Is there an inescapable need for a merger of the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it.”  – George Santayana (1863 – 1952) 

I was watching the “At Issue Panel” on CBC’s “the National”. Bruce Anderson, Peter Mansbridge, Andrew Coyne and Chantal Hébert were talking about our new Parliament. The panel started off well. They were talking about a variety of subjects and there was very little to argue about. That was until they started talking about possibility of a merger between the Liberal Party and New Democratic Party. Anyone who knows me can assume that I started to blow my top. For, the panel made a mistake. This august panel assumed that there was the need for an eventual merger between the Liberal and New Democratic Party.

So to that question, I have a one word answer: “no”. Save the United States of America, Western Democracies tend to have three political streams. There is a right, a left and a centre. In Israel, this meant the creation of the Kadima by Ariel Sharon. In England, the third and fourth party merged to form the Liberal Democrats Party. In many other European countries, one can see a far-left, left, centre, right and far-right. The truth of the matter is that in a Parliamentary Democracy, many streams will evolve. This is healthy and necessary part of our system. For it keeps existing political forces in check. But that is the short answer.

So let us look at the longer answer.  Since the 1920’s, Canada has had a minimum of three political parties. For example, The New Democratic Party has existed since 1961. Their leadership has been long and proud. Jack Layton was not the first leader but the sixth.  Tommy Douglas was their leader from 1961 to 1971. The seat was then held by David Lewis, Ed Broadbent, Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough. Yet, this social democratic party’s history does not begin in 1961.

So the New Democratic Party was preceded by the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). For in 1961, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation entered into an agreement with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party. Consequently, we know that the CCF and the NDP are a part of our Political History. They were third parties that have changed our way of thinking. They represent a part of our history that goes back to 1932. Therefore, while Canada has had a socialist party since 1932, those third parties have held weight and influence.

For Canada’s political history is a rich one. Before CCF leaders, like M.J. Coldwell and J.S. Woodsworth, Canada had more than two electable parties. Pacifist Agnes Macphail was elected to Parliament for the first time in 1921. She was a strong voice for rural issues and was a leader in penal reform in Canada. Ms. Macphail argued for seniors’ pensions and worker’s rights. Her actions led to the creation of the Archambault Commission and the Elizabeth Fry Society of Canada. She is a woman that many of us are both amazed and intrigued by. She even represented Canada in an international capacity at the League of Nations for a time. However, she did not run as a Liberal or a Conservative. In 1921, Mrs. Macphail was a member of the Ginger Group; a wing of the Progressive Party. She was one of 58 members who came to the Federal Parliament in the 1921 election. At the time, the Progressive Party, under the leadership of Thomas Crerar, held the second most seats in the House of Commons. Even though Arthur Meighen, the leader of the Conservative Party was Leader of the Opposition; his party held the only 49 seats.

Now, the story of the Progressive Party teaches us a number of lessons. Firstly, dropping into the position of third party does not mean that party is finished. For William Lyon Mackenzie King would be defeated by Mr. Meighen in 1926. Secondly, we learned that just because a party becomes the official opposition in one election, it does not mean it will never form government. For the Progressives lost much of their influence by the 1940’s. By that time, various Progressive wings merged with different parties at the national and provincial level. For example, the Progressive Conservative Party is a result of one of these mergers. Lastly, the Progressive Party teaches us that third parties exist and are essential to Canadian Democracy. So in summary, in 1921, the Conservative Party was essentially the “third party”.  While, The Conservative Party Leader, Mr. Meighen, would start the 1921 election as Prime Minister, he would end up with third most seats in the House. However, that would not stop Mr. Meighen from defeating William Lyon Mackenzie King in 1926. This accession occurred without the Progressive Party becoming Government. The Liberal Party of Canada should remember this lesson for it is often repeated. A little know Progressive Conservative, named Michael Harris, did the same thing in 1995. Mr. Harris became the Premier by defeating the Premier at the time, the Honourable Bob Rae.

For those who believe the Liberal Party of Canada will not be heard in this new Parliament, let us not forget that the elected Parliament of 1921 held seven different voices. The Liberal, Progressive and Conservatives were present. However, there were two independent Members of Parliament and two other MP’s who supported the United Farmers of Alberta. There was an Independent Conservative and an Independent Progressive. Additionally, there was a member that represented the United Farmers of Ontario. The 1921 Parliament was full of opinions and this has been the case before and since. However, each Party was heard. We know this because in subsequent elections many of them were re-elected.

However, Canada has seen a number of third parties. We could look at the evolution of the Social Credit Party. Save two elections, from 1935 to 1979, the Social Credit Party won seats. Their smallest win was 5 seats in 1965 and their largest win was 30 seats in 1962. The interesting thing is that those numbers do not include various offshoots. Throughout that period, they participated in a number of confidence votes. In 1979, they were voted no confidence in the Clark Government: a government which lost the confidence of Parliament and feel during the subsequent election. Put differently, the Progressives, the NDP, theCCFand the Social Credit Party created a competitive landscape. At times, it meant that Canadian Prime Ministers had to ask minority Parliaments for help. Parliamentarians were more than willing to give that help. In fact, in 1917, that meant that the Prime Minister of the day – Conservative Robert Borden – formed a coalition government.

Is this normal? Go back to Canada’s first elections. In the first number of Canadian elections, Candidates ran under a number of banners including Anti-Confederate, Conservative, Liberal-Conservative, Independent Conservative, Liberal Reformer and Independent Liberal.  Historians often gloss over this confusing time but it is important to remember that the Rt. Hon. Sir John A MacDonald ran in his first election as a Liberal-Conservative. Up until 1873, the Conservative Party of Canada was known as the Liberal Conservative Party. As Prime Minister, John A MacDonald has to bring together Liberal-Conservatives and Conservatives to form a government.

Interestingly, even after 1873, some members of the Conservative Party ran as Liberal–Conservatives. In fact, strict party titles seem to coincide with the Unionist Coalition Government. At the time, Political Parties slowly ceased to be coalitions of various elements and became “electoral machines”. In my opinion, when one puts together the dates in this essay, an interesting story appears. The evolution of Party discipline drove out dissident voices. Voices which would normally have been cobbled together became separate parties.

The leader of the Green Party today was an advisor to a Progressive Conservative Prime Minister. While the interim leader of the Liberal Party today was an NDP Premier. Even Stephen Harper has a past. In his case, he was aide to a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament. Accordingly, Canada will always have many political point of views represented in Parliament. In the last election, we found that the Green Party of Canada, the Liberal Party of Canada, the Conservative Party of Canada and the New Democratic Party won some form of representation in Parliament. This is not unusual. Pierre Trudeau – between 1968 and 1979; with either a majority or minority government – had to face four parties and up to 5 independent MPs. So the election of five different political parties, such as in the election in 1993, is not usual.

What was most unique about the 1993 election was the disintegration of the Mulorney Progressive Conservatives. For his, temporary union of Quebec Nationalists, Ontario Conservatives and Populist Western Conservatives created a new party – Bloc Québécois- and gave momentum to a growing movement – the Reform Party. Their formation in a new political vehicle, the Conservative Party, is not remarkable and their time in government is not infinite. As Arthur Meighen has taught us, Political Leaders can be on top one day and on the bottom another.

Party leaders and pundits of all stripes would be wise to recognize the trends of history. It is true that the Liberal Party has much work to do. If the Liberal Party, my party, does not want to be condemned to the trash heap of history, they must come up with relevant policy and soon. Our party must find a voice and a leader who can speak to Canadians. In the meantime, the Patient is not dead, it is merely unconscious. It is waiting for the breath of life. Let us see, hope, that it comes sooner rather than later.

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