One of the consistent talking points in any discussion of Canadian politics is the battle over the ‘political centre’. You will often hear phrases like, “The NDP is moving to the centre”, or “the Liberals are pressured in the centre,” etc. etc. The term is highly nebulous and in reality has very little meaning in Canadian political discourse.
The centre historically was composed of those swing voters somewhere between the Liberals and Conservatives (in their various forms). They are non-partisan for the post part. Parties fight to appeal to this swath of voters to win elections and carry key ridings and build their mandates. The “centre” has an ideological angle, in theory there is an imaginary line of politics where parties are arranged from left to right. Where they fall is based on the particular historical moment. For the most part it is safe to assume that the NDP were a left (or left-of-centre) political party, with the Liberals being left-of-centre, or centre, or sometimes centre-right and Conservatives being a right-wing, or centre-right party.
Political watchers assume that voters arrange themselves in this sort of spectrum as well. There were Liberal-NDP swing voters, or Liberal-Conservative swing voters and that shaped our national conversation. This analysis is very limited. It ignores the central problem that voters don’t think of themselves so narrowly. Believe it or not, there are NDP-Conservative swing voters, as I used to be.
I am writing about this because there seems to be a sort of realignment afoot that the media is only paying cursory attention to.
Recently the federal NDP announced that they are in support of several free trade deals. The Globe and Mail characterized this as a clear sign of the NDP’s move towards the centre. I suppose that analysis is fair. The NDP federally is joining the consensus that equitable trade deals between relatively similar countries can have real benefits. I have no doubt the NDP will continue to criticize trade deals that do not serve Canada’s interest, but the party is now expressing, in principle, a positive view of trade.
I feel this is related, in part, to a piece I read in the National Post today. Michael Den Tandt argues that Martha Hall Findlay’s entrance into the federal Liberal leadership race will compel the Justin Trudeau to come up with meaningful answers on policy. While I like Ms. Hall Findlay’s zeal for reform and interesting policy, I sincerely doubt she could overcome the momentum that seems to be building behind the Trudeau campaign. However, as John Ivison commented on Twitter today – where is the left-wing of the Liberal party? Instead they chose to present the "progressive face of conservatism". Martha Hall Findlay clearly comes from the fiscal right of the Liberals and Trudeau has endorsed policies to build pipelines and approve foreign takeovers, putting him closer to the Conservative base than the NDP’s. At the moment there is not a passionate defender of left-wing ideals in the leadership race - no Sheila Copps, or Pierre Elliot Trudeau. It seems the Liberals wills perhaps abandon the notion of being centre-left altogether and switch to being a centre or perhaps even centre-right party.
Meanwhile fiscal conservatives, such as Gerry Nichols continue to grumble about how the governing Conservatives have failed to live up to their names. They accuse them of spending like Liberals, and leaving their supporters and beliefs in the dust in a pursuit of power.
When you examine the totality of Canadian federal political parties, I think it’s clear that the sentiment about the so-called centre makes very little sense. The centre of Canadian political thought is constantly moving, and there isn’t one centre, but probably many around which the population gathers. However, another interpretation is that Canadian politics is moving to the right, much like other Western democracies since the end of the Cold War.
I frequently think that Canada’s political landscape may soon resemble Britain’s more than it has for decades; a powerful left-centre Labour/NDP, a rival Conservative party, and a centrist Liberal Democrat/Liberal Party critical in forming governments and difficult to identify politically. With the various nationalists parties it is almost a perfect fit. Or maybe Andrew Coyne already provided us the answer, a couple of weeks ago I shared a talk he gave where he argued that the debate over economics is almost over. Therefore our debate about left-centre-right may be coming to a close.
Fear not though, our political parties will find something new to fight over.