The recent Canadian federal election bucked Western trends by rejecting populism – and that is indeed a good thing!
This piece appeared in The Hill Times on November 25, 2019.
If you have been following elections in several Western countries in recent years you will have noticed a trend. Several governments have been elected in which the ruling party, or a significant portion of the electorate, espouses what are commonly called ‘populist’ views.
Examples include the Fidesz party in Hungary, the PIS in Poland, the National Rally in France and the UK Independence Party. Some would add the Republicans under U.S. President Donald Trump to that list.
These political entities tend to swing rightward – not that there is anything worrisome in that – but also embrace attitudes (and followers) which can verge into extremist territory. By this I mean views that are in part anti-immigrant, Islamophobic and, on occasion, anti-LGBTQ. Proponents of these outlooks are common in most societies and, while they may (and do) upset many citizens, they tend to stay well away from the use of violence in making their points and demanding action to be taken.
So while there is perhaps not too much to worry about when it comes to populist politics in general there is a legitimate concern when these movements attract those who already see the use of violence, whether in the form of disrupting marches and demonstrations or in the planning and execution of acts of terrorism, as a valid response.
Again I do not mean to make that relationship a sure development, but it does happen and has happened. Thomas Alexander Mair, the man who killed UK MP Jo Cox in 2016, may have had mental issues but he was also a member of the English Defence League, a populist party. Simply stated, these parties do attract some nasty individuals.
We here in Canada appear to have opted for a different path. In the just completed federal election the closest thing we have to a populist (dare I say mainstream?) party, the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), received a grand total of zero seats and its leader, Maxime Bernier, even lost in his re-election bid.
So, three cheers for Canada! Hip, hip…hmmmm.
Despite the party’s inability to send a single MP to Ottawa it did garner just shy of 300,000 votes (1.6 % of the total votes cast). Even if we assume that a percentage of those (albeit it is hard to determine how many) were protest votes of some kind or another, it still shows that for some Canadians the anti-immigrant and anti-multiculturalism positions of the PPC were attractive. In other words, there is a populist strain in this country that does share some of the more right wing views of their European counterparts. And, if you have been following the incidence of violence associated with those European parties, you may become a little more concerned.
I think we can celebrate the PPC failure and yet remain a little cautious. We categorically rejected a party that parades views that challenge many of the things we as Canadians see as central to our identity (i.e. a fairly broad openness to immigration, a belief in the strength of multiculturalism, etc.). In sum, we did not vote for a party that seems to share a lot of characteristics of some of the European populist ones.
There is no guarantee of course that the next election will show similar results. Our country is quite obviously split along east-west lines and Quebec did vote in droves for a nationalist party that may or may not care about Canada (the Bloc Quebecois). In other words the PPC or some variant thereof could make a comeback. At the same time, there is indeed room for a civilised debate on immigration and values provided that conversation remains, well, ‘civilised’. The nation I call home does not need some of the dog whistle politics we see elsewhere. I hope most Canadians agree with me on this.
Phil Gurski is the Program Director of the Security, Economics and Technology Hub in the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute and a former strategic analyst at CSIS.