Is there an ideological Left, Right and Centre in Canadian Politics?

By Gail Campbell

Editor’s Note: This post was submitted on 13 May 2020.

The daughter of a ‘working man’ whose experience and understanding of the world in some ways surpassed that of my teachers, I became interested in politics at an early age. As a graduate student in the 1970s, I was attracted to the ‘new political history’, which sought to trace the connections between electoral behaviour and political ideologies. Yet the methodology of the ‘new political historians’ drew a good deal of criticism, often from those who were not only sceptical of but also intimidated by statistical analysis. Ultimately, even many of the ‘new political historians’ themselves became discouraged by time-consuming data gathering and analysis, and abandoned the computer assisted effort to understand and explain the participation of ordinary people in formal and informal party politics.

In recent years, the analysis of Canadian political history has tended to drift away from a nuanced analysis of party politics and toward a more general, often confusing overview that conflates the two major parties into a single ideological framework. At best, Canada’s system is discussed in terms of ‘brokerage politics’ with two ‘big tent’ parties, each with a small loyal core, vying for the same supporters. This situation has, according to a widely held view, resulted in the triumph of ‘neoliberal policies’, for which we can read ‘Capitalism’. The problem with this characterisation is its narrow economic focus and lack of sophisticated analytical framework or theoretical perspective. It tends to originate in and reflect a dismissive condemnation of both major parties.

In his influential CHR article, “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History”(2000), Ian McKay avoided reducing liberalism to capitalism (though he identified property as the most significant of liberalism’s three core elements). In positing the achievement of “a universal ideology and general project of rule” by the 1890s, McKay rejected a “top down” approach in favour of a “centre and periphery” – a “liberal project and its resisters” – interpretation. Yet in defining – or failing to define – the “centre”, this interpretive framework is grounded in the assumption that the leaders of both major political parties shared “a universal ideology” and were, together, actively pursuing the “liberal order project”. The shaping of this ideology did not, apparently, involve any meaningful level of public discourse. Thus the “liberal order framework”, while broad and ambitious in its conceptualisation, also promotes a dismissive approach towards analysis or even consideration of the ideological differences between the two political parties that had emerged by the 1850s.

Such research, along with changing times and shifting policies, have, over the years, caused me to reconsider and revise my own views about the evolution and nature of what I see as important differences in ideology among Canada’s diverse and sometimes coalescing political parties. Earlier this year, as I returned to what I have always considered my major research project on the political dynamics of community in mid-nineteenth century New Brunswick (originally conceived in the 1980s), I was drawn back to the political debates that led to the formation of parties. Although my own approach and thinking have evolved significantly over time, I remain intrigued by the integral relationship between public discourse and the evolution of political ideas. Is it possible, I wondered, that we have we reached such a pass that those parties that emerged in the 1850s now share a universal neoliberal ideology?

And then the pandemic, COVID19, sweeping the world, arrived in Canada, and threw into stark relief the nuances in ideology separating our political parties. The differences, in this context, appear to be fairly significant after all. In British Columbia, John Horgan’s NDP minority government led the way in modelling a collaborative approach to governance. While the NDP have significantly retreated from their socialist CCF roots, their priorities remain clear. Recognising that the most vulnerable members of society require the greatest support, they introduced a plan to top up the federal government’s emergency funding for the unemployed with a further $1000 per month. And, when limiting personal support workers to employment in a single long term care facility, they raised their pay to make this change feasible. But this is the work of an NDP government. Where do the main line parties stand?

Called upon to demonstrate the courage of their convictions, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal minority government, whose apparent turn to the left in 2015 has been much disputed, rose to the challenge. Not trusting big business to protect jobs rather than profits, the government interceded  to support and protect workers. Yes, the Liberals have also offered support to big business. But the fact that workers, not employers were first in line for subsidies is significant. And while on the one hand the federal government refused to be coercive when banks proved recalcitrant in giving breaks to vulnerable borrowers, on the other hand the Liberals’ decision to put funds into oil sands cleanup rather than oil sands production suggests that the issue of climate change has not been set aside. These responses reflect an ideological outlook.

For their part, the Conservative opposition, reflecting a flexible pragmatism that might suggest a the survival of some aspects of the organic conservatism of the past, proved willing to support measures that addressed the problems inherent in the decision to shut down entire sectors of the economy. But the clear preference of Conservatives is to do so through employers rather than through employees (whom they perceive as likely to take advantage of government handouts). In Alberta, Jason Kenney’s Conservatives are fully committed to big business, laying off thousands of education workers, in favour of subsidising a declining oil industry. And in Manitoba, Brian Pallister’s Conservatives have threatened massive civil service layoffs. These responses reflect an ideological outlook.

Thus, while the country’s only NDP government invests in ordinary Canadians who are at risk of losing their jobs in the face of a changing, and changed, world, and the federal Liberals invest in those same Canadian workers as well as in small and medium-sized Canadian businesses struggling to retain and support their workers as they adapt to their own changing and changed circumstances, Conservatives on both levels of government remain firm in the belief that big business, not big government, is the best guarantor of economic recovery. These approaches surely reflect significant differences in ideology, as well as in approach.

Of course, some may argue that minority government rather than ideology can explain these marked differences in approach. After all, in New Brunswick, Blaine Higgs’s Conservative  minority government, has, like Horgan’s in BC and Trudeau’s in Ottawa, taken a collaborative approach, winning support from all parties in navigating these unprecedented times. But having heard Higgs’s recent call for support for the oil industry, I find this argument unconvincing.

Gail Campbell is Professor Emerita in the Department of History at the University of New Brunswick.      

About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at
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