The conditions for compromise, then and now


The prime minister continues to provide some very strange explanations for the decision to abandon his electoral reform pledge. Previously, I addressed the argument that first-past-the-post is an effective shield against the influence of extremist political tendencies, and the contradictions that arise from Trudeau’s claim that any form of proportional representation would be bad for the country. Now CBC reports:

Trudeau said proportional representation would undermine Canada’s political tradition of compromise between diverse groups, brokered through the big three political parties that compete in first-past-the-post.

Trudeau is referring to the concept of brokerage parties, a type of political party defined by the goal of assembling broad coalitions by simultaneously appealing to and accommodating as many constituencies as possible. In Canada, brokering regional and ethnolinguistic interests  was heavily mediated through processes of elite accommodation; the ideals of transparent, open and participatory democracy Trudeau claims to hold were entirely foreign to the brokerage system. The system did keep the country together and functioning effectively for a very long time, but perhaps the most that could be said for it was that it worked.

Contrary to Trudeau’s remarks, historically there have only been two brokerage parties, not three: the Liberals and the Conservatives (including the Progressive Conservatives). The NDP is not and has never aspired to be a brokerage party; its roots are mainly in the social democratic wing of the labour movement and the Canadian tradition of regional protest parties. The purpose of the NDP was to articulate and advance the class and regionally based interests of particular groups that were perceived as being shut out of the brokerage system.

It’s also doubtful whether the post-merger Conservative Party, which shares little of the heritage of the old Progressive Conservative Party, counts as a brokerage party. Despite the name and the formal sense in which the Conservative Party of today “merged” with the PCs, the new party is often described — with only a little exaggeration — as a mere rebranding of the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance. And the Reform Party was certainly not a brokerage party. Like the NDP, Reform emerged as an ideologically and regionally based party in response to the system’s perceived failures, breaking the coalition built by the PCs under Mulroney and arguably sounding the death knell of the brokerage system itself.

So this leaves the Liberals as the last of the brokerage parties. That system is over and it’s not coming back. The social and material conditions that made it sustainable are long gone, destroyed by that events that transformed regional power structures and the nature of the country itself, such as the Quiet Revolution, the dramatic growth of the western provinces’ economic and political power, and the increasing diversity of Canadian society. Brokerage politics was dead on its feet long before the clear signs of the system’s collapse became evident.

FPTP is not, in my view, inherently undemocratic; it was suited perfectly well to a political culture that no longer exists. Today, “Canada’s political tradition of compromise” is best preserved by adopting an electoral system through which the interests, values and preferences of diverse groups can be articulated and accommodated. In the past that system was FPTP; today it’s proportional representation.

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