Canada’s tangled web of parties

Canada’s tangled web of parties
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From a conservative perspective, there’s a lot to be thankful for in the election of Thomas Mulcair as the new leader of the NDP this weekend. When you’re on the opposing side, it’s sometimes natural to hope your political opponents appoint extremist whackos, because they’re so easy to run against (witness all the liberal glee over the Santorum candidacy), but I think a more mature perspective will favor the rise of someone who will do the least damage if actually elected. And there’s evidence to suggest Mulcair fits that bill.

For starters, the press has long insisted that Mulcair was the most “moderate” candidate in the vast cavalcade of men and women running for Jack Layton’s old job, and if nothing else, I think the country as a whole benefits from this “doctrinaire leftism rejected” narrative that’s been splashed over all the headlines lately. I’m still personally waiting to see the hard proof of this supposed centrism, but in terms of rhetoric, at least, Mulcair’s willingness to explicitly denounce his party’s traditional “boilerplate” in favor of “modernization” clearly indicates at least some desire to break with the NDP business as usual. I wouldn’t go so far as to call him the party’s “Tony Blair,” as some have done, but the fact that he’s at least perceived that way certainly counts for something.

I’m also particularly encouraged by the fact that Mulcair has declared a firm “N-O” to the idea of a coalition government with the Liberal Party, especially in contrast to his closest rival, former NDP party president Brian Topp, who wrote an entire self-aggrandizing memoir to the 2008 attempt. That’s good news for anyone who values the long-term stability of the Canadian political system, and will hopefully help further marginalize the crazed events of 2008 into a strange political aberration for which all involved parties hold some degree of shame and regret.

There are problems with Mulcair as well, of course. His first major appearance on the national scene, after all, was this bizarre appearance on the CBC’s Power and Politics panel, in which he mused suspiciously about the death of Osama Bin Laden, and whether or not any photographic proof of the event even existed. In 2009, Mulcair also endorsed the candidacy of noted truther and general crackpot Richard Bergeron for mayor of Montreal, though I notice this episode has gotten comparatively less coverage in the mainstream press. I often wonder if Mulcair is one of those incongruent characters you see in Canadian politics from time to time, someone who has perfectly sane views and respectable skills in terms of managing his own party and the country’s domestic affairs, but completely loco, conspiratorial opinions on all matters outside that little bubble. There are still a lot of questions, in other words, that I’m afraid to hear Mulcair answer.

In specific reference to the comic, I should note that Mulcair’s ascension to head of the NDP also heralds in a truly bizarre era of Canadian politics, in which all three bosses of Canada’s three major parties have assumed their leadership positions as belated second choices.

Mulcair, until his election to the federal parliament in 2007, was a member of the Liberal Party, where he served as a cabinet minister in the government of the Liberal premier of Quebec, Jean Charest, from 2003 to 2006. This background gave Mulcair’s critics on the left ample ammunition, since Premier Charest himself was the leader of the now-defunct Progressive Conservative Party of Canada from 1993 to 1998 before his own little defection, and is sometimes seen as leading one of the country’s more “conservative” Liberal administrations as a result (though I think a lot of conservatives outside of Quebec would readily dispute this).

Charest’s PC party, in turn, was the party Stephen Harper formed his political career in opposition to, back in the day. Charest only became leader at all, in fact, because he was one of only two PC members of parliament to be elected in Canada’s game-changing election of 1993, in which Harper’s new right-wing Reform Party successfully stole away most of the conservative vote, and dramatically realigned the nation’s party system in the process. But Charest refused to give up, and in actively contesting the next federal election in 1998, he proved his party was still in it to win it, and by 2003 Harper conceded that a Reform-PC merger was necessary to ensure the Canadian right’s practical viability as an electoral option. Which seems to be a decision that has paid off.

Mulcair, for his part, has stubbornly not learned from this example, and has shown zero interest in merging his party with the Liberals, despite the fact that the Liberal Party of Canada is currently being led by Bob Rae, a former NDP premier of Ontario. The fact that both Mulcair and Rae are men of the left who have found little trouble drifting in and out of both of Canada’s progressive parties as circumstances dictate, yet now maintain that the two parties are really too different to ever amalgamate is an absurdity bordering on self-parody. It shows that the Canadian party system truly is more about personalities and egos and partisan infrastructure than ideas or strategy.

Mulcair has learned a few lessons from the last couple decades of Canadian politics, but clearly not enough to make him much of a long-term threat. His strategic skills are well-developed in some places, but in others, continue to reveal the systematic symptoms of weakness that have come to define the the Canadian left in the era of Harper.

Keep up the good work!


  1. @tominkorea

    @JJ_McCullough You know, you've set yourself up for failure on this one… Now I want to hear the epic poem!

  2. ThePsudo

    Sit, my friends, and you shall hear
    Of Canada's Party system queer
    Of leaders, traitors, hope and fear;
    The intrigue of our nation dear.

    It's Tom MulCaire we'll speak of first.
    As Dem leader he's not the worst.
    He hails from where our Frenchies nursed
    Where he worked for Jean Charest.

    Charest's Quebec was a Liberal place
    But if his history was so traced
    We'd find behind his loyal face
    He once served in Tory space.

    Those PC Tories, both red and blue,
    Joined the Alliance that Harper grew
    To make Conservatives of modern hue
    And Harper's PM dreams came true.

    Harper once took some flack
    For joining the Reformers back
    When they faced such harsh attack
    As supposed right-wing hacks.

    Despite their matching platform planks,
    MulCaire refuses to close ranks
    With those atrocious Liberal skanks.
    (That's the view, seemingly, he takes.)

    In all, it seems, our party flurry
    The lines we draw are faint and blurry.
    Whether slow or in a hurry,
    We create a kind of Party Slurry.

    [I know the rhymes are terrible, but how'd I do on the facts?]

  3. J.J. McCullough


  4. Nick Wood

    I wish people did that sort of thing more often.

  5. ThePsudo

    Did what sort of thing? Writing bad poetry?

  6. GKEF

    Damn you, now I'm going to spend the rest of the day trying to make my own in dactylic hexameter.

  7. ThePsudo

    What, my half-hearted iambic pentameter isn't good enough?

    All kidding aside, do it. Competition can only make it better.

  8. Thornus

    You forgot the one thing everyone wants to know: How is Elizabeth May connected to all this?

  9. ThePsudo

    We in the USA have Jim Jeffords, Ron Paul, and Gary Johnson who have complicated party ties. Is there anyone else?

  10. @Andy928766

    Buddy Roemer, maybe?

  11. eksortso

    Virgil Goode comes to mind.

  12. David

    I think it's kind of unfair to judge Que. Liberal leader Charest as a "former Tory" as (as far as I know) there is no "[Progressive] Conservative" party in Quebec, if you're right leaning and want to vote for a major party, you have to hold your nose (and probably vote Liberal provincially). You, living in a province in a similar situation (this non-BCer sees the BC Liberals as the major party of choice for right-wingers, with centrists and lefties going to the BC NDP, but correct me if I'm wrong) should understand this well.

  13. J.J. McCullough

    I apologize for making this issue sound so simple. :)

  14. J.J. McCullough

    In seriousness, though, you're only half-right. The big political issue in Quebec was obviously more separatism v. federalism than right v. left. There are conservatives who support both options, and are thus present in both the Quebec Liberals and the Parti Quebecois. But the optics of a former Tory leader joining the Liberals was still terrible. It is very complicated, though, you're right.

  15. Ian

    Don't know why you consider Charest coming over to the Quebec Liberal Party bad optics? I remember when he did, and I remember that he did so only after weeks of practically the whole country and many of Quebec's federalists begging him to run for the leadership of the QLP after Daniel Johnson resigned. Nobody thought it was bad optics. Also remember that he left to do battle with another former federal Conservative Party member, Lucien Bouchard.

    The party labels in Quebec don't mean much ideologically, at least before 2007. Having lived in Quebec most of my life, I well remember that political debates had nothing to do with the usual right/left things and everything to do with sovereignty, language, distinct society and the occasional social program or statist policy. Particularly in the 90s, you voted for the PQ if you were a sovereigntist, the QLP if you were a federalist. Everything else was small potatoes. Since 2007, the ADQ, CAQ and QS have started putting Quebec back on a right/left disposition. The parties in Quebec also don't have much to do the parties on the federal level.

  16. Guest

    "I think the country as a whole benefits from this “doctrinaire leftism rejected” narrative that’s been splashed over all the headlines lately"
    The problem is that this narrative (it seems to me) comes not from a detailed analysis of the flaws of any particular leftist doctrine, but from a superficial categorisation of a stance/politician/etc. as being of the doctrinaire left, and this being sufficiently taboo to discredit the subject. This is exactly the sort of doctrinaire centrism/rightism which causes the political discourse to suffer!

    Interesting you mention Blair, though. One of the key changes of the New Labour project (although the work was begun previously) was that Labour became far more "doctrinaire": the drive to "break from the past" became a need not just to change the party's manifesto policies, but also its aspirations; to "control the message" by not only distancing itself from dissenters but also purging some of them; not just to embrace big business but to harangue unions. Just having a discussion about these things put the party at risk of unwanted speculation from the media, because once you've established the principle that being divided over an issue is a bad thing, being seen to be divided is dangerous. Manifestos were not formed from conferences, or even policies. Policies, which were not binding on ministers, were not determined at conferences but in technocratic committees. The membership could not be trusted. Labour won the election but quickly that path led them to run a government that in many ways moved the country rightwards.

    Mulcair may try the same, I suppose, but it would be a very bad idea. The problem is that Blair won the leadership soundly, had the support of factions within the party who would do the dirty work and many MPs, and looked like a winner. Mulcair is an outsider – a former Liberal with relatively little support from non-QC MPs; he will be lucky to win a plurality. What's more, forcing the NDP to become New Labour would not particularly help them in Quebec and risks the alienating the MPs and the seats they have in the rest of Canada. I think this is why he is ruling out a Liberal alliance. (That said, Topp as a genetic NDP man with a success record in MB perhaps could have managed a shift of this type, with Mulcair as an an enforcer).

    If he does have a rightwards shift in mind, he will need to encourage the NDP MPs it to have that discussion and be seen to create a new solution which most groups are happy with. Otherwise he risks creating divisions when he needs to focus on integrating and building the NDP.

  17. PTBO

    I disagree that Mulcair is all that much of an outsider. I mean he had the most support of non- Quebec MPs out of any candidate (10- almost 25% of the NDP ROC caucus). That includes heavy hitters like BC's Don Davies, Rae-era cabinent minister- David Christopherson, NFLD MP Jack Harris, and NS MP Robert Chisholm.

    He had support of 15 non-Quebec former MPs (most of any candidate again).

    He had support of 16 NDP provincial legislators from five different provinces (6 BC MLAs, 4 MB MLAs, 3 ON MPPs, 2 NLFD MHA, and 1 SK MLA), which compares favourably to his leadership rivals.

    He had support of EIGHT current/former NDP provincial/territorial leaders from every province except AB, SK and QC. Three of which are former preimers (BC's Mike Harcourt, MB's Ed Schreyer, and YK's Piers MacDonald). This blows his leadership rivals out of the water.

    I'm no Mulcair fan but I have to recognize that he had probably the most widespread national establishment support of any leadership candidate. Additionally he had comparable labour support with the other front runners.

  18. Ryan

    Harper was a Liberal at one time too.

    At least you did not include the Bloc or Greens.

  19. Sisi

    I like that most of the reasons to like Mulcair listed here are the reasons I found him detestable, and the reasons not to like Mulcair listed here are just the reasons I feared he'd be elected. ._.

    Don't thank me, I voted for Nathan Cullen. (Which you may appreciate more I guess from the Leftist whackadoodle mocking).

  20. Jorge von Kostrisch

    You know, living in Brazil, I kind of envy the comparative simplicity of the Canadian system… In Brazil, there are seven parties with over a million affiliates each, and fourteen with some of serious relevance to the electorate. The biggest and more powerful of them, PMDB, has no interest whatsoever in defining the political agenda or electing the head of state, because it is so much more convenient to simply support the winner's coalition (regardless of who that may be) and occupy the vice-presidency and a great number of ministries than risk any sort of defeat. The two parties that do take that role (the Worker's Party, from former president Lula and incumbet Dilma Rousseff and the social democrats) are then forced to negotiate the support of PMDB and attract a great number of the lesser parties to their coalitions (using positions in ministries, public agencies, regulatory bodies and state companies as currency) in order to obtain enough congressional support to make government viable.

    Also, politicians come and go between parties with no regard to the stated ideologies of each one (not uncommon for a Communist to jump straight to a conservative party, for example). Disregard for ideas is so great that the mayor of São Paulo (the biggest city in Latin America) recently founded a new party that states that its views are "neither right-wing, left-wing nor centrist", so he can support whoever he wants whenever he wants without having people nagging about trivial stuff such as ideological coherence.

    Thus, the government's first duty is to balance the interests and ambitions of a dozen parties in its coalition to maintain the needed congressional support. A funny fact to illustrate: president Dilma's Worker's Party has done the pleasing so well that the opposition is now virtually powerless in both legislative chambers. But the president recently crossed the interests of some allied party leaders over some legislation regarding the coming FIFA World Cup 2014 – the leaders convened and put up a block to any government legislation in both chambers, and there were big headlines all over last week about the big defeat the government has suffered from…. itself.

    How's that for an absurdity bordering self-parody, huh?

  21. ThePsudo

    So, if that's all true, what do Brazilian voters base their votes on? Sounds like they can't vote for the party because the politician might just change parties, and they can't vote for ideology because neither party nor politician embraces any ideology. So… the perceived effectiveness of the candidate? Do they need compulsory voting just to have a reason to show up?

  22. Anon

    In a word, yes – most Latin American elections are won or lost based on the personality and leadership qualities of the winning candidate.

    Personalism in Latin America is a pretty big thing. It's the main reason Chavez has stayed in power so long.

  23. James

    Just one question: why does your other caricature remind me of Andrew Sullivan and force me to imagine some sort of bizarre conspiracy of gay, conservative, political commentators?

  24. J.J. McCullough

    It's actually my friend Graham, though I am sure he will enjoy this comment.

  25. Guest

    That guy looks really, really, ugly.

  26. Jbot

    It's pretty obvious it couldn't be Andrew Sullivan; he was coherent and not obsessing over Sarah Palin's uterus.

  27. Anon

    I find the very notion of coalition governments as having a destabilizing effect on the political system completely ludicrous. It has little basis in fact, and the evidence shows this: Westminster systems around the world are rarely brought to their knees by coalition governments.

  28. Guest

    But Canada's aversion to coalitions has made it a model of stable governance!

  29. Yannick

    No idea why there is such an allergic reaction to coallition governments either. What happened in 2008 was not a "coup". Jeez.

  30. ThePsudo

    I think people just don't like precedent overturned. By it's nature, overturned precedent inherently risks a little destabilization.

  31. Anon

    There's an inherent risk in most actions individuals take in their day-to-day lives. Most people learn to adapt to those risks.

  32. ThePsudo

    Risky governance has stronger effects on people who aren't involved in the decision than (non-criminal) risky behavior by individuals.. An individual may gamble away their money legally, but if a government did that there would be more backlash.

  33. PTBO

    I'm not sure if Mulcair was ever a member of the Federal Liberal party- he was a member of the Quebec Liberal Party which I dont believe has any formal ties with the Federal party. Its the only federalist party in Quebec so its understandable that a Anglo uber-federalist like Mulcair would join the federalist party.

    If you think his 2011 apperance on CBC was his first major national apparence then you probably have not been paying attention to domestic politics. His shocking 2007 by-election victory in Outromont was heavily covered (and rightly so). He was instantly by Layton's side in the House for the next four years and was frequently in television and print media.

  34. Alexandre Bouvier

    Exact, no affiliation between PLC and PLQ since 1955.

  35. PTBO

    Personally, I'm not really sure if Mulcair will do much different then Layton who was centrist himself but was much better at connecting to the NDP base. I voted for Cullen personally and I hope that he will find himself as deputy leader. The good part about Mulcair is that he seems to understand resource economics well and the pressing need to act for adaptation to climate change. Given that the current government continues to ignores the most frightening, pressing threat to mankind's existence on this planet, I think the NDP leadership's current grounding in environmental realities give the party a desicive advantage in the coming years.

  36. Patrick

    Quick point: Charest lead the federal PC party in the federal election of 1997, not 1998 as noted in the article above.


  37. Kalim Kassam

    The funniest thing about that Mulcair clip is that he refers to Mister Bin Laden as "Mister Obama". Thaaass raaaacis!

  38. Alinnnna

    Personally, I'm not really sure if Mulcair will do much different then Layton who was centrist himself but was much better at connecting to the NDP base. I voted for Cullen personally and I hope that he will find himself as deputy leader. The good part about Mulcair is that he seems to understand resource economics well and the pressing need to act for adaptation to climate change. Given that the current government continues to ignores the most frightening, pressing threat to mankind's existence on this planet, I think the NDP leadership's current grounding in environmental realities give the party a desicive advantage in the coming years. What do you mean by saying that?