Jackson Doughart
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Are political parties good for P.E.I.?
It is hard to imagine the House of Commons without parties, but provincial partisanship leads to pointless bickering

The Charlottetown Guardian, 30 July 2011

During a course in Canadian politics last year, one of my professors at the University of Prince Edward Island proclaimed, “Political parties are very bad. They are vehicles for corruption and allow people to suspend their own thinking by toeing their party’s line!”

I tend to agree with him, but the utility of political parties is far more complex, as there are advantages and disadvantages to permanent political partisanship. This raises the question: Are political parties good for the governance of Prince Edward Island?

Though one may feel embarrassed by the antics of parliamentarians in the House of Commons, it would be difficult to imagine federal politics without parties. They are fundamental to the Westminster system of government in such a large jurisdiction, as the legitimacy of a cabinet is dependant upon sufficient national support for the party that forms it.

More importantly, though, parties serve to represent the basic ideas of various points on the spectrum of political views, which is quite wide in Canada. In federal politics, the Conservatives are the fiscally— and socially —conservative party, the New Democrats are the socialist party, the Greens are the environmentalist party and the Liberals are the centre party, whose objective is pragmatic rule. (As we are seeing now, a lack of power has created a snag for the Liberals as they try to reestablish their ideological niche.)

Though we may become frustrated by power struggles between the different groups in Ottawa, it is clear that federal parties provide a conduit through which genuine differences in political opinion can be expressed. There does not appear to be any alternative to this arrangement, even if the rules of the game were to change. We thus split the difference because there are observable pros and cons that are inherent to parties in the political process.

On P.E.I., partisanship is an ingrained part of our political culture. Perhaps more significantly, many Islanders benefit directly from these establishments. However, it seems that only the disadvantages of political parties are at play with respect to the actual governance of our province and that the role of partisanship needs to be critically examined.

For example, there are absolutely no ideological differences between the provincial Liberals and Progressive Conservatives. Like the federal Liberal Party, they both hug the political centre in an attempt to be everything to everyone. This, accompanied by our archaic electoral system, ensures that no other options are possible, which hollows out politics at its core by removing any guiding ideological principles.

Our parties are also a source of unnecessary division among the citizenry. Historically, party allegiances were largely informed by family traditions and the province’s political climate was impacted by religious differences between Protestants and Catholics. Fortunately, we have moved on from most of this, though affiliation with a political party remains an important identity symbol for many Islanders. As such, election campaigns remain a fierce battle between the partisans of both parties.

As my professor pointed out, such partisanship encourages people to forfeit their own reasoning abilities in order to support the positions of their party. Partisanship is also closely tied to corruption, as any study of Island political history demonstrates; both parties have used political favours to attain power, contributing to economic woes that have plagued the province since before Confederation.

Furthermore, rhetoric between the parties is incredibly phony, as the leaders essentially have to fake disdain for each other in order to play the role of combatants. When Pat Binns’ government was in power, Robert Ghiz’s constant tangents would have led one to believe that the P.C. government of the day was operating on advice from the devil. Now, we have to listen to Olive Crane flap on endlessly as though the same were true for the current regime. Since the parties are not separated by any concrete ideas, there is no reason to believe that animosity between party leaders is based on any substantive differences in political philosophy.

Contrary to popular belief, there is an alternative.

In the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, governments are formed by a council of elected representatives, each of which is an independent politician, unaffiliated with any party. The system is based on consensus building instead of political allegiances. Several major cities throughout the country, including Toronto, are also governed on a nonpartisan basis.

Given P.E.I.’s small population, adopting such a model would be an ideal solution to the problems associated with political partisanship. Just think of the money that could be saved if party conventions and nominations were eliminated. Pointless bickering that results from power hunger could be replaced by real discussions about policy, without the baggage of party records. Finally, a party-free government would create a better environment for the introduction of new ideas that are currently stifled.

In conclusion, Islanders should recognize the consequences of political parties on provincial governance and should carefully consider the prospect of challenging the status quo. The result would be a much cleaner and more productive system of government.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com