For many Canadians our day-to-day understandings of the political comes through media – a media which decides for us which bits of a message are worth our attention, and then tells us what to think about those messages. What passes for expert analysis may be no more than one journalist talking to another about what a third has written. However, there is a fundamental difference between politics experienced vicariously through the media and engaging "the political process" in more or less direct ways. It is profitable to think of politics not so much as a "thing" (that stands over and apart from citizens) but as a social process that is very much dependant on people engaging in activity together. And the activity that we were engaged in during the general election of 1988 has changed the political landscape that awaits us in the coming post-Gomery election.
Various political theorists (e.g Tom Bottomore) have argued that modern democracies (those of the last 200 years or so) trend towards two party systems. While there may be an upstart party now and again, it either kills off an opponent or gets eaten in infancy. There are a variety of examples to support this position and then there is Canada - the Canada that Prime Minister Mulroney left us all. He managed to do something that no other Prime Minister had as fully done: so alienate his supporters that they didn't want to play with their own party any more. And not just one disgruntled group. By the time he left office the playing field looked nothing like it did when he arrived. So what changed? How did we get from a Progressive Conservative majority government and a two-party system of rule (with the New Democratic Party never seriously contending for power) to a divided house of Liberals, no-longer-Progressive Conservatives, a separatist party with experience as her majesty's loyal opposition, a New Democratic Party with enough leverage on the Hill to put in place its own budget (albeit as Appendix A), and the "balance of power" in the hands of a few MP's that Prime Minister Martin sacked.
The answer lies, in part, with the Christian Heritage Party or CHP. Not the party per se, or its members, or the performance of their candidates (some of whom have garnered more that 10,000 votes at the local riding level), but in the circumstances which gave rise to a party that has never won a seat. As the folks who came to the realization that the Progressive Conservative Party had left them (and not the other way around as some would be quick to point out), they also came to the realization that they could do something about it. So they did. They organized in the lower mainland of British Columbia, in rural Ontario and its rural cities, and importantly in Alberta. At the same time, the Reform party was trying out its legs and Lucien Bouchard was also in the game, ready to roll the Quebec separatist agenda out from under the uneasy truce that had been the PCs.
While there was no formal alliance between the Reform and Christian Heritage Parties, they were appealing to much the same network of support. Suffice it to say neither group was targeting the political left. Whereas the CHP attempted to carve out the "family values" territory as theirs, the Reform party attempted to capitalize on "alienation from Ottawa" and electoral reform more generally. Both parties developed rather extensive policy manuals and worked (with very different levels of success) at distancing themselves from accusations that they were one-issue campaigns. Both parties ran candidates across the country, obtained official party status and, in their first outing, failed to elect a member to the House.
In the first-past-the-post world of Canadian politics and the frenzy of election night coverage, one may be lead, in error, to the conclusion that success belongs to the winner – the candidate who will represent the riding for the next four or five years or so. But election 1988 was marked by a very different experience. The fledgling Christian Heritage Party generated over 102,000 votes in the 1988 general election and more than 3.5% of the popular vote in the ridings they contested. By so doing, they were an important, albeit small, player in the undoing of the Progressive Conservatives.
Fast forward to the post-Gomery election that awaits us and it is reasonably clear that the seeds of disaffection sown by the Mulroney-era Tories continue to define the electoral landscape. While the Liberal Party generated just short of 4 million votes in 2004 and the Conservatives 3 million, we are a nation no longer to be best understood as a two-party system. Combined, the support for the Bloc and the NDP nearly equaled that of the Conservatives. And the support of the Green Party (582,000 votes) was approximately 25% of that generated by the NDP. The CHP remain in the game, but their traditional territory has been well mined by the agenda and interests of Harper-era Conservatives. Electoral support for the CHP fell 40,283 votes in 2004, placing them well behind the Green Party and just ahead of the Marijuana Party (33,590 votes). Additionally, Steven Harper will need to attend to the new PC Party, the "Progressive Canadian" party assembled in part from former Tories disaffected by the unification of the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties.
All of this is very different from the Canadian political landscape of a generation ago. Perhaps one of the most important sociological changes that occurred is the extent to which Canadians are less likely to define themselves and their political positions on the basis of party affiliation. It was not long ago that Liberal or Conservative was something that one was – like being 'from here' or 'from away', Protestant or Catholic. The folks who have built the Reform Party and the Green Party and the Christian Heritage Party have importantly and symbolically demonstrated that the political future can be otherwise and that electoral support is something that no party can simply take for granted. This is a lesson well known to history, but in the election to come it will also be known to experience.