Samara Canada recently put out a study looking at Canadians’ attitudes toward political parties, and it should surprise nobody that parties got failing grades across the board. But dig into the report a little bit, and the disconnection between what people expect of parties, and what the parties are actually supposed to do, is widening. Parties themselves have been drifting away from their own proper roles as they become more leader-centric, and their machinery and accountability mechanisms flow in that direction. Overall, it’s a pretty disheartening picture.
The Samara study breaks down the role of the parties into six major areas: to recruit candidates to stand for election, to encourage people to vote, to hear ideas from party members, to reach out to Canadians so that their views can be represented, to come up with new policy ideas and solutions, and to explain what the party stands for. Somewhat simplistically, the report says that parties provide an entry point for citizens into the political process and provide a local presence through the riding association, but that doesn’t really capture the actual intended dynamic. What concerns me out of this list is that there seems to be a characterization of parties as somewhat monolithic, and that they should be doing the engagement, as opposed to the facilitation.
Parties are really about their membership. They are about the individual citizens who want to get engaged and who join the party in order to have their say, both in terms of the nomination of the person who will stand for election in that riding, and about the kinds of policies that the party will stand for in that election. Parties are also supposed to act as interlocutors between the local membership and the parliamentary caucus, so that even if your riding didn’t elect an MP from that party, you had a means of having your concerns be heard by those in the caucus, and the relevant ministers or critics, so that there is constant bottom-up engagement into the process. This is more than just “providing representation” in the riding — it’s a process of engagement on both sides, so that it’s not just the party broadcasting what is happening in Ottawa.
Where this has gone off the rails has been a slow and gradual process that goes right back to 1919, and the leadership process in which William Lyon Mackenzie King was chosen as the Liberal leader in a delegated convention rather than by means of a caucus vote. From that point on, power began to accumulate within the leader’s office and the bonds between the parliamentary party and the extra-parliamentary party grew more intertwined. After all, the leader could now declare a greater democratic legitimacy to exercise his or her powers, and over the course of time, party memberships became less about ongoing engagement with the process in that interlocutor role than it did about one-time membership sales for the sake of a leadership vote, a nebulous constituency which had no real ability to hold the leader to account.
As leaders grew more powerful and insulated from that membership, it became easier for policy to be developed centrally and in a top-down fashion rather than to have it all come up from the grassroots. Yes, the process of policy conventions have carried on as normal throughout, but there has been no real reluctance on the part of leaders to disregard policies that they personally didn’t agree with. One of the best examples of this was when a Liberal policy convention agreed to a resolution on supporting the implementation of a carbon tax, and immediately afterward, party leader Michael Ignatieff declared it to be a non-starter and dead on arrival. No wonder the party membership feels disenfranchised when this kind of thing happens.
Even more recently has been the practice of party leadership campaigns as policy formation exercises, where the candidates will come out with policy platforms of their own. This should be galling to absolutely anyone who respects the role of the party grassroots to develop the policy platform because it legitimizes the top-down exercise of power by a successful candidate who then becomes the party leader. While this has usually been defended as finding out what the leadership candidate stands for, the flimsiness of that excuse is betrayed when those same candidates produce “costed platforms,” or when they are derided for not doing so. One doesn’t need platform accounting if the goal is just to find out a personal stand on an issue.
The only time we saw a rejection of this notion in recent years was with Justin Trudeau’s leadership campaign, where he insisted that he wasn’t going to come up with policy but wait for the grassroots to do so on behalf of the party. And yes, he was derided for not having any policy ideas, as though it were his job to produce them. Now that the Liberals have had their policy convention, we’ll see how closely he adheres to his promise to listen to those grassroots.
If, as the Samara report suggests, people want the parties to come up with the policy on their behalf, to come up with candidates themselves, and to somehow act as quasi-non-partisan voter engagement agencies, perhaps we need to collectively remind ourselves that the system doesn’t and indeed shouldn’t work that way. Parties need the input of everyday Canadians to drive that process. It’s not supposed to be about the parties doing the work of outreach – it should be about people bringing their ideas to the party. Unfortunately, we have entered an era where there seems to be little appetite for the work that goes with engaging with parties, and the responses in the Samara study suggest that people are more interested in shopping for their parties as though they were fully formed from the head of Zeus, rather than the product of the ground-up work of Canadians. We should treat that as a warning about the health of democratic engagement in this country.
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