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In defence of partisanship

Spend any time following public affairs today, and you get the impression that the word partisanship has become synonymous with everything wrong with politics in Canada. MPs are accused of "partisan attacks" during Question Period; "partisan" commentators are dismissed as having little of merit to add to political panels; and the Senate’s "increasing partisan nature" is said to cripple its ability to provide sober second thought. So pervasive is this narrative that Parliamentarians in the Senate and the House of Commons themselves have taken to suggesting reforms to temper the role of partisanship in the legislature.

Yet it was not so long ago that partisanship was considered across the political spectrum as a sign of civic engagement and public service.

A dictionary reading describes a partisan as, “An adherent or proponent of a party, cause, person, etc.” Although the term has in recent years taken on a secondary meaning as “an unreasoning, prejudiced, or blindly fanatical adherent,” the concept of partisanship is rooted in the simple adherence to a party at a time in which it was emerging as a key structuring principle in the Westminster parliamentary tradition.

“Party discipline has been a fact of parliamentary democracy in Canada from the outset of responsible government,” note professor Lori Turnbull and the late professor emeritus Peter Aucoin of Dalhousie University, and University of Victoria PhD candidate Mark Jarvis, in their 2011 book, Democratizing the Constitution, Reforming Responsible Government. “The entire parliamentary process is predicated on partisan politics, which sees institutionalized adversarialism as the best means of securing democracy.” Partisanship, and the political parties that wield it, is understood from this perspective as a key organizing mechanism within the Canadian democratic process.

Partisanship enables Canadians to identify the policies each candidate represents when they go to the polls, and it provides a degree of confidence that the incumbent will not abandon those principles during her mandate. Following the election, party structures help organize the legislature into government and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. This ensures a system through which governments can be held to account for their actions, and political disputes can be settled according to time-tested rules and standards of civility and decorum.

Party structures also provide critical machinery through which diverse and often competing interests can be considered in relation to one another, and honed into well-reasoned policy decisions. Senator Lowell Murray used to say that political parties provided the best defence of the freedom of speech, because no single group could influence the perspective of an entire political party.

In a legislative system that is predicated on the executive’s ability to retain the confidence of the House, party discipline helps encourage stability in Canadian governance — a function that contrasts favourably with the sort of fragmented stalemate that is so common in less disciplined or structured legislatures elsewhere.

In short, political parties are so central to the way Canadian parliamentary democracy works that, as Jarvis, Aucoin and Turnbull put it, “Any efforts to improve democracy by eliminating partisanship are doomed to failure.” The denigration of the very concept of partisanship and the party structures that support it is similarly unhelpful, if not damaging to Canadian democracy.

In the current context, the negative connotation of "partisan" more often than not appears to be an expression of disapproval of certain types of behaviours, not the institution of partisanship itself. If commentary from the press and various interest groups is anything to go by, Canadians are not offended by politicians advocating for and adhering to organized policy platforms, but rather by the demonization, disrespect and misrepresentation that all too often characterize exchanges between some parliamentarians.

I believe Canadians regard such behaviours to be unbecoming in a civilized, parliamentary democracy. And rightly so: At the root of the concept parliament, after all, is the notion that disagreements within a society are best solved through discourse — not insults and accusations. Canadians, in other words, care not only about what their parliamentarians represent, but also how they represent it.

As we look for new ways to revitalize the democratic process’ respectability in the eyes of the Canadian public, we would do well to recognize that preserving the respectability of how individual parliamentarians go about upholding the public interest is critical to maintaining popular faith and engagement in the democratic process.

History suggests that partisanship is here to stay, but respect for the individuals and institutions that make up our federal government is a constant work in progress. I would encourage all my colleagues on Parliament Hill to use their summer recess to reflect on what they can do to help restore respectful debate and actions in Parliament.

Senator Raynell Andreychuk is a Senator for Saskatchewan.