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View From The North
January 29, 2008

Third Parties in Canada
by Mark Wegierski

The history of third parties in Canada may be of interest to those considering whether a relatively successful, third-party movement could get under way in the United States — especially a third party of the Right.

The Canadian federal system — consisting of provinces that tend to be geographically larger and more regionally and culturally delineated than most U.S. states — has clearly encouraged the growth of third parties.

The two main parties in Canada have been the Liberals and the Conservatives, roughly corresponding to the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States. However, the Liberals are considerably more left-wing than many U.S. Democrats and far more electorally dominant in Canadian politics. The Conservatives changed their party name to Progressive Conservative (PC) in 1942. After decades of political evolution, there is now one united center-right party at the federal level, the Conservative Party, while the provincial wings continue to call themselves Progressive Conservative Party.

The third parties have included (1) the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, renamed the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961; (2) the Social Credit Party, which had largely disappeared from Canadian politics by the 1980s; and (3) the Reform Party. The Reform Party was founded in 1987 by Preston Manning, the son of the long-time Social Credit premier of Alberta, Ernest C. Manning.

Members of Preston Manning’s Reform Party were accused of being “retread Socreds.” A rival to the NDP today is the Green Party, which garnered about 4 percent of the vote in the last two federal elections but won no seats. Canada’s voting system tends to lessen the chances of smaller parties whose votes are widely scattered.

Quebec has the separatist parties: the Parti Québécois (PQ) in the province and Bloc Québécois (BQ) in the federal Parliament. The somewhat more conservative party in the province of Quebec is the Action Democratique du Québec (ADQ), which tends to support the Conservatives at the federal level.

Although founded in Western Canada with the idea of electing Western-friendly MPs to the federal Parliament, the Reform Party became a countrywide party in 1991. Preston Manning insisted that the Reform Party exist only at the federal level in order to focus strictly on influencing or even winning the federal government, and not be diverted into provincial battles. The Reform Party transformed itself into the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance after 1998 and then merged with the federal Progressive Conservative Party in December 2003, renamed together as the Conservative Party.

Opponents accuse the Conservative Party of being nothing but “the Reform Party — Version Three.” Despite all the hostile rhetoric directed against it, the Reform Party itself was very much a center/center-right party. It was much different from the U.S. Reform Party — especially during its brief Buchananite incarnation — and far more successful, winning about 20 percent of the vote in the federal elections of 1993 and 1997.

Looking at the situation in Canada in general, it is not surprising that the New Democratic Party (a third party of the Left) has been so successful. Nevertheless, Preston Manning’s Reform Party, probably the most prominent third party of the Right in Canadian history, was able to achieve amazing results, despite existing in the general context of a massive social and cultural transformation toward political correctness and multiculturalism. The continuing presence of the Reform Party in the late 1980s and 1990s suggests that some kernel of putative conservatism has survived in Canada, awaiting the Conservative Party’s initiatives to give major social and cultural embodiment to it.

In the United States, the duopoly of the two main parties is strongly entrenched. To the extent that the Republicans fail to oppose much of the political correctness and multiculturalism emanating from the Democratic Party and reinforced by powerful interest groups, real democracy is actually weakened rather than enhanced. One of the most obvious points at which the system can be challenged is in presidential insurgency candidacies. When the Republican Party establishment sees that it has lost a presidential election because of a strong, third-party insurgency candidacy, it may consider returning to more-substantial elements of conservatism and more-traditional understandings of the U.S. Constitution.

Actually, however, a candidate such as Ron Paul — in a fashion somewhat similar to that of the traditionalist thinker George Parkin Grant in Canada — exists beyond today’s conventional Left/Right categories. Indeed, the anti-war focus of his candidacy, his high integrity, and his resistance to the behemoth state in all its manifestations may attract a wide spectrum of support.

While considerable differences remain between the political cultures of the United States and Canada, the comparative success of the Reform Party of Canada may suggest that any moves toward a third party of the Right in the United States — however fragmentarily it may be instantiated in a maverick presidential insurgency-candidacy — would be salutary in the long term for traditionalist currents in America.

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