The Canadian Party System and the Leadership of Stephen Harper

By Cody, Howard; Gillies, Jamie | The New England Journal of Political Science, Spring 2015 | Go to article overview

The Canadian Party System and the Leadership of Stephen Harper


Cody, Howard, Gillies, Jamie, The New England Journal of Political Science


Abstract

Many scholars believe that Canada entered a fifth party system beginning in 2006 with a Conservative government and especially in light of the 2011 election and the reduction of the Liberal Party to third party status. But a fifth party system is still highly dependent on the results of the upcoming 2015 election. We argue that the costs of ruling for an extended period can lead to voter fatigue with long-serving incumbents and that Stephen Harper perhaps lacks the reserves of upbeat disposition and goodwill in an election year that might offset such fatigue.

Canada experienced four party systems between its 1867 Confederation and about 2006. A fifth party system may emerge after the federal election tentatively expected in October 2015. In this article we speculate on whether and how Canada may be approaching a new party system, and on the roles the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party (NDP) may play in it. We define the party system and briefly survey Canada's party system evolution to date. Then we consider some of the many reasons for Canada's unusually frequent party system transitions: Canada's tentative political culture that features perpetual disagreements on fundamental issues; a focus on the Prime Minister and opposition party leaders at the expense of parties, cabinets and Members of Parliament; a nonideological electorate dealigned from parties and lacking class or other identities that elsewhere bind supporters to parties for life; the prevalence of ineffective parties with no consistent ideological or issue positioning; and the implications of Canadians' restriction to a single vote in federal politics amidst their diminished faith in federal politics and their disrespect for Westminster systems' government-versus-opposition mindset. Finally, we assess the leadership of Stephen Harper amidst this emerging party system, especially in his embrace and extension of "court government" practices and executive personalization that has been occurring in Canadian political leadership circles since Pierre Trudeau.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) have inherited, and are maintaining, these themes and other features of Canada's politics that reflect much continuity and consistency over time. Harper's party likely will remain the sole centerright player in federal politics for the indefinite future, but it is not clear which-or whether- one of the center-to-left opposition parties will emerge as the Conservatives' default alternative after the next election. We address these questions: Why does Canada change party systems more often than other Western democracies? How might a fifth party system differ from its predecessors? What roles might the Liberals and New Democrats play in such a system? And what has the leadership of Stephen Harper done to alter or destabilize the party system? In this article, we address these questions first by situating Canada's party systems in historical perspective to show why Canadians experience so many party systems. We then look at leadership personalization in Canada as a specific element in the decline and influence of parties before focusing specifically on Stephen Harper and the intense personalization of executive politics in Ottawa today. We then analyze each of Canada's three major parties in the current context and how they have contributed to a changing party system since 2006. We conclude by discussing these major questions and consider the possible impact a 2015 election will have on the emerging fifth party system.

Canadians burden their parties with daunting responsibilities. Because Canada's people are "hardly a nation," John Meisel argues that parties and party systems must obscure and accommodate diversities while fostering a sense of national unity. Parties serve as the primary institution which ties Canadians together and links them to the state. The condition of the party system at a given time may reflect the health of the polity (Meisel 1992, 330). …

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