Johnston’s theme is Duverger’s Law and Canadian politics’ refusal to obey it. Maurice Duverger was a political scientist who in the 1950s and ’60s argued that majoritarian democracies — those using first-past-the-post elections — tend to have only two parties.
These might begin as liberal and conservative, but as such countries industrialize a labour party emerges as well. Liberals and conservatives then work out some kind of co-operation against the leftist threat, from coalition to outright merger. If that fails, one old-line party destroys the other, or both succumb to an “insurgent” right-wing party bringing a plague on both their houses.
In the process, one party claims the right of centre and the labour party becomes the official left. The centre remains empty.
Except in Canada, where the federal Liberals hold that ground.
Duverger’s Law operates pretty reliably on the provincial level. B.C. is a good example: the rise of the old Co-operative Commonwealth Federation provoked a Liberal-Conservative coalition that held power through the 1940s before it fell apart and the insurgent Social Credit party replaced it. When the Socreds began to decay in the 1980s, a new Liberal party emerged and, hijacked by refugee Socreds, soon moved rightward.
But provinces are singular polities. Federally, Johnston argues, Canada has been two polities: Quebec and everyone else. Quebec tends to vote overwhelmingly for one party — usually the Liberals. That reliable base puts the Liberals halfway to a majority. They can even lose much of the rest of the country and still survive as a minority centrist government.
This puts the Conservatives in a predicament. Once in a great while the Liberals lose their grip on Quebec. Even if the Conservatives don’t get most of Quebec’s vote, they have a good chance of taking power anyway as a third party emerges. Diefenbaker, Mulroney and Harper all succeeded when Quebec fell out of love with the Liberals.The urge to preserve FPTP
The elections of 2006, 2008 and 2011 were a slow-motion train wreck for the Liberals. By 2011 Duverger’s Law seemed to be working against them. The Bloc Québécois held the province as the Conservatives on the right and the rising NDP on the left began to crush the Liberal centre out of existence — very much as Stephen Harper had long dreamed.
Justin Trudeau wrecked that dream in 2015 simply by regaining Quebec at the expense of the Bloc and the NDP. While leading a third party in Parliament he’d called for proportional representation, which would at least give each party a reasonable number of seats. But once in power with a comfortable majority, Trudeau became a first-past-the-post majoritarian again; under PR, he’d have had nowhere to go but down.Could Johnston be right? Are the Liberals or the Conservatives doomed? Will the NDP become the "other party" in a new, two-party state? It does seem a bit far-fetched to me.
I'm unsure that conventional politics of the sort we've known in the post-war era will survive intact from the turbulent changes we know, with near certainty, are looming. We may want, even need, different things from our national governments than we have up till now. We may want a different relationship between the electorate and those they install in office or, alternatively, what we get may not be what we want at all.
What if the Liberals shed their Conservative-Lite ethos and regain their institutional memory of an earlier time before they became a centre-right party. That was a time when the party had enough muscle and flexibility to shift the political centre left or right to meet the needs of the day. There was a time when Liberals were adept at trespassing on the turf of the left or the right.
For the Liberals, that sort of leadership faltered after Pierre Trudeau stepped down. That sort of Laurier-St. Laurent-Pearson-PE Trudeau leadership may be beyond today's LPC. It is probably unwise for this current Liberal Party to depend on the right fracturing under the weight of its own factionalism. That can't save them forever.