Good Things Come From Threes

If the polls are to be believed, there is one certainty about the outcome of the upcoming Canadian federal election that is critical to the health of the body politic: all three of the large national parties will enjoy a healthy backing of the electorate in terms of both popular vote and elected seats. Canada’s periodically tenuous three party system will not only survive, but be demonstrably stable.

Why is this so important? Because it maintains the viability of the political centre, from which effective public policy can not only emerge but also find broad acceptance among Canadians. That is not to say that there is no important role for those voices on the vanguard of the right and left of the political spectrum. The emergence of public healthcare in Canada is the most transformative example of the value to the political marketplace of a progressive party that runs ahead of the status quo. One could equally argue that the presence of reasonable Canadian federal debt levels notwithstanding our generous public healthcare programs demonstrates the benefit of a viable conservative perspective that acts as a brake upon the inclination of progressive sentiment to outrun society’s willingness and ability to pay.

It is the functionality of this dynamic of the Canadian political landscape that is both comically and tragically absent in the U.S. The current popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the early stages of the Republican and Democratic Presidential nomination race are emblematic of this shortcoming. While neither is likely to ultimately be their respective party’s nominee, the explicit (Trump) and implicit risk of a third party candidacy that could decide the election by splitting either the left or right vote means that the nominees on both sides must lean further from the political centre to hold their respective vote. The casualty will be the quality of both political discourse and, sadly, effective public policy.

Canada has inched closer to the creation of the sort of two party split that plagues the U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, the U.K.) on several occasions, including most recently in the 1993 federal election in which Audrey McLaughlin’s NDP was reduced to only nine seats and Kim Campbell’s PCs to only two. That election was further notable in that the PC collapse showed the danger of the party of the right drifting too far to the centre, as its annihilation was the product of the rise of Preston Manning’s socially conservative Reform Party.

The 2011 election saw a near-death experience for Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals as “Canada’s Natural Governing Party” was reduced to 34 seats. Some commentators and biographers of Stephen Harper have suggested that his driving political ambition is to complete that bifurcation of the Canadian political landscape. History suggests that would be both an impossible and undesirable result. Let’s hope that whatever the outcome on October 19th, we are left with a three party system that can effect the integration of the laudable but contrary impulses of policy innovation and prudent incrementalism and sustain the halting but inexorable progressive arc of Canadian public policy.