Seeking renewal for a one-party state
There’s no opposition, but three power centres could generate political energy

by Michael Bliss

Where can we look for political renewal in Canada?

Perhaps I’m unduly gloomy, but I’ve lost hope in the prospect of the Canadian Alliance or Progressive Conservative party contributing significantly to our political life in the short or medium terms. As this newspaper recently said editorially, the Alliance is a joke. It becomes a sorrier joke by the day. Its leadership is hopeless, its “unity” nonexistent, its future imperilled by every option open to it. The PCs are no better — here we are in the year 2001 and the party is still led by Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney and they still talk about wooing Quebec’s soft separatists. From sad joke to sick joke. And who believes that two hapless organizations will unite smoothly to produce a healthy one?

Since 1993 many of us have been urging a revival on the moderate right to prevent Canada from becoming a one-party state. Perhaps we should face up to the fact that in national politics Canada is a one-party state and will be a one-party state through at least the next two elections, perhaps the next 10. There is no credible government-in-waiting outside of the Liberal party; indeed there may no longer be the political talent in the country to support more than one government at a time. With the parliamentary opposition utterly unable to supply ideas, creativity, credibility, the prospect of change, we have to look elsewhere.

Three power centres are capable of generating the energy Canada needs to renew itself politically.

The first is the national network of think-tanks and media. The phenomenon has not been well studied but for some years Parliament, the universities and the national civil service have been increasingly upstaged as centres of political discussion by organizations such as the C.D. Howe and Fraser institutes, the Conference Board of Canada, the Institute for Research on Public Policy, the Business Council on National Issues, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, the Donner Foundation, the two national newspapers and the more thoughtful radio and TV shows. People with new political ideas don’t go into partisan politics or government nearly as often as they used to and that, to be sure, is an alarming tendency. But they do continue to think, write and chatter, and so feed the system. Recently, for example, the calls for a reconsideration of Canada’s health care problems welled up from outside the political-bureaucratic-academic establishment. The glory of our free society is that no matter how stale and suffocating the corridors of power in Ottawa become, the political culture continues to bubble and ferment and mutate. Eventually the politicians take heed.

Second, the governing party has the capacity to renew itself. We have seen this during long periods of one-party rule in provinces such as Alberta and Ontario. We have seen it with the national Liberal party — in the 1960s, for example, when Trudeau replaced Pearson and profoundly revitalized and changed the governance of Canada. These days the expectation is that the sterile log jam of the last years of Chrétien Liberalism will be broken in the next few years, not by the Alliance or the PCs, but by the next Liberal prime minister, Paul Martin or Someone Else. We are already getting hints of the reform platforms of various Liberal contenders, trial balloons are being floated, and if you listen hard you can hear the murmur of all those closed-door discussions of how the government should change when the autocrat finally goes. A key cause of this ferment is that many of our Liberal backbenchers, who were reasonably intelligent and independent men and women before going to Ottawa, would like to have the opportunity to recover their self-respect and have something to show for their years in Parliament.

The third hope for change comes from the provinces. As commentators such as Paul Wells, Stephen Harper and Gordon Gibson (see page opposite) have been noting, our federal system tends to be self-adjusting. When one level of government stagnates, the other expands to fill the vacuum. Creative opposition to the Liberal hegemony in Ottawa currently centres in the Conservative governments of Alberta and Ontario, about to be joined by the misnamed “Liberals” of British Columbia and, after another election, the never-conformist nationalist government of Quebec. This potential coalition of Canada’s largest and wealthiest provinces exercises effective veto over the Liberal government of Canada on practically all national issues — starting with health care — and Ottawa knows it.

Some of us who worry about Canada’s capacity to survive as one country have deeply ambivalent feelings about the provinces flexing their muscles. As a general rule, one shouldn’t have any confidence in the capacity of any given provincial government to provide good government or to put Canada’s interest before parochialism. These days, as I hope to explain in future articles, the bankruptcy of Ottawa’s stewardship of the nation is becoming so palpable that even a Pierre Trudeau might reconsider his distrust of provincialism. If all else fails, maybe a powerful league of provinces will forge a better country.

Finally, there is also the option of succumbing to despair. The two desperate courses are what I call (Naomi) Kleinism and (Conrad) Blackism. The Kleinists take to the streets; the Blackists take themselves out of the country. While the former strategy reeks of Luddism and worse, it does have certain constructive possibilities. The mindset that gives up on Canada, for whatever reason, threatens our political health much more seriously. As we continue to hemorrhage good people with real contributions to make, the more we are diminished.

Where does this all lead? Without real opposition parties, we certainly need our think-tanks and our media more than ever (and why doesn’t the CBC get off its butt on public affairs and start being as creative as, say, TVOntario?). We have to do more to encourage political engagement at all levels in our federation. Which leads to this conundrum: If you want better governance of Canada what party should you support?

I don’t want to face all the hard implications of my argument. It’s true that since the NDP is utterly moribund, a young person on the left who wants to make a difference in Canadian politics is best advised to join the Liberal party. Should we give the same advice to Canadians on the right? Surely not. Some day, some how, the efforts of the brave souls trying to revive Canadian Conservatism have to be rewarded. Their cause simply can’t be abandoned. But what a terrible legacy the Stockwell Days and Joe Clarks and their ilk are giving us right now, as they lead their parties deeper and deeper into the black hole.

Michael Bliss is an author and a professor of history at the University of Toronto.