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OPINION: New parties can form effective governments

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Andrea Perrella

Guest Opinion

Canadian provincial politics has a rich history of come-from-behind parties emerging from the margins to occupy the epicentre of power. The Greens are poised to show the rest of Canada that it can happen in P.E.I. as well.

And while the Greens may appear to lack any experience in governing, this, history shows, is not always a disqualification for office.

New, untested parties have formed effective governments. A look back into the history of provincial politics in Canada shows that the seemingly improbable can become fairly mainstream and practical.

Take Alberta, for example. A rural revolt formed the United Farmers of Alberta party, which, as the name implies, was composed of a lot of actual farmers. They won the 1921 provincial election. The result? After some initial struggles to find their footing, the party eventually caught its groove and was able to govern effectively. They were even re-elected in subsequent elections and held on to power until 1935, only to lose to Social Credit, another “new” party that emerged amid the populist rage of the Great Depression (and remained in power for four decades).

In all cases, these new parties formed what can arguably be described as effective governments. Alberta is not the exception. Other provinces have formed successful governments out of movements external to mainstream politics. British Columbia, for example, elected Social Credit to office in 1952, and the party held on until 1972.

The Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (renamed the New Democratic Party) upset the Liberal/Conservative alteration of government in Saskatchewan by winning the 1944 election, and quite a few more afterwards.

Moving a little further east, the Parti Québécois in 1976 undermined the otherwise back-and-forth alteration between Liberal and Union Nationals governments. Interesting to note that while the PQ now appears to be in decline, another relatively new party has taken over Quebec politics, this time upsetting the PQ-Liberal alteration.

With few exceptions, these “new” parties are not entirely new. They have histories of mostly failed election campaigns. And they almost all belong to some national network. There were United Farmers parties elsewhere, as there were Social Credit and NDP/CCF chapters all over Canada.

The Green Party of P.E.I. is similar in that it, too, is part of a national, and even international, umbrella movement of parties and other organizations with a shared focus on addressing environmental concerns.

These alliances are important. It is often through these associations that parties gain a source of research and knowledge needed to develop and support policy ideas. A new party elected to office may be new to governing (which itself is not necessarily a bad thing), but their ideas are not necessarily improvised on the spot. New parties that get elected to office bring with them sophisticated and well considered ideas that emerged from their knowledge networks. And the Greens certainly belong to a vast network of researchers, policy experts, activists, and even economists.

Another common feature of such come-from-behind new parties is that they don’t necessarily spell disaster and dysfunction. They actually can deliver good government, even if at first it seems like a long shot. However, they are often challenged by how they are perceived by voters. When minor parties become more prominent, their image is still mainly defined by a narrow set views of such parties.

The UFA, the NDP, even the PQ all originally had a brand focused on a small set of issues, be it support for farmers, eradicate income inequality, or to establish a sovereign state. But when these parties get in government, they show an ability to run schools, pave roads, manage finances, promote economic growth, and so forth. They may not be perfect, but arguably, they weren’t incompetent, either.

For sure, those unaccustomed to governing, parliamentary procedure, or the sausage-making aspects of policy have to learn quickly. But that’s true of anyone who new to politics, be they a farmer, factory worker or lawyer. If a party is serious about governing, then history shows there is nothing about its “newness” that renders it unfit to govern.

Andrea Perrella is an associate professor of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. He is also a senior member and former director of the Laurier Institute for the Study of Public Opinion and Policy (lispop.ca).

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