Don’t Stand Too Close: Federal-Provincial Relations in Canada

I recently wrote a paper on the relationship between Canada’s federal and provincial political parties for one of my classes. It is of course the most comprehensive, definitive work to ever emerge on the topic, and I wanted to share some of my thought provoking insights with you all – just kidding. It is hardly groundbreaking, but this is a topic I find quite interesting.

In general, there is a trend amongst Canadian political parties to not work together at the federal and provincial levels. So for example, the Liberals in Ottawa and the Liberals in British Columbia share little more than a name. The same is true for the Conservatives federally and the Conservative Party in Ontario. Overall, it is the reality that Canada’s parties are not integrated in any manner and work completely independently of one another.

It would appear that I am one of the few people who finds this somewhat troubling. I personally see enormous benefit from the parties working together. Why would you not work together? Each would like to see their members elected to their respective parliament or legislature. Each needs money and personnel. Each works hard to identify and target specific voters. Each has a leader which could be used to help the party at the opposite level. Yes in Canada, this reality is largely not realized.

To its credit, the NDP has the closest relationships with its provincial counterparts, but even this linkage has been strained. The Liberals have close ties in some provinces, but in the four largest (Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta) there are zero links. The Conservatives have no ties to any province.

I believe that this distant relationship has emerged since the actions of one level almost always affect the other. If a provincial wing of the party does something unpopular, that generally translates to the federal party and vice versa. Having no relationship (or a very distant one) is far more appealing than a close tie which could damage you at the polls.

Perhaps I am just blinded by the grandeur of our American neighbour. The United States has a closer working relationship between its parties at the state and federal level. Just this past midterm election season, you saw federal politicians out campaigning for state ones. President Obama was in Maryland to help Democratic Governor Martin O’Malley with his reelection campaign. Do you ever see Stephen Harper out in Alberta, or Newfoundland or New Brunswick? Conversely, did you see Jack Layton running around Manitoba for their last campaign? Do you think Michael Ignatieff (if he is still around) will be stomping around Ontario or B.C. when their next elections are held? This is a rare sight in Canada, and I find it odd.

Now obviously, there are problems with this. The Liberals in B.C. are the closest conservative option and have more informal ties to the Tories than the Liberals federally. What about Saskatchewan, where the conservative option doesn’t even share a name with the federal party? Then there is Quebec, another conundrum all on its own. I realize there are limits to integration due to federalism and regionalism, but I still wish there was a closer relationship. Maybe in a perfect world, but as we all know, no such thing exists.

The questions I have for you are, should the federal and provincial parties be working closely together or are you ok with having separate federal and provincial wings? Were you aware that most parties actually have no links and that a Liberal MLA in Alberta and a Liberal MP in Ottawa, for example, actually have no relationship to one another? Is this just an irrelevant topic which deserves no discussion? I am interested to know what other people think.

An interesting Globe and Mail article from yesterday, discussing the tarnishing of the Liberal brand across the country, if anyone is interested:


About Chris James

A student of political science at a Canadian University sharing stories of interest on Canadian and American political and social issues.

Posted on December 9, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. i do agree that a connection between the parties is something that should be created. it would make things seem more like a country than a bunch of provinces. also, it would allow for another connection between the federal government and the people. if the federal governments are able to stay in touch with the provincial governments, this could provide a more direct line of communication than the seemingly powerless MPs have nowadays. the increased connection would also increase the accountability of the political parties (and how is this a bad thing?). if the provincial parties and federal parties were linked, it would force parties to make the best decisions possible. i just think it will take a long time to establish these connections though…

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