David Frum

10.06.12

Why Doesn't Canada Have a Two Party System?

My column for the National Post explains why Canada has been able to buck the two party system that dominates the United States.

The same two political parties, Republicans and Democrats, have divided power in the United States for almost 160 years. Populists, Progressives, Socialists and Dixiecrats have occasionally elected a senator or governor. Independent candidates such as Ross Perot or Ralph Nader may sometimes tilt a presidential race. But on Nov. 6, 2012, as in every election since before the Civil War, Americans will face a two-way choice: the party of Andrew Jackson or the party of Abraham Lincoln.

Not so in Canada. Canada is governed by a party reassembled less than 10 years ago. The opposition party is a little older: It dates back to the 1960s.

Compared to Americans, Canadians are stereotyped as steady and predictable. But compared to U.S. politics, Canadian politics is abrupt and cataclysmic. New parties are constantly being born: Social Credit, Parti Québécois, Reform, Bloc Québécois, Wild Rose. And just as new parties arise, old parties can die.

Many federal Liberals fear that if they do not nominate Justin Trudeau as leader, their party — which held power for more years of the 20th century than any other democratic party on earth — will die.

Why is the Canadian party system so much more unstable than its U.S. counterpart?

Three reasons:

1) Different voting rules.

The American Electoral College operates in such a way that it not only dooms third parties; it actually ensures that anybody who votes for a third party ends up helping the party he most wants to defeat. (Think about how Ralph Nader elected George W. Bush in 2000, for instance, by siphoning off a small number of votes in Florida.) And because so much of American politics is focused on the contest for the presidency, the two-party competition for that office ramifies through the whole political structure, state as well as federal.

Canada has different rules. Prime ministers and premiers have been elected with 37% of the vote or less. Parties have won the role of official opposition with as little as 19% of the vote. Once you’ve launched a new party, it’s not at all crazy to think you might actually win — or at least force real change.

2) A different federal system

There’s no such thing as a “Bloc New Jersey” because New Jersey politicians aspire to follow a career path that starts in the state assembly and rises to the U.S. Senate, or that leads from the governor’s mansion to the White House.

In Canada, relations between the federal system and the provincial system are much more fraught — often antagonistic. Being too close to a federal party typically presents more dangers than advantages. The result is a decoupling of federal and provincial systems. In the 1970s and 1980s, provincial and federal parties often shared only a name. Since the 1990s, they have often shared not even that.

Read the whole thing at the National Post.