Review: Century Of Hell-Raising

2021 marks a hundred years since neither Liberals nor Conservatives won a majority of seats in the Commons. This had never happened before. It is now commonplace and uniquely Canadian, explains Professor Nelson Wiseman of the University of Toronto.

“Canadian voters have become volatile, more volatile than American voters,” Wiseman writes in Partisan Odysseys. “Although there is no generally accepted measure of party identification, Canadians are less likely than Americans to have party affiliations ingrained into their personal identities.”

Third parties for years were dismissed as protest movements. Like bees, they stung and then they died: Canada First, Confederation of Regions, Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, National Party, Progressive Party, Reconstruction Party, Reform Party, United Farmers, Western Canada Concept and Social Credit.

“Social Credit theory postulated that everything that is physically possible ought to be financially possible, that the existing financial system artificially limited society’s real credit and misdirected many economic activities,” recalls Partisan Odysseys. One former Socred even became Prime Minister, Kim Campbell. So did an ex-Reformer, Stephen Harper.

Canadians today are so accustomed to choice that voters act like shoppers, writes Wiseman. “It may be that voters, increasingly accustomed to behaving as consumers, opt for choosing the policy positions of parties rather than signing up to their comprehensive world views,” he writes. “However with the exception of elections such as those that revolved around freer trade with the United States in 1891, 1911 and 1988, it is difficult to tie party choice to specific issues.”

The results are striking. No prime minister in thirty-five years has won fifty percent of the popular vote. One federal election, in 1993, saw fourteen parties on the ballot. Five of them won Commons seats. “Today’s political parties would be unrecognizable to the party leaders, activists and voters of nineteenth-century Canada,” write Wiseman.

Partisan Odysseys is a timely celebration of Canadian-style democracy in an era of minority parliaments and the guillotine of surprise elections. Most Canadians do not belong to any political party. Most have voted for different parties. They are wily and unpredictable. Professor Wiseman notes no other parliamentary democracy has produced so many electorally-effective minority parties.

The result? Pollster Angus Reid in his prophetic 1996 analysis Shakedown cautioned: “A country full of independent-minded voters not only makes it more difficult to project the outcome of an election, it also makes elections much harder to choreograph”; “The voting intentions of large numbers of Canadians are on a hair trigger, ready to explode at any moment, changing the course of elections and taking our lives into unchartered territory,” wrote Reid.

Partisan Odysseys is a first-rate observance of a hundred years of hell-raising. It makes you proud to be Canadian.

By Holly Doan

Partisan Odysseys: Canada’s Political Parties, by Nelson Wiseman; University of Toronto Press; 240 pages; ISBN 9781-4875-25932; $19.47

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