A lesson from Canada?

Ten years ago last week, Justin Trudeau became leader of Canada’s Liberal Party, then still reeling from a near-death experience in the 2011 federal election. It had fallen to just 18.9% of the vote and third-party status, but under Trudeau it soon recovered: in 2015 it doubled its vote and won a majority, and Trudeau was re-elected (albeit without the majority) in 2019 and 2021.

There’s been some comment on the anniversary, as in this piece last week by Aaron Wherry, and a very good longer piece from Jonathan Malloy back in February. But it’s especially relevant in Australia with the debate over the future of our Liberal Party, given its recent electoral misfortunes and deep ideological division.

I’ve referred to Canada before as “Australia’s northern hemisphere cousin,” or less flatteringly as our “Bizarro-twin”. There are many similarities, but the two party systems present an obvious contrast. By Australian standards, Canada’s appears stuck in the 1890s, with the main game being the contest between Liberals and Conservatives.

Two things in particular account for the difference. One that even the casual observer will spot is the absence of Australia’s strong and well-established Labor Party. Canada’s trade unions, like ours, attempted to establish such a party in the early years of the twentieth century, but it never really got off the ground. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation was formed in 1932 and peaked in 1945 with 15.6% of the vote and 28 seats; in 1961 it merged into the New Democratic Party (NDP).

Since then the NDP has occupied the left, or at least centre-left, of the political spectrum; it has firmly established itself as the third party without ever quite being able to displace either of the top two. The multi-party system (joined at times by others, especially the Quebec Bloc since 1991) has exposed the deep unfairness of the country’s electoral system, while also increasing the determination of the two major parties to retain it.

The second big difference from Australia was that Canada had no Deakinites – that is, no political leaders who tried to marry protectionism to liberal politics. Free trade remained, as in Britain (and New South Wales), a progressive cause and was associated with the Liberals, who were also keen for closer relationships with the United States; the Conservatives were always more committed to the imperial relationship with Britain.

So there was nothing comparable to the first decade of federation in Australia, when non-Labor parties divided not between liberal and conservative but between free trade and protectionist, blurring the ideological lines. That meant that once our trade policy had been settled (in the protectionists’ favor), there was nothing much to keep those parties apart; in the Fusion of 1909 they combined to form a single party, and, now in the shape of the Liberal Party, they are still there.

In Canada, with no such blurring and no pressure from Labor, Liberals and Conservatives remained enemies. The Liberal Party was able to define itself as a progressive but not anti-capitalist force, bringing together workers, free traders, anti-clericals and anti-British. And it was a successful combination, with the Liberals governing federally for about two-thirds of last century.

There were some bumps in the road. Capitalism became less fashionable in the 1960s and ’70s, and with the NDP snapping at their left flank the Liberals edged more towards socialism and anti-Americanism. In 1988 that led them to oppose the free trade agreement with the US, which lost them support in Quebec – the French Canadians had always supported the US as a counterweight to Britain. But in the 1990s Jean Chrétien took the party back towards the centre, and Trudeau has not fundamentally changed that orientation, although he has made concessions to lock in NDP support.

Is there a lesson here for Australia? Our party system took a different track more than a century ago; the rise of Labor and the response of Fusion gave us a class-based system that we have never been able to escape, although it now looks more anachronistic than ever. The rivalry between liberals and conservatives, which anchors the Canadian system, in Australia has to happen within a single party (and to some extent within Labor as well, although that’s another story).

No wonder it’s having trouble.


2 thoughts on “A lesson from Canada?

  1. The Liberals in Canada are not liberals in any philosophical sense, apart from the one where liberalism has been co-opted by democratic socialists in the US. They are much more like the modern ALP, which is not a class-based party in the sense of representing the working class, even though many working class still vote for them. The lessons the Canadian Liberals have to offer the Australian Liberals are few. Maybe not to give up hope just because you’ve suffered an electoral reverse. But as you note the Canadian electoral system heavily favours their Liberals, so even that lessons is muted.


    1. Thanks Graham! I think it’s true that Canadian Liberals & Australian Labor have converged on a similar policy position, a sort of conservative centrism with some social democrat inklings. But they remain very different sorts of parties. The ALP is still very much a class party – less so than it once was, but the class outlook is still key to its sociology & mythology as well as to its voter base. It remains fundamentally the political arm of the trade union movement. The Canadian Liberals have none of that; they are a middle-class party & always have been.

      You can certainly argue that there hasn’t been much liberalism in the Canadian Liberals’ approach to economics, especially in the second half of last century. But it’s identifiably a liberal party in other respects; it’s a long-standing member of Liberal International, the worldwide organisation of such parties. The problem the Liberal Party in Australia has is that there’s never been agreement on whether it’s trying to be a liberal party or not.

      My point about the Canadian electoral system was not that it specifically favors the Liberals, but that it favors the two major parties at the expense of smaller parties – the NDP, the Greens and now the People’s Party. But not at the expense of the Quebec Bloc, which also benefits because its support is very geographically concentrated.


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