The political landscape in Canada post the 2019 federal election

Chris Jones, Independent Candidate in Ottawa Centre, 2019

Election Results

  • Liberals – 157 MPs elected
  • Conservatives – 121 MPs elected
  • Bloc Quebecois – 32 MPs elected
  • New Democrats – 24 MPs elected
  • Greens – 3 MPs elected
  • Independent – 1 MP elected
  • Seats required for a Majority – 170 MPs

The recent federal election, in which I participated as an Independent candidate in Ottawa Centre, was far from an exercise in the renewal of our ‘participatory’ democracy and more akin to a thinly veiled ‘drive-by’ of citizen engagement. To students of Canadian politics, this should come as no surprise. Absent an explicit program of issue-based outreach to voters, along with the superficial treatment by the mainstream media of most major policy matters, the election degenerated into a series of personal attacks, gotcha moments, and pollster-driven focus on the ‘horse race’ dimensions of the contest.  Add a predictable dose of scare mongering by the two old line parties in an effort to promote strategic voting, and you get the foregone result – a government elected via an archaic and discredited 19th century first-past-the-post electoral system with a mandate to do no more than to muddle through.

Testifying to our national ambivalence, we witnessed 224 of 338 ridings on election night where the victor was declared elected with less than fifty percent of the vote; only 114 had outright majorities.  In other words, in 66% of all federal ridings, more people voted for candidates other than the person declared elected.  Only one third of our national Parliament is made up of MPs with majority mandates from the electorate.  With respect to the governing Liberals, 106 of the 157 MPs declared elected had pluralities of less than 50% meaning that only 32% of them were elected with outright majorities.  Furthermore, 38 of the Liberal MPs declared elected had pluralities of less than 40%.[1]   The obvious inference to draw is that despite the spoils of power going to the minority Liberals under the rules of our current system, in actual fact, the universe of voters endorsing the Liberals is itself not nearly as wide as they might pretend.  If the analysis were extended to the votes secured by the Liberals as against the total universe of registered voters (many of whom did not vote), then these pluralities get even smaller.  It is also evident, given the perverse incentives of our system, that the average voter (to the extent that he or she continues to vote at all) often votes against another party or ideology (i.e. strategically) instead of positively in support of a specific political vision.

Sadly, the stage-managed, leader-obsessed and shallow national political conversation from which we have just emerged, does not deepen Canadian democracy or elevate our public discourse.  At this critical juncture in our history, it is not what our natural environment demands of us and nor does it advance the outlines of a forward-thinking and progressive model of sustainable economic development that we so urgently need. The absence of a thoughtful or informed debate on many of the major issues confronting Canadians – rampant income inequality, growing household debt, troubling reliance on global commodity markets, increasing population health dysfunction, or the rise in extreme weather events – eviscerates the actual vote of any possible meaning. Sure, we had a choice; between brands A, B or C, each with their own pre-packaged talking points, slogans and message tracks. Like many, I watched the English national leader’s debate with an increasing sense of frustration and dismay, as an incoherent cacophony of point scoring and stunted treatment of the issues wound its way to an abortive conclusion.

Canadians vote in a desultory way now, in part because we are told by our national election agency that it is our solemn duty to do so, but often with little detailed understanding of the issues, and, in many cases, out of fear or habit.   In the lead up to the election, there is nothing that resembles a genuine public dialogue on the main issues and challenges confronting us.  The parties like it this way because the last thing they want is demanding, engaged, free-thinking voters.  As the British sociologist Colin Crouch notes, in Canada and other developed nations, ‘public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent, even apathetic part, responding only to the signals given them.”  This deception dressed up as a meaningful engagement of the citizenry is what passes for democracy in Canada these days. The main parties embrace this because they would rather see a personality contest in which deftly deployed marketing gimmicks, attack ads and brand manipulation are the decisive factors.  However, the result of conducting the election in such a cynical and insipid manner is that we are left at the end without a renewed sense of collective national purpose.  To put it another way, this election concluded with no compelling ballot question.

One might ask where are the bold, new ideas that are meant to guide a middle power with a modestly sized population, tightly wedded to and dependent upon an ever more volatile and erratic neighbor to our south, in an increasingly carbon-constrained world?  A country with strong regional political fault lines, diverse local economies in its sub-national units, and a well-worn tendency for its political leaders to engage in political posturing at the expense of national cohesion, is not one that can afford to squander opportunities for national reflection.   It’s as if most of our political class in Canada is operating on cruise control, taking the voters for granted and indifferent to growing public disenchantment and the real reasons underpinning it. The recent election was once again as much spectacle as it was a democratic exercise, which the media for their part happily promoted and encouraged, while the real sinews of democratic consent between the people and the elected legislators atrophied still further.  The two old line parties disingenuously tell us that elections are the very expression of democracy and that there is something holy about the link between the ballot box and the expression of popular sovereignty. Sadly, as declining turnout and growing voter fatigue confirm, more and more citizens are turned off by this type of hollow and ritualistic charade.  An increasing number of Canadians are sensing their own political disenfranchisement verging on irrelevance and, hence, we are moving rapidly toward an era of post-Democracy.

In the absence of a dialogue designed to genuinely canvass the views of ordinary citizens about different possible futures, we will simply get more of the following three trends: acrimonious executive federalism, the subcontracting of policy making to lobbyists, corporations and private sector think tanks, and a politics based increasingly on clientelism.

Canadian political leaders have a strong penchant to ‘play to the orchestra’ and to foment the sense of grievance or entitlement that the population of each province or region occasionally feels.  This has been elevated to an art form since the election.  It is highly unlikely that provincial leaders accustomed to rhetorical posturing to curry favor and score domestic political points and convinced that the operation of the federation is a zero-sum game, will find the political resolve to change their mindsets.  It is all too easy to take the national government hostage by the strident assertion of provincial ‘rights’ and by ominously threatening to ‘pack your suitcase’ and leave the federation.   It certainly makes for good theatre and commands the headlines, however, in neither a marriage nor a nation is it a sustainable strategy for the long term.   The timid reaction of most federal political leaders to Quebec’s law on secularism in the public service, despite its infringement of Canadians’ charter rights, suggests a reluctance to offend provincial sensitivities.   This deference to dogmatic provincial positions does not bode well for how the Liberal government will address Alberta’s and Saskatchewan’s determination to proceed with last ditch hydrocarbon exploitation strategies when what we really need is a genuine policy of economic diversification and a well thought out strategy for earning a living in a post-carbon world.  Liberal reluctance, mirrored by the Conservatives, to develop a serious and explicit partnership with the western provinces to transition away from fossil fuel extraction, calls into question the likelihood of Canada meeting its greenhouse gas reduction targets going forward and will potentially strand a large number of oil and gas workers, and those in downstream industries, in an untenable position in the not too distant future.  We owe it to these workers and their families to find a just transition towards a viable alternative and this is where our efforts must now be unceasingly put.   A politics based on hedging, backroom accommodation, and deals among elites, is unlikely in the longer term to meet the test of the public interest or to signal a seriousness of intent to younger Canadians who have real worries about what their future on this planet holds.

Both Liberal and Conservative governments, their political staff and the senior echelons of the public service remain staunchly committed to affirming corporate-led approaches to policy and governance.  In between elections, we have a politics that consists of thousands of private meetings between corporate interests, public servants and elected officials where the aim is to extract from government concessionary regulatory, fiscal, or expenditure benefits.  This deferral to what company executives and wealthy financial investors want has been a hallmark of Canadian politics for the past forty years and shows no sign of changing.  We are now a facsimile of the United States in this respect. Sub-contracting out our policy formation role to wealthy private interests, consulting companies, and neoliberal think tanks leads to the infringement of important public values (i.e. challenging the independence of the crown prosecution service by privileging the advocacy activities of SNC Lavalin), or the inability to meet international treaty obligations (i.e. abandoning the Kyoto targets on carbon emissions when faced with the sustained onslaught of 11,452 lobbying interventions by the fossil fuel industry with federal departments and agencies in the past seven years) [2].  For profit lobbying fills the vacuum left by dispirited and increasingly apathetic citizens who feel their voices are no longer heard and have left the political process.

Finally, as Liberal election promises to first time home buyers amply demonstrate or the Conservative pitches to provide tax credits to parents enrolling their children in sports or arts programs illustrate, Canadian politics is increasingly clientelist in nature.  In the past, Canadian politicians would seek to develop programs that had a ‘universalist’ social or demographic character; today parties seek to lure socio-demographic subsets of the population to vote for them with targeted political inducements.  The data-gathering algorithms that various on-line sites and social media platforms use, enable political consultancies to gather highly nuanced voter identification and preference profiles and then devise customized policies to attract these micro-publics.  This encourages the segmentation of the electorate and ultimately the recourse to clientelist approaches to politics where the idea is to secure votes by conferring tangible benefits on identified groups.  This takes Canadian politics, in my view, in an undesirable direction because it encourages parties to be more like retail firms, making differentiated product offerings to categories of consumers (voters).  This undermines the notion of the Canadian population as one ‘body-politic’ and erodes political values such as community or a shared sense of belonging.  Politics had once stood for the idea that we are part of something broader than our individual, family or occupational lives – namely, a society.  Clientelism moves us away from collective solidarity and towards fragmentation.  Parties now compete over who can best leverage public dollars and governmental resources in furtherance of assembling a winning coalition of sub-groups.  This is a subtle but important distinction from the former ‘brokerage’ model of politics which saw parties competing to offer national programs with universal attributes designed to enhance the welfare of all.

In sum, these three trends mean that the scope for the Liberal government to make any real changes to the status quo is highly constrained.  When elites are strongly tempted to appease provincial special interest demands to the detriment of the national interest, to invite for-profit entities into the public sphere where deliberative processes take place, and to appeal to the particular rather than the general interest, it will not be long before democracy begins to morph into dystopia.  Canada is headed down that path now and only far-reaching change that is grounded in the primary needs, indeed imperatives, of the natural environment and the general welfare of the population at large, will rescue us.  It is conceivable that certain modest platform commitments made by the Liberals will be honored, but I would venture that a combination of shifting calculations of short-term political expediency by the brains trust advising the PM, suddenly degraded fiscal room, and thinly-veiled warnings from vested interests – the provinces and/or the corporate sector – will ensure that the more ambitious or costly promises made on the hustings will be allowed to quietly recede, and that incrementalism, drift and inertia will persist once again.  The need for far-reaching change has never been greater but, arguably, never more remote.

[1]  With thanks to Eduard Hiebert, Independent Candidate in 2019 in Kildonan-St.Paul, Manitoba for furnishing the data set from which these numbers were drawn.

[2] Big Oil’s Political Reach, Mapping Fossil fuel Lobbying from Harper to Trudeau, Nicholas Graham, William K. Carroll & David Chen authors, (Vancouver:  Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC Office, November 2019).

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