Federalism, decentralization of regional decision-making, and the supranational elections of the European Union have made multi-level governance an increasingly widespread and common practice, so much so that it has been estimated that more than two billion people worldwide live under some multi-level form of government. By dividing authority between regional, national, subnational, or supranational levels, structures of multi-level governance can have a profound impact on the shape of electoral competition as well as the character of democratic institutions such as political parties.
As political scientists have suggested, the division of electoral competition into federal and provincial arenas provides Canadian parties with a number of opportunities and challenges. Considering the advantages, federalism provides a relatively simple and elegant framework for parties to organize: provincial parties can formally connect their organizations “vertically” across federal and provincial lines to create a unified party. Moreover, this organizational structure provides federal parties with the ability to use provincial parties to create a cohesive and consistent party across the entire country, This design allows parties at both levels to draw on one another for capital, human labour, and support.
Vertical party integration, however, also has a number of risks and challenges. Two levels of electoral competition can exhaust party members and activists and can risk dividing scarce resources between the two branches of a political party. Worse yet, multiple jurisdictions can create ideological tension between provincial and national interests as well as generate policy disputes based on the division of powers. Finally, unpopular parties at one level can hamper the success of their counterpart at the other level, ultimately becoming more of an electoral burden than an asset.
Given this diverse set of trade-offs, there is no universally successful way for parties to organize. Some may want to link their organizations vertically (integrated parties), some may want to link only certain aspects of their organizations (semi-integrated parties), and some may want to exist only at one level in isolation (truncated parties). The traditional understanding of Canadian political parties suggests that they were highly integrated and tightly knit organizations in the first half of the twentieth century, but have since become increasingly disentangled as integration has weakened. The accepted conclusion has been, therefore, that contemporary Canadian parties have responded to the federal structure by opting out of integration. Rather than creating vertical links that bridge the national and provincial jurisdictions, parties have created “two political worlds”, each separate and distinct from the other.
In terms of formal organizational rules and structures, this disconnected view of Canadian parties rings true (the exception, of course, is the NDP). The federal Conservatives, for example, share no meaningful organizational linkages with their provincial counterparts and do not even have the same name. These conclusions, however, may not fully explain how Canadian parties actually behave. While party constitutions and statutes may clearly delineate federal and provincial parties, unofficial networks and informal cooperation and collaboration may connect the parties in a multi-level fashion nonetheless. This is especially true when we examine parties at the level of the constituency association. Drawing on evidence from federal and provincial parties in Ontario, the remaining paragraphs sketch out how party politics at the grassroots level are actually more coherent and unified than we might think.
From a personnel perspective, the major parties in Ontario are more closely linked than the conventional wisdom suggests as the vast majority of individuals who participate in party politics have responded to the multi-level nature of Canadian politics by participating at both levels. In total, 86 percent of constituency association presidents, 76 percent of party activists, and 70 percent of party members engage with party politics at both levels and do so consistently (that is, for the same party at each level). While the name of the party may change slightly when moving from the provincial level (i.e., the Progressive Conservatives) to the federal level (i.e., the Conservative Party), this does not discourage party personnel from being actively involved in party life in both worlds. As party members and activists continue to be provided a greater and more influential role in internal party affairs (leadership and candidate selection, for instance), the integrating function that these individuals provide cannot be overlooked.
From a campaign perspective, the linkages extend well beyond party members and activists. More than half of the constituency associations in Ontario, for example, share data with their multi-level counterpart. This includes information about local activists and voters as well as detailed information about those who have hosted a lawn sign for the party in the past. By pooling this information across jurisdictions, parties that cooperate vertically are given a considerable advantage once an election is called, as they will begin the campaign with a large list of potential supporters to contact immediately. Multi-level cooperation and collaboration, however, does not end with data. More than half of the associations in the province provided some form of direct campaign support/endorsement for their multi-level counterpart during the 2011 election, typically in the form of a Member of Parliament or party notable attending a party event/rally in support of the local candidate.
Finally, these multi-level connections continue even after the election campaign has ended. A majority of constituency associations, for instance, meet at least occasionally throughout the year with their multi-level counterpart to discuss party policy and to host joint social and recreational events in the riding.
When we begin to look at integration from a new perspective that involves the human, the local, and the informal, the linkages between federal and provincial parties become apparent. Despite not sharing a lot of formal organizational connections, Canadian parties, at least those competing in Ontario, achieve considerable cross-jurisdictional connections and engage in what can be viewed as a form of ‘unofficial’ party integration. While there are differences between the parties – with the NDP being the most integrated and connected – these relationships are a common phenomenon in all of the major parties. The next step is to explore the relationship between federal and provincial parties in other provinces and uncover whether similar grassroots patterns are observable elsewhere.
Scott Pruysers is a PhD candidate at Carleton University in the Department of Political Science. His research focuses on party organization and intra-party democracy and has been published in a number of national and international journals.