This year possibly saw Canada’s most pointless election. Though it was meant to be A VERY SERIOUS AFFAIR, the election was a gong show misleading personal attacks, the exposure of embarrassing histories and the revelation that the Prime Minister of the country couldn’t say how many times he wore blackface. Amidst all of this was the arrival of Canada’s first angry populist party under the leadership of Maxime Bernier. Bernier started his People’s Party of Canada in response to narrowly losing the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, in a contest that many within the party saw as rigged against him. Bernier may have agreed, and having crafted a libertarian brand as “Mad Max” thought this was the time to strike out on his own (I met Bernier during his run for leader of the CPC and was surprised at how short he was. I’m not saying that Bernier started another party due to small man syndrome, but his loss to the 6’3” Scheer may have played some roll). His party was a grab bag of disaffected curmudgeons and, unsettlingly, a number of quasi-racists who were obsessed with immigration.
The outcome of the election seemed to put Canada’s populism to rest, such as it was. A short lived attempt to start a “yellow vest” movement here, like in France, failed badly and tainted Andrew Scheer, the only politician to make overtures to various populist movements. Maxine Bernie’s party failed to win a single seat, including his own, and concerns that a populist wave was crashing down on Canada seemed unfounded. And yet shortly after the election we seemed embroiled in “WEXIT”, a nascent movement for Western Independence.
WEXIT probably won’t go anywhere, but Canada does have serious problems in the west that the much of the rest of the country seems disinterested in, and if left unaddressed could fuel years of populist outrage and self destructive behaviour. For instance, where you aware that mortgages more than 90 days in arrears in Alberta and Saskatchewan were now wildly out of step with the rest of the country?
Or that the unemployment rate among young men in Alberta had now reached 20%? For much of the last two decades Alberta has been a major engine of economic growth for the country and a source of opportunity for people across Canada. Today it has been reduced to the status of a Spain or Portugal (albeit with better financials).
In their book “Revolt on the Right: Explaining Support For The Radical Right in Britain” by Matthew Goodwin and Robert Ford, the authors note that the rise of populist UKIP party is “not primarily the result of things the mainstream parties, or their leaders, have said or done…instead, is the result of their inability to articulate, and respond to, deep-seated and long-standing social and political conflicts”.
This problem has been exasperated by an increasing focus on middle-class swing voters who have become seen as central to political success compared to people who have been considered “left behind” in a political and economic sense. They go on to point out that the major parties have “avoided high-profile efforts to mobilize the concerns of the ‘left behind’ voters because both parties have concluded, that electoral success or failure will depend on the support of educated middle-class voters, who hold a very different set of values and priorities.”
This rings particularly true where the priorities of Alberta have be seen to be dismissed by the federal government (despite the acquisition of a pipeline) which has rushed to the aid of an Oshawa car plant and was so embroiled in helping SNC Lavalin it led to a damaging scandal. Over the last two elections Alberta looks increasingly isolated, a sea of blue in a country of red, more politically hegemonic and less diverse than the rest of the country, single-mindedly focused on one industry to the detriment of everything else. For its part Alberta feels under siege, suspicious of political parties that would sacrifice their economic future for environmental priorities they now regard as suspect.
In an article for The Atlantic in January of 2018, David Frum notes that “If conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy.” The situation isn’t quite that dire for Western Canada, but I think that if political parties cannot learn to articulate and respond to deep seated social and political conflicts in Canada, western Canadians will not abandon their own self interests, but they might abandon some of the tenants of confederation.
Over the last few years the rise of populism has frequently been treated like some kind of fever waiting to break, or a tide that must eventually recede. From a political standpoint this makes some sense, as political historian Richard Hofstander had noted about third parties in the US; “challenger parties are like bees: once they have stung the system they quickly die.” But political upheavals and realignments do happen, and with Brexit now almost a certainty and confidence growing that Trump may win a reelection despite impeachment our recession of democracy may be more prolonged than we’d like to believe.
As most people have noted our current situation has a great deal to do with the events of 2008, which a decade on has left a lasting economic impression on society. Canada sidestepped the worst of 2008 and has enjoyed relative economic strength and political stability. Mostly. But with Canadians being one of the most indebted within the OECD, its worth asking the question what will the rest of Canada look like if we face a serious economic crisis? Will the words “peace, order and good governance” still define the country, or will we awaken a more politically agitated populace? One that has less tolerance for slow and steady results and is far less kind to politicians that seem incapable of addressing major issues?
Many populists already exist in our politics. Issues around education, housing and debt remain hot buttons for the electorate. And yet our last election spent far more time focused on a speech by Andrew Scheer from over a decade ago. Does that seem like a political class articulating and responding to long standing and deep seated issues, or one that has learned to master the art of getting elected? Education costs continue to climb and yet the return to students is considerably lower, and prospects much worse for those with only high school diplomas. Debt in Canada has continued to rise, a story that seems evergreen, but insolvencies have also started climbing. Currently insolvencies remain low overall, but given the large amount of Canadian debt, what might it take to push people over the edge? Which politician can honestly say they’ve got a good plan to deal with these problems?
So, is the populist tide turning? I think it is too early for us to say, and Canadians should be wary of people arguing that Alberta’s WEXIT is a silly tantrum. Instead we should watch with a cautious eye towards the West. Where Alberta goes we may well follow.
Information in this commentary is for informational purposes only and not meant to be personalized investment advice. The content has been prepared by Adrian Walker from sources believed to be accurate. The opinions expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of ACPI.