When the twentieth century ends, 70 of its 100 years will have seen a Liberal government in Ottawa. Since the emergence in the 1920s of the so-called "two-party-plus" system, the Liberals' success rate has been even higher - about 75 percent.
As if this wasn't bad enough, 1993 saw the emergence of a "one-party-plus" system, in which none of the Liberals' regionally based challengers - Reform, BQ, NDP, and PCs - form a viable government in waiting. Under these conditions, the Liberals long-term dominance of the federal government threatens to become an outright monopoly.
No wonder people are gathering in Ottawa on the 19th of this month to seek a "united alternative" (UA) capable of toppling the Liberals.
The most prominent UA proposal is to combine several of the current regional factions into a single party, headed by one leader. Since not all of today's opposition parties will be absorbed into a UA of this kind, this would amount to a resurrection of the pre-1993 two-party-plus system, with the UA replacing the Progressive Conservatives as a credible "government in waiting."
Such a reincarnation of the two-party-plus system would certainly be better than the current one-party-plus dispensation, but not much better. The two-party plus system was a poor challenge to Liberal dominance in the past and has little prospect of being more successful this time. Between 1921 and 1993, the Progressive Conservatives were generally able to unseat the Liberals only when they managed to cobble together an unstable mix of country-club tories, right-wing western populists, and Quebec nationalists. These alliances of unlikely bedfellows never lasted long. During the two-party-plus era, the PCs governed for only 20 years, with Mulroney's 9-year tenure being their greatest success. (Hardly something to brag about.)
Not long after each PC government came to power, either Quebec nationalists or right-wing westerners would abandon it, allowing the Liberals to return to government. In 1993, both factions jumped ship simultaneously, re-emerging in their own regional parties - Reform and BQ - and consigning the Progressive Conservative Party to near oblivion.
To successfully challenge the Liberals, a single-party UA must put together a similarly fragile constellation of factions, which would likely suffer the same fate. We would have avoided Liberal monopoly, but only by returning to Liberal dominance.
Unless, that is, the new UA can be what John Nunziata, one of its supporters, hopes it will be. Writing in the National Post on February 9, Nunziata declared that "the new party would have to represent a much different way of governing." It would have to be "much more open and democratic," giving MPs "the necessary tools to be true representatives of their constituencies - more free votes, less party discipline." Such a party could more easily contain "loose fish" like Nunziata himself, and might be a more comfortable home for the disparate regional factions comprising it.
But why should anyone assume that a new UA would fare any better in this respect than other parties that have advocated the same thing, such as the Progressives earlier this century, and Reform in recent years? The logic of parliamentary institutions is one of party discipline, and eventually this logic tends to triumph over good intentions. This is true especially of parties that form the government. There is no reason to think that a UA government would be immune to this "discipline of power." Indeed, the temptation to use the party whip to hold together the kind of disparate collection of interests likely to form a national UA government would be irresistible.
So, let’s stop looking in the rear view mirror and revisiting failed solutions. Instead of trying to arrest the fragmentation of parties in the House of Commons, why not embrace it and extend it? Why not accept the fact that we have no truly national parties - no, not even the Liberals - and make a virtue of that reality? Instead of pretending to offer Canadians a choice between what Nunziata calls "two truly national parties," why not give them the opportunity to elect a parliament composed of several sectional parties, none of which could act as a majority government? The intra-parliamentary deal making and coalition building among parties could serve us better than our present politics of majority government.
Such a fragmented parliament could be achieved by pursuing a united alternative strategy not in the country as a whole, but only in Ontario. It is Ontario, after all, that is the real problem. It is opposition vote splitting in seat-rich Ontario that keeps the Liberals in power and sustains their national-party façade. An independent Ontario UA would expose the Liberals for what they are - mainly the party of metropolitan Toronto and other large urban centres - and would help to topple the Liberal government. With a separate Ontario UA, moreover, neither Ontarians nor Albertans would have to overcome their current reluctance to vote for parties run by the other region.
The resulting parliament would be composed of several sectional parties, each with its own leader and organization, and none coming remotely close to a majority government. Some kind of coalition would have to be formed, and there might over time be instability and shifting coalitions. For a while at least, Parliament might function as a genuinely deliberative institution, one in which political deals would be made more transparently than they are now, and in which executives could not count on permanent support.
Parliamentarians, of course, dislike instability and uncertainty, and they will thus seek to recreate more stable governing parties. The logic of parliamentary institutions may reassert itself. But that could take a while. In the meantime, a healthy dose of parliamentary chaos might open the door to the kind of institutional change - such as Senate or electoral reform - that can offer longer term solutions to our problems.
Is it too much to hope, for example, that electoral reform could become the objective of a parliamentary coalition? With the right kind of electoral reform, we might make coalition government a permanent feature of Canadian politics.
If the UA convention of February 19 could start us down this path, it will have done the country a real service.