legitimate parties" and insists that "they play no role in the democratic health of our country".

Unfortunately for Rutherford, he couldn't possibly be further from the truth.

The truth is that not only are fringe parties necessary, but sometimes they're inevitable, even when one would, as Rutherford, just as soon not even have them.

Manning's Reform party and Lucien Bouchard's Bloc Quebecois may well be the greatest example of each of these two scenarios.

A common grievance held by many members of the former Progressive Conservative party elite -- among them Joe Clark -- is that the Reform party undermined conservative politics in Canada by undermining the Progressive Conservative party. Not only did the party supplant the PCs in the west, but vote-splitting between Reform and PC candidates in Eastern Canada robbed the PCs of Parliamentary seats, and allowing the Jean Chretien Liberals to come up the middle in dozens of ridings on route to forming a majority government.

If Preston Manning had never founded the Reform party, many of them reason, Kim Campbell could have fended off near annihilation, and possibly even won.

This would almost seem reasonable. One very well could assume that the 19% of Canadian voters who supported the Reform party would support the Progressive Conservatives over the Liberals. But that would be making a fatal assumption in assuming that those voters -- particularly in the west -- would have been willing to continue supporting the PCs.

Many of them would just have likely stayed home on election day.

Many western voters had long tired of holding their noses and voting for a party that, all too often, didn't represent their interests. The 1984 election of Brian Mulroney via what Chantale Hebert describes as an Alberta-Quebec coalition turned out to be a rude awakening for many western conservatives.

Disillusioned with numerous episodes of the Mulroney government -- most notably the Meech Lake Accord, Charlottetown Accord and the F-18 Maintenance Contract fiasco -- western conservatives were ready to support a new option. They held on just long enough to help Brian Mulroney secure a victory in the 1988 election (on the strength of their desire to see NAFTA negotiated), then promptly elected a Reform candidate -- Beaver River MP Deborah Grey -- at their next opportunity.

The lesson for politicians was a simple one, but one that many politicians did not understand: voters expect their elected representatives to represent them. It's the same lesson re-played in the recent reelection of former Conservative MP Bill Casey.

The leadership of the Progressive Conservative party had lost sight of a political tradition in western Canada: the tradition of populism. Particularly on the prairies, populism was at the root of nearly every political movement to emerge out of western Canada: Social Credit, Tommy Douglas' CCF (later the NDP), the Progressives and Preston Manning's Reform party were all born out of this tradition.

The PC leadership, meanwhile, had turned their back on this tradition when they attempted twice to ram through constitutional special treatment for Quebec that western Canadians overwhelmingly opposed.

With the rise of the Reform party in the 1993 election and the crash of the Progressive Conservative party, Brian Mulroney's chickens came home to roost. Unfortunately, Mulroney himself had vacated the party leadership, and never had to fully face up to the consequences of his actions.

Western Canadians weren't prepared to support the PCs any longer. Whether one dismisses the Reform party as a protest party or not, the Reform party forced the PCs to eventually get back in touch with that forgotten tradition -- the tradition previously honoured by leaders such as John Diefenbaker.

Until the PCs did so -- which they did, via a merger with the Canadian Alliance, the successor party to Reform, which had been forged out of a coalition with provincial Progressive Conservative parties in Alberta and Ontario -- it was not, and could not be, whole.

In merging with the Canadian Alliance, the Conservative party finally reconciled its party elite with grassroots conservatism.

Some accuse Preston Manning of destroying Canadian conservatism for 11 years. The truth is quite different. Canadian conservatism had already long been on a course toward its own self-destruction. If anything, Preston Manning put Canadian conservatism on the road to what it needed most desperately -- renewal.

And just as fringe political parties can be instrumental to such political renewal within a party, they can be instrumental renewal across Canadian politics as a whole.

Sometimes, the development of a fringe party reminds us of the breadth and depth of a political problem. Such was the case with the Bloc Quebecois.

Formed as a party intent on serving the cause of Quebec sovereingtism at the federal level, the Bloc has been equally a Quebecois protest party and a disruptive force in Canadian politics (how else could one legitimately regard a party formed with the intention of separating a region of the country from within that country's own federal legislature?).

The Bloc, like the Reform party, emerged out of disillusionment over the Mulroney government's constitutional misadventures. The Bloc, however, emerged out of protest of the rejection of the Meech Lake Accord -- a feat accomplished very narrowly through the noncompliance of Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper and Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells.

Many Quebeckers interpreted the rejection of the Meech Lake Accord as a rejection of Quebec itself. This perceived rejection would lend strength to the sovereigntist movement for the next 20 years.

Bouchard himself had actually left Mulroney's government -- in which he had served as Minister of the Environment -- after a commission chaired by Jean Charest suggested changes to the accord that Bouchard couldn't accept.

The rise of the Bloc Quebecois, and its continuing existence, should only continue to remind to remind Canadians that the puzzle of Quebec's place in confederation has yet to be solved. Until it is solved, Canada's leaders cannot be content to rest on the laurels of two referendum victories.

Some commentators argue that the days of the Bloc Quebecois -- and its provincial counterpart, the Parti Quebecois -- are numbered. They frequently cite the rapidly diversifying Quebec population, the aging of the pure laine Quebecois population, and strengthening sentiments in favour of Canada as evidence that the BQ is already on its way into the long night.

They point to Stephane Dion's Clarity Act as having handcuffed the Pequiste leadership from posing the sovereignty question to Quebeckers under deceptive terms.

This may well be so. But it doesn't solve the problems underlying Quebec separatism, and the existence of the Bloc Quebecois stands as a reminder that, despite the near cataclysm that resulted from Mulroney's attempts to renegotiate the Constitution, some Canadian leader will eventually need to be brave enough to try once more.

The very existence of fringe parties speaks to us, if we listen closely enough. These parties are all too often riding the edge of a wave of pervasive discontents. Ignoring such discontents does a disservice to Canadians everywhere, as it allows these problems to fester.

Once, ignorance of these problems destroyed one of Canada's traditional political parties. On another occasion, it almost destroyed the country.

Paul Rutherford may be content so simply wish these problems away by wishing away their political representatives.

Those of us with an eye on the bigger picture, however, know much, much better.


  1. Anonymous4:52 PM

    I think you've done a good job of refuting the assertion that Preston Manning & the Reform party were bad for conservative politics, but what does that say about the Green party?

    In what way does the Green party represent voters that the Liberals, Conservatives or NDP do not? Or is it simply a matter of trust? i.e. The voters know that the other three parties are promising to help the environment, but they simply don't believe the promises.

  2. Here's the thing: I'm not personally convinced that they do.

    The Green Party is supposed to represent the environmental lobby.

    Yet all Elizabeth May seems to be interested in doing is defeating the Conservative party. She's made no effort whatsoever to propose environmental policy that might appeal to conservatives.

    I think the Green party, via their deal with Stephane Dion, has mostly transformed themselves into a sidekick for the Liberal party.

    That's my honest opinion.


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