Death of the political centre

Contributor argues the merits of having a dead last centrist party in Canadian parliament

Recently Canadian politics was presented with the beginning debates of those running for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada. The inevitable discussion on where the Liberal Party is heading in the coming weeks, months and years will follow. This discussion is the definitive ground for why getting rid of the political centre is the best thing to happen in Canadian politics in ages.

This once mighty party, as some used to say, the “natural” party of government, was reduced to 34 seats and less than a fifth of the vote in the May 2011 election. The goal of the next Liberal Leader, whomever that may be, is to convince the electorate of Canada that their party is once again ready for government.

Conversely, that same electorate must ask themselves, do we really want to give the Liberals a shot at government again? The last election was notable in that for the first time in Canadian politics, we have a Conservative Party in government facing off against a social-democratic Opposition in the New Democratic Party (NDP). The Liberal voice of Parliament has been reduced to nothing more than a whisper in the middle of a shouting match, and rightly so.

This decision by the people of Canada was perhaps one of the best to come out of the voting population in 40 years. The idea that our Parliament is divided Left-Right, Tory-Dipper, with only a small bunch holding the centre ground, is one to rejoice.

For decades, even perhaps a century, the Liberal Party had wafted left to right on the important matters of the day. When it suited their interests, they slashed government spending by 20 per cent, as evidenced in the 1995 budget presented by former Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Paul Martin. On the other hand, when the polls showed a boost, they spent exorbitantly, as demonstrated by the amount of debt racked up by Pierre Trudeau.

This nuance in ideology, this uncertainty of purpose the Canadian centre portrayed was, at first, camouflaged as pragmatic governing, a “big red tent,” as former leader Michael Ignatieff called it, that all Canadians could find shelter under.

What began in 2004 however, with the election of the minority government of Paul Martin (also known by the nickname “Mr. Dithers”), was a slow realization by the latest generation of Canadian voters that in fact, liberalism in Canada (not to be confused with liberalism of the classical sense) was an empty choice. It was a party that drifted wherever the political winds were blowing. One year corporate tax cuts would be seen as a way to improve Canada’s economic situation, the next, in order to prevent defeat in the House of Commons, the Liberals — pushed by the NDP — withdrew these tax cuts, claiming it’s families and not businesses that need a break. The centre has constantly criticized the NDP and the Tories for being too ideologically strict, a criticism easily made when you have no ideology to speak of yourself.

The current Parliament, with all its scandals, speeches and marathon debates, is perhaps one of the best to come to Ottawa for a long time. Because it’s not being burdened by endless national unity debates, constitutional wrangling or the inability to know where the government was planning to take the country next. Majority governments in this sort of left-right politics is more likely to produce, and allow for administrations that can come through on their campaign promises without having to toss those promises for new ones 18 months later.

Although the Liberal leadership contest is already showing signs of revitalizing Liberal fortunes, Canadians should be wary of buying into the politics of centrism once again. Principled government with parties that stand true to their views will come about through a system where actual policy differences are the cause of debate, and not how long a party can keep themselves in office.

In France, the centre holds two seats in the National Assembly. In Germany, the Free Democratic Party — coalition partner to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats — is sitting at four per cent in the polls after going back on most of its platform. The Liberal Democrats in Britain have MPs admitting their platform in 2010 included unrealistic promises that were too easy to toss in the rubbish bin when they entered into a coalition. The New Zealand Association of Consumers and Taxpayers party in 2011 was reduced to one per cent of the vote and one seat. It seems the Canadian electorate are the most recent example of voters finding their home in more ideologically strict parties, who enunciate a clearer vision of where their countries should be heading.

Where will Canada’s politics be in 2015?

Will we continue to have a party of the right debating a party of the left?

A party arguing freedom of opportunity through individual efforts, against a party arguing the government’s role in society is to help those who can’t help themselves?

Or will the Canadian political landscape be once again controlled by the indecisiveness, thirst for power, and ideological ambiguity of the Canadian centre?

Leadership and opinion polls change, and as always is the case in politics, time will tell.

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