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What factors contributed to the division of Canada’s political right into two seperate political parties Research Paper

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Updated: Jan 25th, 2020


Before the 1984 elections in Canada, there were only two major political parties, the Liberal Party and Progressive Conservative party. They competed in the traditional left/right-wing policy dimension space. There was a third small party the New Democratic Party on the left-wing.

Since New Democratic Party had weak electoral support, the political system qualified as two party-plus. Liberal party won most of the elections making it a natural government party. The factors that contributed to separation of Reform Party and the Progressive Conservative Party in Canada vary with the factors that contributed to their re-union.

Varying activities and political ideologies increased the need for Reform Party and Progressive Conservative Party to separate in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Major factors were socio-economic and political. Re-union of these Parties was contributed by mainly political factors (short term) and a combination of economic, social and political factors (long term).

This paper seeks to establish factors that led to separation and re-union of Reform/Canadian Alliance Party and Progressive Conservatives. All the factors reflect contributions and their intensities to either separation or re-union of these parties.

Separation of Progressive Conservative Party

Reform Party separated from Progressive Conservative Party in 1987. It had its first elected Member of Parliament in a 1989 by-election. Deborah Gray was its first member of parliament elected in Beaver River in Alberta, Canada. This party represented interests of people from the western part of Canada (Manning, 1992).

French/English relationship and other immigrant’s variation in economic and social issues were the main contributing factors. The House of Commons had started portraying significant divisions against itself based on these pertinent issues in 1980s.

In its quest for leadership in Canadian politics, Progressive Conservative leader took the risk of alienating Western provinces and pursuing issue of Quebec‘s constitutional future in early 1980s. This greatly polarized the electorate and worked well for the PC. They won the elections and formed a government in 1982.

Western Canada lacked sufficient representation at the national level in the 1980s. Lack of representation led to favoritism of Mulroney’s Progressive government towards Québec. Most elites from the region believed that there was need for their own party to be heard nationally (Brimelow, 1986).

Politicians including Preston Manning, Francis Winspear and several others believed that there was need for institutional reforms in Canadian political system. This view was not shared by most of the leaders in Progressive Conservative party. Meech Lake Accord which proposed constitutional amendment did not meet the required level of Canadian Unity and requirements of the Westerners (Johnston et al. 1996).

It was negotiated by the federal government with ten provinces. The accord provided Quebec with a distinct society status. Nevertheless, it failed ratification in 1990. The failure of the accord led to formation of another political outfit Bloc Québécois in Quebec. Another accord was negotiated in 1992 but it was rejected again by population in a referendum.

In 1986 Canadians in Western Provinces thought that Progressive Conservative Party’s federal governments paid more attention to Quebec. Majority of the economic programs started by the Canadian government in 1980s where skewed towards benefiting Québec at the expense of Alberta and other western provinces.

Introduction of National Energy Program which was aimed at regulating energy prices, led to major economic losses in Alberta. There was visible unfairness in government procurement. Majority of government contracts were being awarded to companies in Québec. This was reflected in 1986 when the federal Progressive Conservative government contracted an unprepared company in Québec a contract. Since the contract involved construction of military aircrafts, it was worth a fortune.

The company was awarded the contract although another company in Winning, Manitoba was ready construct the CF-18 aircrafts. To Manning and other politicians from Western provinces, these events signified that both Liberal and Progressive Conservative Parties governments favored Eastern Canada and mostly Québec.

Economic discrimination was evident according to Jenson and Phillips (1996). Westerners had not been given economic freedom to perform their roles. As disparities between immigrants and natives increased, some people thought the government was not fair especially in distribution of income from oil and gas export.

Government reduction in social spending was not given effective emphasis by the federal Progressive Conservative government in 1980s. Government’s funding of multicultural and bilingual social programs did not go well with Reforms party members. Business people and citizens required tax cuts since cost of running business and unemployment rates had gone up.

Even with the increase in unemployment rates and government deficits, Progressive Conservative governments did not reduce taxes. When the Reforms Party proposers started their desire, they received a lot of support from people who did not benefit from tax cuts especially in Western Canada.

Most of the people in Western Canada thought immigrants from Africa and Latin America benefited from their resources. Some even thought that they could do without Quebec which tolerated immigrants from India, Africa and Latin America. Most of these concerns where due to increased deficit in the federal government budget.

Government services being offered by Liberal and Progressive Conservative party had deteriorated over time. Privatization of government organizations was not done by Progressive Conservative government although they performed poorly. There was need for universal health care for all citizens. With the failing health care, the proponents of the reforms including Manning wanted a two-tier health insurance system (Manning, 1992). This would include both private and public insurance.

The issue of free trade was also a big factor that contributed to the separation of Progressive Conservative party. The Reformists from the western provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba and Alberta thought that there was need for free trade among all Canadians. They wanted to engage in both domestic and international trade with the United States and other partners (Manning, 1992).

Various social related challenges emerged in the 1980s. Issues relating to aboriginal, gay/lesbian marriage, abortion and HIV threatened the well being of Westerners and other Canadians. The need for tight regulations on gay and lesbian marriage was frequently called by Reforms party members.

At some point, the spread of HIV was regarded as a disaster in the making. Since the Progressive Conservative Party government did not put much emphasis on theses social challenges, some of the Reforms/alliance members felt it was necessary to tackle them.

These social factors fueled the separation of Progressive Conservative Party. Preston Manning himself condemned homosexuality in public. However, some of the extreme views of the members of the separated Reforms were considered as individual rather than party positions.

In the early 1990s, the Reform Party realized that it had gained considerable support in most parts of the country. The extended support became an encouraging factor for it its members. They then changed it from a regional Party to a national one. Its expansion extended to most areas including Ontario. However, it still did not include Quebec in its expansion.

Reunion of Reform/Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party

After its inception, Reforms Party barely made impact in federal elections. In its three subsequent elections, it did not secure more than 20 % of the federal vote. The highest number of seats it won was 60 out of 301 in the House of Commons. The failure to appease a wide range of supporters in most provinces was mainly because of its extreme policies.

Before the 2000 federal elections, Reforms Party changed to Canadian Alliance Party and adopted moderate policies (Blais et al, 2002). The party also elected a new leader. However, it did not succeed to secure more votes. It increased to 66 seats while the other Right-wing Party, Progressive Conservative won only 12 seats.

The two parties realized that the only significant improvement would occur if they merged. After extensive negotiations they finally merged and formed Conservative Party of Canada in 2003. Various factors contributed to the historical merger of the two right-wing parties.

Long Term Factors

For the better part of 20th century, Liberal party won most elections in Canada. The only significant opposition was offered by the left wing Progressive Conservative party. The failed recognition of special status of Quebec in 1990s expanded political space to include constitutional rights of Quebec.

The partisan issue which influenced Canadian politics regenerated from its original one dimension to two dimensions. The policy space was on economic and regional dimensions. To remove a party in power, opposition can just wait for natural failure of the incumbent government. It may be caused by domestic or foreign policy (Schofield et al, 2003).

This is an unstable risk because incumbent party can regain power after the electorates weigh their preferences. The opposition can also identify an underlying issue and campaign for or against it. This is likely to polarize electorate into two opposing groups (Schofield et al, 2003).

If the polarization is high the ruling party can be easily broken or weakened. The western alienation and French-English relations has been such a factor in Canada. Success in uniting such groups could lead in more problems. However, if it succeeds, the party can become new natural governing party.

In the 2000 elections, Canadian Alliance Party and Bloc Québécois pro/anti-French issues were vital. However, the Reform/alliance supporters had moved to economic issues. At that same time, Progressive Conservatives had adopted an almost center policy. PC did not make recognizable gain in the elections because of its dept, leadership controversies, poor organization and troubled fundraising (Woolstencroft, 2001).

However, it captured 12% of the federal vote. Most voters in Canada are situated around the centre of economic and constitutional issues. This allowed the liberals to capture victory in the 2000 and majority of other federal elections. Anti-French driven sentiments mainly influenced the Reform/Alliance vote. Pro-French sentiments contributed to Quebec federal vote.

The results show that Reform/Alliance Party was not able to replace or absorb Progressive Conservative Party in 1990s. This is reflected in the average 12-20% share of PC every election year which was not enough to propel it to power. This particular percentage vote is what Reform/alliance party required to defeat Liberals in the elections.

Quebec guaranteed PC its votes because it could not accommodate the extreme views of the Reform/Alliance Party. Failures in 1997 and 2000 proved to both Progressive Conservative and Reform/Alliance parties that it would be practically impossible to beat Liberals without unity. The electoral goal played a significant factor in the ultimate merge of the two parties over their ideologies and policies.

Short term factors

Leadership change in both parties before the merger contributed to the success of reunion. There is a significant impact of change of leadership, dominant party faction and external benefits to the decision to merge parties (Harmel & Janda, 1994). During the period between 1990 and 2000, both parties pursued vote-seeking and policy-seeking goals.

Before 1993, Progressive Conservative was considered one of the two major federal parties in Canada. However, it had not been characterized by strong ideological values (Bernard 1996). It’s primarily goal was vote-maximizing. In the 1990s the party changed its goal to policy advocacy.

On the other hand, Reform/Alliance started with policy-seeking goal and later shifted to vote-seeking before the 2000 elections. After its formation, the party did well in representing its main policies. It could not achieve its policy-seeking since it never gained the significant votes to ascend to power.

Subsequently, the right-wing policy was not carried out. After the 1997 elections, the party launched the United Alternative campaign strategy. This showed a shift in party’s ultimate goal towards vote-seeking. This was followed by change of Party name to Canadian Alliance, election of a new leader and adoption of moderate policies in preparation for the 2000 federal elections.

This did not put off the Progressive Conservatives. The party’s success was insignificant. The Alliance Party and its new leader Stephen Harper remained with one option; to form a merger with the Progressive conservative Party. The Reform/Alliance had to sacrifice its ideological goal to succeed electorally.

On the other hand, Progressive Conservatives were not interested in the merger. According to Harme and Janda (1994), external shock to a party is usually the main trigger for party change. The 1993 election defeat acted as the necessary external shock. Its seats reduced from majority to only two in the House of Commons while the national share dropped from 43% to 16.

The party ran out of options because of the Liberals on the other side and Quebec’s deal on the other side. They could not play regional alienation because it had lost its credibility on the Meech Lake and subsequent constitutional accords. The Progressive Conservative faced a dead end because liberals occupied the traditional governing while Reform/Alliance and Bloc had the regional support.

It had the only option of forming an alliance with the Reform/alliance party or face extinction. PC leader Joe Clark opted for none of the options. He opposed to the merger because he wanted to deny his competitors opportunities in its stronghold. He wanted to preserve identity of the Party and defend his pride as a leader.

After a lot of in-party fighting, Orchard a close ally of PC leader Joe Clark retired to give room for MacKay’s leadership. He agreed to retire after MacKay pledged not to merge with Reform/Alliance. The party leaders who included five provincial Premiers, a former Ontario Premier and Brian Mulroney applied a lot of pressure on the new leader to form alliance. The leader finally broke his promise and formed the alliance in 2003. Organizational and leadership change played a key role in the merger (Harmel & Janda, 1994).

Works Cited

Bernard, André. “Liberals and Conservatives in the 1990s.” Canadian Parties in Transition. Ed. Brian Tanguay and Alain-G. Gagnon. Scarborough: Nelson Canada, 1996. 73-88. Print.

Blais, André, Elisabeth Gidengil, Richard Nadeau, and Neil Nevitte. Anatomy of a Liberal Victory: Making Sense of the Vote in the 2000 Canadian Election. Peterborough: Broadview Press. 2002. Print.

Brimelow, Peter. The Patriot Game. Toronto: Porter Books, 1986.Print.

Harmel, Robert, and Janda, Kenneth. “An Integrated Theory of Party Goals and Party Change.” Journal of Theoretical Politics 6 (1994): 259-287. Print.

Johnston, Richard, André Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil, and Neil Nevitte. The challenge of Direct Democracy: The 1992 Canadian Referendum. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996. Print.

Jenson, Jane and Susan Phillips. “Regime Shift: New Citizenship Practices in Canada.” International Journal of Canadian Studies 14 (1996):111–35. Print.

Manning, Preston. The New Canada. Canada: Macmillan, 1992. P167. Print.

Schofield, Norman, Gary Miller, and Andrew Martin. “Critical Elections and Political Realignment in America: 1860-2000.” Political Studies 51 (2003): 217-240. Print.

Woolstencroft, Peter. “Some Battles Won, War Lost: The Campaign of the Progressive Conservative Party.” In Jon H. Pammett and Christopher Dornan. 2001. Print

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