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Randy Colwell

The Party That Changed Canada: The New Democratic Party, Then And Now, Lynn McDonald, M.P., Macmillan of Canada, Toronto, 1987, 265 p.

Commentators on the Canadian political scene have applied a variety of labels to the party system. For some, the extended periods of Liberal governments led them to conclude that Canada has a one party dominant system. Others recognise that the Conservative party, both in and out of government, has made a significant contribution to Canada's party system and have preferred to describe Canada as a two party system. Analysts unsatisfied with these two categories have variously described our party system as a two party plus or multi party system.

Lynn McDonald, in her The Party That Changed Canada , would no doubt assert that Canada has a fully developed three party system. It is Lynn McDonald's central thesis, as the title claims, that the NDP (and its forerunner the CCF) has had a profound impact on shaping the political, the social, and economic affairs of Canada, even though it has never formed either the government or the official opposition at the national level.

According to McDonald, programs such as medicare, old age pensions, job creation and unemployment insurance, civil rights legislation, and cultural entities including the CBC, trace their origins to the CCF, not the parties which were in power when these measures were introduced. In fact, McDonald claims these programs, which have indeed "changed Canada", were resisted by the implementors and adopted only because cynical Liberal and Conservative prime ministers saw the electoral capital. These claims are the most contentious parts of McDonald's book and will certainly not go unchallenged by studious readers.

The book is easy to read and is not bogged down in unnecessary detail. The author's style and the organisation of the chapters carry the reader quickly through the origins of the CCF on the Canadian prairies and moves quickly into its lengthy "list" of accomplishments as an opposition party. Although many of the passages are long on rhetoric there is a generous supply of documentation to buttress the author's claims.

The third chapter (Virtue Is Its Own Reward?) outlines the several explanations for the CCF/NDP's failure to gain the necessary votes to form the national government. McDonald disposes of the many traditional arguments which purport to explain the electoral failures of the CCF/NDP. Arguments such as the NDP is not far enough to the left; it is too far to the left; it is dominated by organised labour, etc., are examined and found wanting. McDonald devotes a lot of attention to the media and argues that the Canadian media has not given the CCF/NDP fair coverage. Although she admits that flagrant bias is rare (p. 103) she argues that the media in general over-simplifies the NDP messages and all too often portrays the NDP as fiscally irresponsible. In response, McDonald outlines the fiscal successes of NDP provincial governments, with Saskatchewan shown as the model. McDonald's closing criticism of the media centers on television, which she sees as a numbing experience which contributes to a sense of powerlessness and helplessness in the minds of Canadians.

One of the central premises of the NDP's social democratic philosophy is that the state ought to play an activist role in social and economic affairs. Many Canadian social democrats view, almost with a sense of envy, the successes of social democratic parties in European countries and point to these countries as models for the NDP to follow. McDonald examines these countries too, and attributes the successes of social democratic parties to high levels of unionisation and long histories of participation within the political system. Comparison between social democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere and Canada is a difficult venture at best and McDonald does not give enough attention to the differences in political culture and historical development which distinguish Canada from Europe.

Perhaps the most thoughtful chapter is Chapter 6, where McDonald "demystifies" the budget and outlines the NDP's economic program. McDonald shows that not only are Canadian social programs affordable, but when compared to tax exemptions and subsidies to the corporate world, there is room for improvement and expansion.

Unlike many books written about politics in Canada, McDonald's is not written for the political junkie who seeks insight into processes and personality. McDonald's book seems to be pitched to the electorate at large. The book will probably find its biggest readership among the rank and file. New Democrats will use its arguments to try to convince the undecided voter to cast their ballot for the NDP.

Public opinion polls indicate that the NDP has gained considerable ground as a political party. The party, which is comparatively younger than the Liberals and the Conservatives still has a long way to go before it can form a national government. If the optimism which permeates McDonald's book translates into seats in the House of Commons, there may be more opportunities for the NDP to change Canada in the coming years.

Randy Colwell ,Parliamentary Intern, Ottawa Ontario

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Last Updated: 2020-03-03