Canadian politics have a strange pattern of running fairly steady for a certain amount of time before a sudden, unexpected shakeup. For nearly a century, the Liberal Party of Canada dominated the federal political scene, generally by taking nearly all of Quebec’s seats in every election. Quebec and Ontario, by virtue of their populations, combine to create a majority of seats in the House of Commons—it’s an easy road to majority government if one party can take both provinces. For years the Liberals managed this feat and retained power as a result. Then, a shakeup: the 1984 election, when Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives swept Quebec and Ontario and won a massive majority.
Fast-forward about ten years to 1993 and another great shift. The PCs collapsed in support, while the Liberals surged and then managed to hold majority governments for more than a decade. These shifts, it would seem, are cyclical—one party in, another out. This pattern between Canada’s Liberal and Conservative parties held true until 2011, when the cycle was suddenly interrupted by the “Orange Crush”—the surge in support that won the NDP the role of Official Opposition. Although this monumental feat for the perennial third (occasionally fourth) runner was impressive in and of itself, it was in fact Stephen Harper who reaped the greatest rewards. As long as the NDP retains this high support, the result is a “left split”: the Liberals and NDP jockey for the left vote, each getting about 30%, and the Conservatives ride up the middle as the most popular party overall with about 40%.
As long as this split exists, some believe that no left-leaning party can reasonably expect to unseat the Conservatives, at least not without another great Canadian political shift. Considering some 60% of voters chose a party other than Stephen Harper’s, the prospect of perpetual Conservative government is clearly unpalatable to many—and from this has blossomed a provocative idea, one that just might kick Harper to the curb.
In the buildings of Ottawa and in political institutions across Canada, many are asking what would happen if the NDP and Liberals merged into a single party. Could one party, a mix of the Liberal centre and NDP left, bring down the Conservatives? The debate has been bubbling for some time, and it seems to be growing.
The immediate, official reaction from both parties has been to deny anything of the sort. No merger, no deals, it just won’t happen. Of course, politics is a game of tactics and diplomacy, and nothing can be taken at face value. The parties have been discussing it; many big voices have spoken out, both for and against merging. In light of a recent set of polls, however, the discussion is likely to get a lot more serious. As Michael Den Tandt at the Montreal Gazette writes, some feel the merger of the two parties is inevitable—it must happen because the Canadians that back each party are “the same kinds of people, with the same basic sets of views.”
The general argument against a merger is that the two parties are born of different ideologies. The NDP is a solidly leftist party, founded on the principles of social justice and social democracy, a strong state and decidedly left-wing economic structure. The much older Liberals, however, are more centrist—socially liberal but fiscally conservative, and always adaptable to move a bit either way, is how they are generally viewed. Indeed, it is this adaptability that helped them hold power so successfully for so long. Surely such different parties with different goals could never join together. Some say that Canadians could never support a merger based on selling out values for power.
It’s a strong argument, admittedly, one that appeals to people’s morality. In the end, however, Mr. Den Tandt may be on to something. Maybe the foundations of another great shift are already being laid. Although the two parties merging and going on to beat the Conservatives is only a speculative scenario, the population that supports each of them may already have “merged.” If Liberal and NDP supporters are, in fact, essentially the same, then the creation of a new merged-left party would simply respond to that change in public opinion. The polls indicate that this sentiment is true especially amongst younger Canadians, aged 18–34—the ones who will be voting for many years to come and are quite likely to support a new, united party.
The Liberals and NDP are still quite different, that much is true and likely always will be. However, that doesn’t necessarily make them incompatible. Flexibility and a willingness to compromise for a perceived greater good can show itself at surprising times.
It all comes down to how much the combined majority of the two parties will be willing to go to stop the Harper Conservatives and their plans for Canada. If things continue on their current path, expect to hear and see a lot more real, sustained support from both parties. That next great shift may be barreling towards us faster than we think; we could see candidates for the “new Liberal-Democrats of Canada” on our ballots in 2015.