Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Regionalism or Sectionalism in Canada

While the tragedy in Toronto, on Danzig Street is dominating much of the media and many of our thoughts tonight I have decided not to write about it. Commentary without greater context is not worthwhile at this stage.

Something I wanted to discuss is division in Canada along regions. When Tom Mulcair (NDP – Outremont, QC) made his statements in regards to the Alberta tar sand development the Conservative Party and others quickly attacked him as pitting West against East in a cynical attempt to win votes. It was also said that this hurt the overall unity of the country by commenters, such as Rex Murphy.

I do not believe this issue is exclusively that of Tom Mulcair, but of wedge politics in general. Wedge politics is the use of specific issues that divides communities into stark camps and forces people to choose a side. Typically campaigns employ this strategy if a majority will be drawn to their side. Wedge issues often have very thin margins leading to very hot rhetoric to coalesce a side.

Obviously the oil sands/tar sands development is a wedge issue. Canadians in central and eastern Canada view the economic benefits through the lens of some of the environmental consequences. In Alberta that distinction can be trickier. The oil industry is the backbone of Alberta’s (and increasingly Canada’s) economy. That being said despite the attacks on the leader of the federal NDP his policy is not that far removed from the Alberta Premier, Alison Redford, of the Progressive Conservative Party.

A Conservative example? How about so-called tough on crime legislation? People who study crime suggest that longer prison sentences and tougher sentencing will do nothing to lower overall crime rates. Still, the types of reforms instituted by the Conservative government are incredibly popular among a certain segment of the population. Left-wing voters across the country oppose the policy, and several provinces object to it given that it will increase costs with negligible benefit.

Prime Minster Stephen Harper’s crime legislation is as unpopular in Quebec as Mr. Mulcair’s statements about the oil/tar sands are in Alberta.

Canada is a highly regionalized country. Our politics reflect that. If you doubt me go through the Wikipedia pages for Canada’s elections during the twentieth century. Regions of the country tend to vote as blocks to represent their interests. If the discussion of sustainable development is an effort to pit regions against one another then there is nothing new there.

Canada’s regionalism is emphasized by our electoral system. The First-Past-the-Post disproportionate awards the first place party overall. For example, in Saskatchewan the NDP won about a third of the vote, but received no seats. Saskatchewan is 100% represented by the Conservatives, therefore increasing the appearance of regional divisions.

While this style of politics is familiar, and tested there are serious consequences. Canada probably is not the type of country that can sustain itself by pitting regions against each other, especially in the case of Quebec. If Quebec, or any other province feels abused by Confederation they will exercise to remove themselves from the federal system. Perhaps Alberta or Ontario won’t separate, but they’ll push for greater provincial powers and weaker federal government.

There’s little value in giving  a sermon about the beauty of unity politics, because they generally don’t win elections. However, having a message that speaks broadly to the whole of the public is an effective way to win public support. The current Harper Conservative government appears to be appealing to a very narrow part of the electorate. As a party they are beginning to pay a price for it. There is a consequence to using that wedge; hopefully it is for the party, and not the country.


Sir Francis said...

The test of national Canadian leadership is the ability to bridge regional divides and resist deploying them for partisan gain. Most of our current leaders, including our prime minister, fail that test routinely.

Nice to discover a fellow Red Tory out there, by the way. We're a dying (i.e. over-hunted) breed!

SJL said...

Exactly. All Canadian governments (and parties, really) are coalitions. The country is just too large and too diverse to create homogenous majorities. Leaders can grow into national consensus builders. I don't think Mr. Harper has shown any evidence of that, at all.

Red Tories are awfully thin on the ground these days. I hope you'll check out some of my other posts. Thanks for reading.