Is centrism doomed in Canada?

OPINION: Across the country, Liberal parties have defined themselves as sober centrists — and across the country, they’ve been losing. John Michael McGrath takes a look at what, if anything, is next for Canadian centrism
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Oct 09, 2018
Kathleen Wynne and Justin Trudeau appeared at the federal Liberal national convention in Halifax this April. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)



The list of Liberal defeats in Canada is getting longer — and harder and harder to ignore. Last year, incumbent premier Christy Clark was defeated by an NDP-Green coalition in British Columbia. Earlier this year, Team Red endured a drubbing in Ontario. In just the past month, Liberal governments have faced election defeats in New Brunswick and Quebec.

And things don’t seem to be looking up for them, at least provincially: the P.E.I. Liberals have given up a 30-point lead and are now running neck-and-neck with the Greens. As recently as 18 months ago, four out of every five Canadians was governed by a Liberal party in their province. When the dust settles in New Brunswick, it could be more like four out of every hundred.

The federal Liberals may not be panicking yet: the combination of a lacklustre NDP led by Jagmeet Singh and a possible split vote on the right thanks to Maxime Bernier’s new People’s Party of Canada is good news for Justin Trudeau. But it’s not just the number of Liberal defeats — it’s their scale. In both Ontario and Quebec, the Liberal team faced its worst defeat since Confederation.

It’s not all apocalyptic: the results in both B.C. and New Brunswick have as much to do with the vagaries of seat counts in the legislatures as they do with levels of voter support. (Thanks again, first-past-the-post.) But the staggering defeats in the economic and demographic core of the country can’t be read as good news for a party that’s been part of the political scene for longer than the country has existed. The question now is whether this is something temporary the Liberal brand can bounce back from — or something permanent.

The case for “temporary glitch” is pretty simple. The Liberal brand has been in dire straits before and survived. In the months that separated John Turner’s federal defeat in 1984 from David Peterson’s Ontario win in 1985, there wasn’t a single Liberal government either in Ottawa or in any province across the country. Then Peterson ended 40 years of Tory rule in Ontario, and Robert Bourassa won in Quebec later that same year. Peterson won the province’s largest-ever majority in 1987, and in 1993, Jean Chrétien led the party back to power in Ottawa – and stayed there for a decade. So a bad spell of elections certainly doesn’t mean a party is doomed.

The “permanent decline” case may sound more radical, but there are already provinces where the Liberals have ceased to be relevant. The Liberals dominated Saskatchewan politics for nearly 40 years after the province was created in 1905. The rise of the CCF (the predecessor to the NDP) changed things, but the Liberals still formed government as late as the 1960s. After that, though, they went into permanent decline. Technically, the Saskatchewan Liberals still exist, but they haven’t managed to elect even a single MLA since before the turn of the millennium. The state of the Liberal brand in Alberta and Manitoba isn’t much better.

In Ontario, the Liberals have profited by staking out ground in the “centre” between the Tories and the NDP. But what if the centre is no longer what people want? Look at where the energetic political movements are in 2018: right-of-centre parties (increasingly animated by hostility to climate policy and immigration) and the progressive left (pushing for expansive new social programs such as a universal basic income and free university education). On both sides, cultural and gender-identity issues are driving politics just as much — if not more than — conventional policy preferences are. There’s relatively little constituency for the “steady as she goes” moderation of the centre.

Of course, Kathleen Wynne did try to pull her party to the left, championing many of those same causes: a $15 minimum wage, free tuition, and, yes, the basic-income pilot. She also adopted more progressive positions on sexual harassment and assault and even police reform. None of that saved her party.

If voters are now less responsive to moderate, centrist campaigning, why did this course lead to disaster for her party? One possibility is that it just wasn’t the right fit: whenever Wynne dragged her party to the left — especially in 2016 and 2017 — she had to repudiate some choice she or her party had made earlier, and sometimes not even that far back. For example, the Liberals discovered a sudden urgent need for a $14 minimum wage in 2017 — in 2014, Wynne had said raising it would be too much for Ontario business.

This is why the future could be tricky for the Ontario Liberal Party. If Wynne’s turn to the left didn’t work, its natural instinct may be to course-correct to the right. But do we think the forces polarizing our politics are going to be any weaker in 2022 than they are today? Is the centre, whatever that is, going to be where the voters are? And if they’re not, then what’s left for the Liberals?

The Liberals won just under 20 per cent of the vote in 2018. Just because that’s the worst they’ve ever done in this province doesn’t mean they’ve hit rock bottom — just look west for proof of how bad it can get.

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