03/10/2014 12:37 EDT | Updated 05/10/2014 05:59 EDT

Blurred (Party) Lines Are Ruining Canadian Politics

There's been much brouhaha-ing in Ottawa ever since noted Montreal MP and NDP boss Thomas Mulcair announced his plan to "stay neutral" in next month's Quebec general election. The usual corners have spun the news in their usual ways  --  "Mulcair needs separatist votes to win in 2015!" etc.  --  which although not unjustified, is still a tad unfair. For once, I'm inclined to take Mulcair at his word, and Tom's official explanation for his indifference is that he's a loyal NDPer who's still "waiting for the day when there will be a provincial NDP in Quebec."

Given that logic, you'd think the Harper Conservatives would be a tad more sympathetic. After all, there is no provincial Conservative Party in Quebec either (aside from a fringe rump that won all of .1% of the vote in 2012). The Tories are more or less neutral in the Quebec election too, claiming only that their voters should "support parties that believe in a united Canada," whoever that may be.

Only the Liberals, notes our own Althia Raj "back their provincial counterparts," but even that's a tad disingenuous, given what a strange beast the Quebec Liberals are. Thomas Mulcair is himself an ex-Quebec Liberal; he served in the cabinet of Premier Jean Charest, who was himself the ex-leader of the national Progressive Conservative Party. Both faced off against separatist leader Lucien Bouchard, who was a Tory cabinet minister under Brian Mulroney.

The inescapable central debate of Quebec politics --  are we staying in Canada or not  -- has badly warped the province's political landscape. Quebeckers are supposed to make their beliefs on taxes and spending and social policy entirely subordinate to the sovereignty question; as a result both the Quebec Liberals and their Parti Quebecois opponents are unwieldy coalitions of left and right. It's a fact which was brought into even sharper focus following Sunday's big announcement that Premier Marois, who is often considered something of a socialist, had recruited the candidacy of Pierre-Karl Péladeau, who, as former chairman of Quebecor, Inc.  --  the company that owns Sun News  --  is presumably anything but. The result is that Quebec politics are becoming impossibly impenetrable  -- no one who takes ideology seriously really knows who to root for anymore.

But Quebec is hardly alone in this regard.

As it stands, Canada's provinces are all plunging deeper and deeper into ideological incoherence, as local parties become ever more detached from federal politics, and increasingly operate as little more than all-things-to-all-people campaign machines, rather than principled outfits motivated by a clear worldview.

Over here in British Columbia, for instance, anyone who doesn't like the provincial NDP is expected to vote for the BC Liberals  --  right, left, centre, whatever. They pitch themselves as the "free market coalition," and polls suggest their voting base is roughly equal parts Tory and federal Liberal. This sounds like a recipe for terrible, confused policy-making. It is.

In Alberta, the left-of-centre Premier Redford leads a party that is nominally conservative, but is so obsessed with staying in power for another four decades it's prepared to be just about anything. It's been argued the Redford Conservatives only won the last election by playing up their leader's progressive credentials in a way that allowed them to harvest the votes of those who would otherwise go Liberal or NDP. The Sun's Lorne Gunter even dubbed Redford the province's "first NDP premier." Bit weird, that.

Moving further east, we have Premier Wall in Saskatchewan, head of something called the "Saskatchewan Party," which should give some indication of how interested he is in even pretending to be ideological.

Wall is a competent administrator, certainly. He's the most-beloved premier in the country for a reason. But his party --  which he openly describes as a Liberal-Tory coalition that only exists to keep the Sask NDP out of power --  is so fundamentally muddled at its core, it will probably not survive his departure.

Indeed, it only really survives now thanks to Wall's savvy deftness at avoiding polarizing issues that might split his flock, notably the privatization of Saskatchewan's many unnecessary Crown corporations. Jon Ivison in the National Post calls him the "conservative movement's best communicator" but there's nothing "movement" about him, and little that's conservative.

Only in Ontario and the Maritimes does the party system still deliver what it says on the tin, which is to say, conservatives can still vote Conservative, liberals can vote Liberal or NDP and no one gets confused or hustled.

As much as people like to get all huffy about how "labels don't matter," when it comes to accountability, they really do. Government works best when the folks running the show make policy according to a predictable, identifiable logic about what government should or shouldn't be doing and why  --  a philosophy, in other words. When no philosophy exists, however; when politicians manage the state only to win re-election, appease interest groups, or conform to passing fads, the result is widespread public alienation from a governing class that seems to be making decisions for arbitrary, secret, or possibly even corrupt reasons  --  a suspicion which might help explain why most of our premiers have rock-bottom approval ratings at the moment.

Canada, in short, is long overdue for a fundamental re-calibration of provincial politics. Perhaps at the next Manning Centre Conference, all of Canada's supposedly "right-of-centre" politicians  --  be they PCs, Liberals, Wildrosers, Saskatchewaners, Coalitionistas whatever  --  can get together and agree to forge a new provincial political brand (say, the "Conservative Party") that's present in all provinces. And then maybe all the left-wing people --  Liberals, NDPers, and "Red Tory" dissidents  --  can meet at, I don't know, David Suzuki's next garden party or something, and similarly agree to form a single, unifying progressive political label that offers the courage of left-wing convictions in provincial elections from coast to coast.

In the fight against Quebec separatists, its often insisted that Canadian politicians need to "speak with one voice." And that might be true.

Everywhere else, however, politics would improve immensely if we could choose between two clear ones.


FLASHBACK: The 1995 Quebec Referendum