Tag Archives: Canadian government

Canada at the Polls 2019: A New Mandate?

With the Canadian federal election coming up in October, our forthcoming political science title is certainly well-timed. Set to publish this August, Absent Mandate develops the crucial concept of policy mandates – distinguished from other interpretations of election outcomes – and addresses the disconnect between election issues and government actions. In this post, the authors discuss the upcoming election: what we can expect to see? Has anything really changed since elections back in 1965? And are Canadian electoral politics now following a new, or even unfamiliar, path?


By Harold D. Clarke, Jane Jenson, Lawrence LeDuc, and Jon H. Pammett

The 2019 federal election will soon be upon us. The period leading up to the vote has seen the current government lagging in the polls, but there has also been no clarity as to the public’s preference for the alternatives. Negative campaigning is already well underway, and polls reveal a considerable amount of public discontent with the political process in general. Big issues, like environmental protection, the energy supply, the state of the economy, and national unity are the subjects of media commentary. The party leaders have been unveiling policy announcements keyed to their forthcoming campaigns, and trying to showcase their strengths at dealing with today’s problems.

Does anything in these patterns suggest that Canadian electoral politics is following a new road or even an unfamiliar path? Not really, as we show in our new book, Absent Mandate: Strategies and Choices in Canadian Elections.

This book has its roots in several previous books bearing similar titles that we published more than twenty years ago. Those books addressed two key questions that have always engaged students of elections and voting, namely “how do voters decide?” and “what decides elections?” The national election studies since 1965 that have provided the data for our analyses consistently reveal that Canadian voters hold flexible partisan attachments, that election campaigns are often volatile, that the bases of party support are weak and unstable over time, and that public discontent with politics and politicians is high. We documented these patterns since then, as have numerous other scholars.

The Absent Mandate books, however, introduced a third question that was less common than those associated with voting behaviour and election outcomes. That question – “what do elections decide?” – spoke to the linkages between elections and public policy, thus addressing one of the key issues of democratic governance and its normative foundations. If the electoral process, as it generally unfolds in Canadian federal politics, does not produce a mandate for the subsequent direction of public policy, then what can we reasonably expect elections to accomplish beyond a rearrangement of the actors?

The third of the Absent Mandate volumes, published in 1996 and subtitled Canadian Electoral Politics in an Era of Restructuring, concluded that despite all of the political and economic changes that had taken place in the federation during the first half of the 1990s, there were substantial continuities with the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, including the absence of policy mandates. Among those continuities was the widespread feeling that parties could not be trusted to offer real choices among policy alternatives in elections. Indeed, by the 1990s, all parties had accepted the broad outlines of a neoliberal policy agenda. They framed policy discussions around issues on which there was substantial agreement, and focused their campaigns on the attributes of the party leaders, promising better performance in government as they shaped their appeals to the electorate.

Indeed, a two-way process of learning was underway throughout these decades, sustaining what we have labelled the brokerage mould. Parties had learned that their electoral coalitions are fragile creations that require constant renewal, and voters had learned that elections are vehicles for the expression of discontent with few consequences for substantive policy change. The electoral system has also played a role in this process because it limits the choices available to voters to the candidates in a single constituency. Turnout in federal elections began a steep decline in 1993, partly for these reasons but also reflecting generational changes.

The first two decades of the twenty-first century saw many changes – in the party system, in styles of leadership, in the social and economic issues confronting Canada, and in the technology of election campaigns, to mention only a few. The reunification of the Conservative party under the leadership of Stephen Harper in 2003 ended a period of party fragmentation on the right and positioned the Conservatives to return to power with a minority government in 2006. Harper seemed to be a different type of conservative – coming from the West, more ideologically driven, and (according to some) harbouring a “hidden agenda.” Yet, even under a leader such as Harper, electoral politics continued to operate within a brokerage mould. The Harper years, including a majority government in 2011, failed to deliver the type of sea change in federal politics that many had expected. Following the Conservatives’ defeat in the 2015 federal election by the resurgent Liberals led by Justin Trudeau, an observer could easily conclude that the political landscape looked increasingly familiar. The “two-and-a-half” federal party system, long described as the norm in older Canadian political science textbooks, seemed to have reappeared. Indeed, a simple macro comparison between the year of the first Canadian Election Study and the 2015 outcome documents remarkable similarities.

Party vote percentages, 2015 and 1965
2015 1965
Liberal 39.5% 40.2%
Conservative 31.9% 32.4%
NDP 19.7% 17.9%
Other 9.1% 9.5%

Of course, some things are different. Election campaigns, building on new technologies and social media, can increasingly channel the negative feelings of voters, as “attack ads” have become a staple of partisan politics. Yet leaders, and their strengths and weaknesses, remain the focus of much political debate, and parties’ issue agendas are limited to performance appeals such as “growing the economy” or “sustaining health care.” Such valence issues are ones on which there is widespread consensus, and political debate focuses on “how to do the job” and who is most capable of doing it. More specific policy commitments are sometimes offered, but these tend to be small programs targeted to specific groups and co-exist well within the framework of a broad neoliberal policy consensus. All of the parties participate in political marketing utilizing the new technologies available. But these strategies appear remarkably similar to those associated with the brokerage mould that had characterized the earlier periods. If there was a “shift to the right” as some had forecast with the rise of Harper, multiple parties appear to have participated in varying degrees in a movement in that direction. For example, it is telling that all of the current parties support the recently negotiated USMCA, the successor agreement to NAFTA. As we began to write Absent Mandate: Strategies and Choices in Canadian Elections, we were more struck by the continuities that existed in the shape and style of Canadian electoral politics than by the many changes that had taken place over the past two decades.

Now, with a federal election only a few months away, would we venture to make predictions, based on over 50 years of data and four books on this subject? We know enough about the fundamental elements of Canadian politics to realize that election outcomes are inherently unpredictable. Nonetheless, we can readily predict some things. The forthcoming campaign will be a volatile one. This will be because flexible partisan attachments coupled with widespread discontent facilitate, indeed foster, substantial movement by voters between the parties or movement into or out of the electorate. In each of the last two federal elections (2011 and 2015) there was considerable volatility in the polls over the last few weeks of the campaign. We would also expect to see parties concentrating on one or more valence issues such as the government’s economic performance and environmental protection, as well as efforts to highlight the attributes of party leaders and the shortcomings of their opponents. And given these entrenched characteristics of Canadian electoral politics, we can also predict that any meaningful policy mandate emanating from such a campaign will continue to be absent.


Want to learn more from Absent Mandate: Strategies and Choices in Canadian Elections?

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Harold D. Clarke is the Ashbel Smith Professor in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas.

Jane Jenson is a professor emerita in the Department of Political Science at the Université de Montréal.

Lawrence LeDuc is a professor emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.

Jon H. Pammett is a distinguished research professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University.

The Politics of Policymaking in Canada

The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada, written by Alex Marland and Jared J. Wesley, is a concise primer on the inner workings of government in Canada. As former public servants themselves, these authors know the difficulties in understanding how modern government operates, and how hard it can be to find your place within it. In this post, Jared J. Wesley discusses his own experience of working as a public servant, and how The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada came to fruition.


The longest day of my public servant career featured a layover in the Regina airport.  At a national meeting of government executives, I had spent the better part of the afternoon advising a provincial government minister against appearing before a House of Commons parliamentary committee to support a piece of federal legislation.  “Think of the profile it would give us,” he told his political chief of staff.  “And think of the road trip,” replied the staffer.  “With respect,” I interrupted, “it’s not customary for provincial ministers to testify in parliamentary hearings.  In fact,” I frantically consulted my notes, “Alberta has only sent one minister before a federal committee in the past twenty years.  And you’d need approval from the Premier’s Office.” “We’re anything but customary,” I could read on the minister’s face. “It actually lowers your status,” I went on.  “You should engage your federal counterparts on a government to government basis.  It preserves your authority – your government’s authority – as opposed to being treated like just another federal stakeholder.”

The last line felt almost rehearsed; I had written a briefing note on it just a day before.  I was told to stand down, as the minister placed a call to the Premier’s Office.  I placed a call of my own, to my executive director.  Within a few hours, the Ottawa trip had been shelved.  I found that out while sitting in the Regina airport, listening to the minister tell insensitive jokes to his staff within earshot of a dozen other travellers.  I tried my best to ignore it, and pretended to be on my phone to avoid eye contact. The situation worsened when we arrived back in Calgary to find that our connecting flight to Edmonton had been canceled due to a blizzard.  While I was on my blackberry booking a hotel for the night, the minister grabbed my phone.  He told me that taxpayers wouldn’t stand for it, and ushered me into a waiting minivan he’d rented.  Over the course of the five-hour, stormy, midnight drive, he regaled us with even more offensive commentary, mostly directed at his political opponents.  I arrived home in time to change clothes for work.  I didn’t tell anyone the story until the minister left office years later, and even then, concealed his name and framed it as a cautionary tale.

At the time, I had spent my entire adult life studying politics. I’d written a few books and a few more journal articles about party politics and policymaking. But none of it had prepared me for the day-to-day interactions like those just described. While they may not have the privilege of working directly with elected officials, new public servants confront similar knowledge gaps in their first weeks on the job. If they are like me, they quickly realize that government is more complex, yet somehow more informal, than their textbooks and professors described. While useful, theories of democracy, frameworks of public administration, and historical knowledge fit uneasily with the fast-paced, evolving nature of public service in Canada. Core concepts like accountability take on entirely new meanings. Beyond the public sector bargain that dictates you must provide “fearless advice and loyal implementation,” bureaucrats realize they have multiple responsibilities, are accountable to a whole host of people, and are subject to a wide range of forces seldom covered in assigned readings and seminar discussions. Relationships with elected officials, supervisors, deputy ministers, colleagues in other organizations, friends and family, and the general public are all at play in a public servant’s work. Fortunately, ethical dilemmas like the ones I encountered are few and far between. Yet navigating these various modes of accountability can be challenging nonetheless.

As former public servants, Alex Marland and I know this first-hand.  Learning new subject matter can be difficult enough when you join a new department or unit.  On-the-job training seldom covers the “small-p politics” involved in public service work, leaving you to read between the lines on various organization charts to figure out where you fit into the broader government structure.  This can be vexing for interns and new public servants, and even some long-time bureaucrats lack a firm understanding of how government actually works.  That is why we wrote The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada.

At around 100 pages, it is a short, practical primer about how modern government operates. The book offers an insider’s perspective on how public service sits at the nexus of theory and practice, politics and professionalism. It is written in an accessible style suitable for anyone seeking to learn more about the Canadian system of government. The book contains a summary of core concepts about government and working in the public service. In it, we explain the linkages between politics, public administration, and public policy, dispelling many myths about how public servants should remain a-political in their day-to-day work. For new or would-be public servants, the Guide offers advice about life in public administration – what to expect and what to do to reach your full potential. We have included tips from bureaucratic colleagues for improving your performance and carving your career path.

The Guide wouldn’t have provided letter-for-letter advice on how to deal with the minister in the Regina airport, or on that snowy ride home to Edmonton.  But it would have given me a better sense of my own role in the situation.  If you are looking for a concise overview about government in Canada, and your place within it, The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada is written for you.


If you want to find out more about The Public Servant’s Guide to Government in Canada, click here to view the table of contents and read an exclusive excerpt from the book.


Jared J. Wesley is a pracademic—a practicing political scientist and former public servant—whose career path to the University of Alberta’s Department of Political Science has included senior management positions in provincial public services. While in the bureaucracy, he gained valuable experience in the development of public policy and intergovernmental strategy. He also served as Director of Learning and Development, establishing policies and curriculum to train provincial public servants. As an Associate Professor of Political Science, he studies and teaches the politics of bureaucracy and the bureaucracy of politics.

Alex Marland is a professor of political science at Memorial University in St. John’s and a former public servant in the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Alex’s interest in the practical side of governance is grounded in his discreet research interviews with politicians, political staff, and public servants. His book Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control (UBC Press 2016) won the Donner Prize for Best Public Policy Book by a Canadian.

Why The Canadian Financial System Did Well During The 2008 Credit Crisis

Written by guest blogger, Joe Martin.

A decade ago much of the world suffered through a financial credit crisis. In North America, the United States and Canada –two countries with many similarities, not the least of which are physical location and similar legal roots based in the United Kingdom –had very different experiences. The US experienced a full-blown financial crisis, beginning in the subprime mortgage market and culminating in the failure of Lehman Bank. Many other financial institutions were bailed out or failed. North of the border, Canadian financial affairs were much calmer. Although there was an Asset Backed Commercial Paper (ABCP) problem, no financial institutions failed and the economic decline was not as severe as in the US.

Why did the Canadian financial system perform so much better than that of the US financial system? Before answering the question it must be understood that a financial system begins with public policy. Governments set the rules in both countries. On the other side of the system are the private sector players who are governed by the rules set in the public sector.

In order to answer the question of why Canada performed better it is necessary to go back to the late eighteenth century – NOT the late twentieth century. While the Government of Canada’s decision to block the big bank mergers in the late twentieth century was a useful decision, it was not a transformative one. Four of the five key reasons the Canadian system did better than the American system in 2008 reach back to the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They are:

  1. Canada has a Hamiltonian financial system. Yes, the same Hamilton, Alexander from the Tony award-winning musical Hamilton, with limited joint stock liability and branch banking. The US has a Jacksonian system, or at least did have, which limited US banks within states – indeed in some states no bank could have a branch other than the main office.
  2. The Fathers of Confederation ensured that both banking and currency were federal responsibilities when they defined Canada’s form of federalism at the 1860s Conferences. This was in marked contrast to the US where “banking” is not mentioned in their Constitution.
  3. Canada had the good fortune of having John A. Macdonald as our first Prime Minister with his capability in “cabinet making.” While his first two Ministers of Finance did not pass the test, the third one did.
  4. Sir Francis Hincks was John A’s third and best choice for Finance Minister. Hincks not only knew finances, he knew politics and how to work with the media, and he was not from Montreal. Hincks brought in compromise on the issue of currency and had the wisdom to ensure all banks were equal. In addition, he introduced the far-sighted policy of providing for decennial Legislative reviews, which resulted in more continuity in Canada than almost all other countries, especially the United States.
  5. Our financial system more or less behaved itself from the 1870s to the 1980s, but in the 1980s misbehaved. The consequence was failure – both bank and trust company, and the appointment of the Estey Enquiry. The report of the Estey Enquiry, plus Minister Hockin’s Blue Paper, resulted in the creation of the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI).

 

The OSFI – plus nearly two centuries of a Hamiltonian financial system in which banking was a federal responsibility from day one, the right choice for Minister of Finance in 1869, and in 1871 the foresight to provide for regular reviews of the Bank Act – led to Canada to doing much better than the United States in the 2008 financial crisis. In addition, there have been basic and fundamental differences between the way the two countries finance the housing market which were also a big factor. But those are the subject of a future blog post…

 

 

Joe Martin is the Director of the Canadian Business and Financial History Initiative at the Rotman School of Management as well as President Emeritus of Canada’s History Society. He is the co-author of From Wall Street to Bay Street. Want to learn more? Check out the trailer for Stability and Crisis: The History of the Canadian Financial System, a new documentary from Kevin Feraday based on the book.

Canadian Politics 101

This week, the forthcoming federal election has received as much attention as the fluctuating weather. With the Conservative Party being found in contempt of Parliament and the opposition parties’ lack of confidence in their budget, we can expect to find ourselves knee-deep in political warfare. But what are the issues beneath the rhetoric? To brush up on your Canadian politics, check out these UTP titles.

Conventional wisdom points to the personal rivalry between Jean Chretein and Paul Martin. But who really planted the seeds of disarray within the Liberal party? And can they reclaim their status as “Canada’s natural governing party”? Brooke Jeffrey’s Divided Loyalties outlines the party’s downward trajectory from a party insider’s perspective.

What does it mean to be in contempt of Parliament? What is a coalition government and will it work with Canada’s complex democratic structure? Who better to shed light on these historic developments than award-winning author and constitutional expert David E. Smith. With his books, The People’s House of Commons and Federalism and the Constitution of Canada, Smith provides insight into the elaborate procedures and complex historical documents that influence Canada’s constitutional politics.

In November 2008, the Conservative minority government faced a non-confidence motion that was dissolved. Following this, editors Peter H. Russell and Lorne Sossin gathered journalists, political scientists, and constitutional experts to analyze and discuss the nature of Canada’s democracy in Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis.

What did the Fathers of Canadian Confederation envision when they first began constructing their ideal Constitution? Canada’s Founding Debates, edited by Janet Ajzenstat, et al., provides these answers with excerpts from official reports and speeches that shaped our country and answered the question “What is Canadian?”.

See you at the polls!