Beyond the politics of left, right and centre
Despite all the changes that have occurred in science, medicine, technology and culture, political discourse and most interpretations of political developments in Canada are stuck in the old left-centre-right conception of political space first conceived in the 1790s.
From the current efforts in Alberta to create a new political party (one that is a principled and competent alternative to the NDP), and the emergence of a new and green-shaded political alignment in British Columbia, to the election of a “moderate” Andrew Scheer as the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada – almost all are currently described and discussed using the ‘right wing,’ ‘left wing’ or ‘centrist’ lexicon.
But is this the best conceptual framework for describing and discussing our political options? Does it provide voters with the options and choices they are really looking for? An increasing number of Canadians don’t seem to think so, especially millennials – soon to become the largest single voting block in the country.
A national survey of 2,200 millennials conducted by the Manning Centre last year included a request that respondents position themselves somewhere on the traditional left-centre-right political axis. While most respondents complied, a significantly high number responded by saying, “We really don’t like or identify with that axis. It doesn’t describe the options or choices that interest or define us.” Others went on to say that if obliged to position themselves on that axis they would either describe themselves as fiscally conservative and socially liberal, or simply default to a content-less “centrist” position meaning neither left nor right.
Are there then, other political axes which are more descriptive of the political space in which an increasing number of Canadians, especially millennials, actually think and live? Yes there are, and the more political discourse and activity is conducted within that space, the more likely millennials and other disenchanted electors are to re-engage with Canada’s democratic processes and institutions.
Alternative axes might include:
- A Democratic Axis defined by bottom-up, grassroots political decision-making at one end and top-down, expert-guided, executive decision-making at the other.
- An Economic Axis defined by a government regulated and directed economy at one end and a more entrepreneurial, market-driven economy at the other.
- A Universally Accessible Health Care Axis defined by alternative approaches to delivery, with hybrid (public and private) delivery systems at one end and predominately public (taxpayer-funded) delivery systems at the other.
- An Environmental Axis whereby the options for achieving environmental conservation range from the use of market mechanisms (pricing systems and financial incentives) at one end to the use of intensive government regulations and interventions at the other.
- A Poverty Alleviation Axis defined by income redistribution through progressive taxation at one end and improved distribution of the tools of wealth creation (access to education, technology, capital, markets, etc.) at the other.
- A Lifestyle Choices Axis for addressing such issues as abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia, with unrestricted freedom of choice at one end and freedom of choice limited by traditions, religious principles and cultural norms at the other.
- A Responsibility for Personal Choices Axis raising the question of who should be responsible to provide care and support for those individuals whose lifestyle choices prove to be personally destructive – at one end that responsibility falling upon those individuals themselves and their families, and at the other end that responsibility being assumed by governments (and taxpayers).
- A National Identity Axis with identity at one end focused on diversity and at the other end focused on commonality of traditions and values.
Throughout 2017-18, my colleagues and I will be meeting with hundreds of millennials to ascertain which of these and other suggested axes best describe the most appropriate political space for dealing with the challenges facing their generation. However that new political space is ultimately defined, it must be more than superficially “cool” and also relevant to more than millennials. Although containing important elements from the past, it will definitely be “beyond left and right” and is unlikely to be labelled liberal, centrist or conservative. The first political party to occupy and represent that new political space will be our first truly 21st-century political party.
Preston Manning is the founder of the Manning Centre.
This column was published by the Globe and Mail on June 12, 2017