Political parties are probably the most visible political institutions in Canada. This is apparent during elections when parties play a pivotal role in selecting leaders, recruiting candidates, framing the political debates, and mobilizing the electorate. Similarly, between elections, political parties play a key role in structuring the parliamentary process, and directing and coordinating the public service and holding it accountable.
Despite the dominant presence of parties in current federal and provincial political systems, as well as in Yukon, political parties are not found in the other two territories or in most municipalities. At the same time, political parties only first appeared during the late nineteenth century. We thus see that Canadian democracy does not depend on the existence of political parties.
As formal organizations that seek to influence and change public policy, political parties fulfill such roles as: aggregating diverse interests, articulating interest positions, selecting leaders, choosing candidates, running election campaigns, promoting a government agenda, and coordinating a legislative agenda.
It was once common to distinguish political parties in terms of how they originated. Elite parties started when elected politicians first formed parties; alternatively, mass parties emerged from social movements between the two World Wars. This categorization, however, has since fallen into disuse as scholars have found other classification criteria besides origins to be more appropriate. It is now more common to distinguish between the few major parties that have the resources, supporters, representatives, and leaders to pose as a competitive contender for public office, and several minor parties that are usually dormant most of the time except during election campaigns. Besides the major and minor categorization, scholars frequently contrast parties in terms of their political ideologies.
One of the more interesting features of party politics in Canada is how the party system found in federal politics differs from that found in each of the provincial jurisdictions and in Yukon. That is, within each jurisdiction, party systems differ substantively in terms of the identity of major and minor parties, their relative strength and ideological positions. Similarly, we find that, across time, each jurisdiction’s party system has changed in response to socio-economic factors, technological advancements, new leaders, and policy issues.
There are three major dimensions to a political party’s structure. The extra-parliamentary wing refers to a party’s rank and file members—the dues-paying members—at the constituency association level. These members serve their parties in many ways from soliciting funding, campaigning to have their constituency candidate elected, working in offices, and attending party events and meetings. Some extra-parliamentary members also advance to assume higher offices within the party organization up to the headquarters level. Secondly, the parliamentary wing of a party is relatively small as it consists only of the caucus members who hold a seat in the legislature. Finally, there are the partisans who identify subjectively with a party even though they are not formal members of the party.
Perhaps one of the more interesting topics in respect to party structure pertains to how a party chooses its leader. At a minimum, the party leader is the party’s chief spokesperson; but, by winning an election, the leader may become the prime minister or first minister. Thus, the leadership selection method—including caucus choice, delegate convention, one-member-one-vote, weighted constituencies, or some hybrid—is of critical importance.
Recruiting candidates is a critical role fulfilled by political parties. This raises the normative issue as to whether parties should make a special effort at finding and nominating women and members of underrepresented groups to the legislature, and then to hasten their appointment to public office.
This chapter profiles Professor Anna Esselment who has done extensive research on partisanship politics, political parties, campaigns, elections, and political marketing. Before pursuing academia, Professor Esselment was a policy advisor to former premier Dalton McGuinty (when he was serving as the opposition leader). This chapter brings up a very significant debate topic on the underrepresentation of women and other groups in legislature. It begs the question on how and if party leaders should take drastic steps to close the gap.
By the end of this chapter, students should be able to:
- know the role of political parties and the different types of parties found in Canada;
- be aware of the political ideologies that underpin party politics in Canada;
- know the methods that have been used to select party leaders, how these methods have evolved over the years, and why they are of special interest;
- make the distinction between a party’s parliamentary and extra-parliamentary wings to explain the structure and dynamics of party politics in Canada; and
- grasp the notions of partisanship and party discipline.