Canada’s partisan decline

The recent federal election provided a good chance to assess democracy in Canada. Much has been written about voter apathy and the distrust of politicians and their promises. What about political parties — is their contribution a positive one, and how will they adapt to a more digital world?

Paradoxically, at a time when organizations must become more open, accountable and participatory, parties in Canada appear less and less democratic. Some loyalists may take offence to this. After all, parties offer platforms to Canadians in order to compete in a reasonably fair and open contest — and they respect the judgments of voters to a degree unparalleled in much of the world.

Yet the internal governance of the parties themselves, as well as the dynamics of an increasingly media-driven electoral process, reveals tendencies based more on concentrating power than sharing it, the latter being the essence of a healthy democracy. Consider the actions of federal party leaders in Canada. The takeover of the Liberal Party by Paul Martin and his strategists (thugs, if you worked for Sheila Copps) is well documented.

The new Conservatives came to be only through an autocratic about-face by Deputy Leader Peter MacKay, defying his own pledge and the expressed will of former party members. In the quest to become a national alternative, much of the more participatory flavour of the old conservative-leaning movements had to be shunted aside in favour of more modern conduct.

More modern conduct is essentially about concentrating power and controlling the message as much as possible — often by containing the views of candidates, a constant struggle for Stephen Harper during the campaign (with mixed results). The Liberals were not so different as Mr. Martin shifted his views — and thus the party message — in order to distinguish himself from his main rival: Warming to Kyoto, cooling toward the United States, and draping himself in the necessity of strong, central government, the vision of the Martin-Liberal Party has proven to be rather fluid.

It is appropriate, moreover, to focus on leaders since the parties have become intellectually hollow, exerting less and less influence on policy and the ideas offered to Canadians. Both the Liberal and Conservative platforms come not from grassroots conferences and discussions, but rather from small cohorts of pollsters and advisors attempting to best align product and preference. Similarly, Jack Layton’s presence and authority were central tenets of the most media-centric campaigns in NDP history.

Defenders of such an approach would point to the undeniable reality of the federal campaign, with a near exclusive focus on leaders. Yet the recent election was one of the least successful in Canadian history, in terms of generating enthusiastic interest. In an electronic age, public rallies and community forums proved less vital than the leader’s travelling entourage and carefully scripted appearances. The dedicated locals packed into a tiny room became mere backdrops for a national audience. Accordingly, despite the most competitive contest in years — and much excitement in the media — voter turnout declined once again.

Despite the promise of an unfiltered World Wide Web, television remains predominant — notwithstanding a widening cleavage between seasoned reporters aboard the leader’s planes and the general citizenry. Many in the former camp, for instance, lauded the English leaders’ debate as exciting and feisty. By comparison, public reaction featured more indifference and even disdain.

Digital democracy during the campaign proved to be much more about marketing and messaging than about widespread deliberation and debate. Blackberries connected reporters, and not voters, to parties — a good thing too, since most Canadians would hardly welcome the virtual bombardment from “war room” specialists. Within these ever more centralized party structures, the Internet was adopted as little more than a channel for one-way, top-down communication, a far cry from the promise of a more open and networked political era.

In our present system, parties are not entirely to blame for acting as they do. Much like a corporation attempting to beat expectations and maximize shareholder value, short-term pressures dictate electoral antics. After all, one campaign every four or five years yields power and resources. As we have seen in the private sector, however, such a mindset is hardly a recipe for a sustained, adaptive enterprise and the parties today are small figments of the vibrant organizations they once were.

Beyond selling memberships to elect their leaders between elections (fuelling otherwise idle war rooms), mainstream parties — Canada’s ruling oligopoly — are facing a steady decline. Allowing for those not casting their ballot, just four in 10 eligible Canadians voted Liberal or Conservative.

Parties will only adapt internally when confronted with wider systemic change and more competition. Our institutions must rebalance communication and deliberation, allowing for new and expanded forms of citizen engagement.

Jeffrey Roy ( is an Associate Professor of Public Sector Management and Governance at the University of Ottawa.

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