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Opinion

In with the new, and not a minute too soon

By Susan Riley      

But there is a sea change in the air as more elections—provincial and federal—loom. At the very least, we can hope the old parties are jolted out of their complacency by the eager newcomers nipping at their heels. It's either that, or die a lingering death.

Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault's, pictured, centre-right party apparently had 31.8 per cent of support, according to CBC's Quebec poll tracker released on Sept. 30, while Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard's Liberals had the support of 30.1 per cent. Photograph courtesy of Instagram
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CHELSEA, QUE.—At the moment, we don’t know the outcome of today’s Quebec election, but polls predict significant advances for Québec Solidaire, a left-leaning sovereigntist party that was born in 2006 and gained momentum in the aftermath of the Quebec student strikes in 2012. Its impact throughout the campaign, particularly among young Montrealers, is only the latest evidence of eroding support for the country’s traditional political parties.
Increasing numbers of voters across the country—many, but not all, young—are fed up with the same old, slippery, antagonistic and cynical politics on offer from establishment parties. Some simply stop voting, some default to the simplistic solutions of angry populists like Doug Ford, others—in growing numbers—are ready to try something new.
In New Brunswick last week, while the Liberals and Conservatives battled themselves to a standstill, two minor parties made small, but strategically important inroads. The Green Party now has three seats in the 49-seat legislature as does the new, right-leaning People’s Alliance Party. Both instantly became attractive potential partners to the larger parties vying for power.
In British Columbia, NDP Leader John Horgan’s fragile minority also depends on the support of the legislature’s three Green Party members. And, in the eventful Ontario election in June, voters in Guelph sent Mike Schreiner, the first ever Green Party MLA to Queen’s Park. He is already attracting outsize media interest, partly because of the novelty of his victory. All told, there are now 10 Green Party members in Canadian legislatures, including the indefatigable Elizabeth May, representing Saanich-Gulf Islands, B.C., in Ottawa.
And, recently, veteran Conservative MP Maxime Bernier launched his libertarian-populist People’s Party of Canada, to a mixed chorus of scorn and applause. It is a party of one for now and could remain so, because, while many voters are fed up with costly, cumbersome government attempts to direct economic activity, or with Conservative Party support for supply management, they tend to be scattered across the country which weakens their impact. If Bernier marries his economic ideas with anti-immigrant populism, as he seems inclined to do, his party may have broader appeal, but it would be an uneasy relationship_ ideologically, and, personally for Bernier, who has previously been laissez-faire on identity issues.
But, like his new seatmate in the deepest recesses of the Commons Chamber, Elizabeth May, Bernier brings political skills to his job and national recognition.
This still amounts to only a handful of new players, of course, and none have the administrative and fund-raising power of the established parties. Nor is the emergence of what is dismissively known as “fringe parties” novel: the sedate and regular exchange of political power—Liberal to Conservative, Conservative to Liberal—has been previously interrupted by rude interlopers. Some, like the Reform Party, or Social Credit, last a long while; others, like New Brunswick’s CoR party, or, Wildrose, or Quebec’s Option Canada disappear, or are re-absorbed into the mainstream.
What separates the survivors from the short-lived is the quality and charisma of their leadership, the urgency of their ideas and the failure of the established parties to address pressing public concerns. Under those criteria, the Green Party—federally and provincially—could become more signifiant in the future.
It has the wind at its back these days, literally and figuratively, as virtually no part of the country is untouched by extreme climate events—tornados in the national capital, flash floods in downtown Toronto, extreme wildfires in British Columbia and Alberta, melting Arctic sea-pack, flooding in Atlantic Canada, and so on. While the evidence of changing climate is increasingly obvious and frightening, the federal Liberals and Conservatives are hell-bent on getting another oil pipeline built, while many provincial governments care more about stopping a carbon tax than arresting carbon emissions.
The New Democrat Party in Alberta has become as much a captive of the oil industry—even paying to circulate the industry’s pro-oil message on social media—as any of its Progressive Conservative predecessors. Federally, the NDP has been late and timid in its support of environmentalists in British Columbia who are fighting the Trans Mountain extension. Both federal and provincial NDP parties have been riven by internal division between union supporters, seduced by the promise of jobs in an expanded oil patch, and environmentalists worried about increased emissions.
The Green Party has no such conflict. Instead, it proposes an orderly transition away from fossil fuels with lost jobs replaced by new opportunities in the fast-growing green technology sector. It also supports construction of domestic refineries to process more of Canada’s oil before export. Indeed, the Green Party plan isn’t unlike some of the green promises Justin Trudeau offered in 2015 and has failed so dramatically to deliver. It would be no surprise if some Liberal ridings in B.C.’s Lower Mainland vote Green in 2019—provided the party can attract credible candidates.
As for Quebec Solidaire, its emergence reflects disenchantment with the way the old parties, the Liberals and the Parti Québécois, have mishandled education, immigration and health care over years. Quebec Solidaire is, by contrast, offering free university tuition, free dental care, a phase out of gas-powered cars and a 15-hour minimum wage. More than that, it is offering a new, unpretentious style of politics—and a joint leadership shared by Manon Masse, 55, and Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, 28.
During the debates, Masse’s exasperated looks and occasional eye-rolls, while her male opponents shouted at one another, won the sympathy of viewers, regardless of affiliation. In her words: “What these men will tell you is that we can’t pay for these things (the QS platform). But these men are wrong. They don’t have vision. They don’t dream.”
Of course, new parties eventually run into the old complications and compromises involved in governing a diverse population. The seven-year-old, centre-right Coalition Avenir Quebec already learned that during a bruising campaign in which its ill thought-out immigration policies backfired badly. Also, what looks like simple, sensible reform in a campaign ad—Doug Ford’s promise to prevent gas companies from raising pump prices on weekends; Justin Trudeau’s vow to replace first-past-the-post—prove devilishly difficult to achieve.
But there is a sea change in the air as more elections—provincial and federal—loom. At the very least, we can hope the old parties are jolted out of their complacency by the eager newcomers nipping at their heels. It’s either that, or die a lingering death.
Susan Riley is a veteran political journalist who writes regularly for The Hill Times.
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