In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

Pondering Political Parties

Posted 5/7/2009 by Grant Mitchell


On the plane to Vancouver for the Liberal Convention, I found myself thinking about the role that conventions play in the life of a political party and the role that political parties play in the life of our political system.


There seems to be such a debate these days that partisanship is bad and so often the culprit is deemed to be political parties.


While I am becoming convinced of the argument that you can be too partisan, I still want to defend the legitimate roles of political parties as de facto institutions in our political system.


Running a country is a complex process. There are hundreds if not thousands of issues, decisions, problems and crises that have to be made and dealt with.  How then is a voter to figure how to vote if they are trying to balance one against another of these? Political parties package this morass of ideas distinguishing them with a values/ideological overlay. Voters then get clearer choices.


As important as this role is, there is one more role that I believe is a critical elements of the institutional legitimacy of parties. That is consensus building.


Successful democracies need many characteristics to be successful. They should allow for paced and considered change and inhibit precipitous change. Change that is too abrupt can be very unsettling of the balance that a successful democracy seems to find.


In addition, there needs to be mechanisms for the expression of minority ideas and frustrations. It may well be that Quebec thankfully remains in Canada because its Bloc representatives being in Parliament offers Quebecois the comfort that their particular concerns are being heard. Similarly, the Reform Party gave voice to smoldering Western discontent.


And, successful democracies need mechanisms that develop consensus if they are to be balanced and responsive. Political parties are very important in doing this. They bring people together in public debate where ideas can be sifted and refined. The Convention we had inVancouver was one of the venues where this can occur. Constituency association meetings, party policy-making groups, party round table discussions all feed into this process.


They in turn feed into the party caucuses in Parliament. Intense debate occurs here informed by the party but driven in particular by MPs who bring with them their sense of their constituents’ interests and concerns.


Ultimately, all this ends up on the floor of the House. Despite the common perception that the House always seems like a battleground, in fact, the power of ideas (rather than the loudness of voices) often prevails for the enhancement of policy outcomes. I have been in an opposition caucus in Alberta’s Legislature and was the Leader of the Opposition there. I know that while the government may not accept opposition ideas immediately and will never give the opposition credit, these ideas frequently filter into government policy.


So, I hope you'll consider this and not give up on our political parties!

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