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Dynasties and Interludes

Dynasties and Interludes

Past and Present in Canadian Electoral Politics
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The Macdonald and Laurier Dynasties

Two political dynasties founded and sustained the Canadian dominion, established the country’s first party system, and produced the expectation by the voting public that strong leaders would emerge to control the nation’s affairs. These two political dynasties also established the building blocks around which subsequent elections would be won and lost. John A. Macdonald (Prime Minister from 1867-1874, and 1878-1891) fashioned the Conservative Party (then called the Liberal-Conservative Party) into the main vehicle for national government during the whole period from Confederation to 1896. During Macdonald’s lifetime, Conservatives had strength in all regions of the country and among all classes of voters, though they were particularly dependent for their finances on manufacturing, railway and banking interests. Wilfrid Laurier (Prime Minister from 1896-1911) created a mastery over the Canadian political system, and established the dominance of the Liberal Party which continued for much of the Twentieth Century. Laurier did this by virtue of his sweeping personal appeal in Quebec, and his mollification of commercial interests, together with appeals to traditional Liberal support among farmers and working class voters who were entering the eligible electorate in greater numbers with the expansion of the suffrage. Even though the Laurier Liberals were defeated in 1911, the basis of the Liberal dynasty had been laid so well that it survived the party’s ill fortunes during the First World War. Conservatives, starting with Borden and continuing with Meighen, Bennett, Diefenbaker, Clark and Mulroney, produced only interludes, despite election victories, sometimes decisive ones. King, (followed by St. Laurent), Trudeau (following Pearson) and Chrétien (with Martin), on the other hand, established and maintained Liberal dynasties. Legitimating the new Canadian Confederation was no easy task. For the architects of the agreement, led by Macdonald and his Quebec lieutenant, George-Etienne Cartier, the job had to be undertaken without a cohesive national political party to rely on. The first three elections -- 1867, 1872 and 1874 -- took place separately in the different provinces, in different months of the year. John A. Macdonald skillfully exploited his position as the popular architect of the Confederation agreement (popular at least in Ontario and Quebec) to obtain early victories in elections which established the legitimacy of the new state. His goal was to solidify a popular commitment to the Confederation gamble. Economic growth, railway building, and regional development were important reasons for supporting the Macdonald Conservatives. The Liberal opposition was initially in disarray. The fact that their leaders, including George Brown and Edward Blake, had joined with Macdonald and his Conservative colleagues to support Confederation had removed a major issue that might have allowed them to distinguish themselves and their party from the Tories. The main issue of national unity at that period was support for Confederation itself, and the main battleground was in the Maritimes. The success of anti-Confederate forces in the first elections in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia undermined the opposition’s ability to present a united front to the electorate. It also meant that the Liberals had to rely more on economic policy to distinguish themselves from the Conservatives. Attempts to do this by emphasizing free trade within North America were largely unsuccessful, as we shall see in this chapter.

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