Political Parties: Expectations and Realities

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Leadership Thursday, May 09, 2013 View Count = 7107

Political Parties: Expectations and Realities

Throughout the next few weeks, Samara will investigate several aspects of federal Canadian political parties, including their functions, regulations, finances and memberships. We’ll offer guest blog posts and interviews from those who are members or work for a political party. Hope you enjoy—and share—the series.

This initial post is written by Samara’s Research Analyst, Laura Anthony. Laura has been with Samara since the fall and is working primarily on the
Samara Index and Democracy Reports.

Some of Canada's lesser-known political parties. See all 19 registered parties here.

You know they exist… you may have even been contacted by one… and you’ve heard the rumours about them being out of touch. But what exactly are political parties, and perhaps more importantly, what exactly is their role in Canada’s political system? In this first blog post, we consider this question in light of the expectations and realities of parties’ activities. 

What is a political party anyway? 


Parties are central to our political system because they link citizens to government. 
A political party is a formal organization, built around common ideas, that fields candidates for public office during elections. If you have always wanted to start your own, there’s a manual for that. There are several benefits to registering as a political party, including: ability to issue income tax receipts for political contributions, guaranteed broadcasting time, partial reimbursement of paid election expenses, and quarterly allowances (soon to be eliminated). In other words, parties are not private, closed entities—they have a public utility they’re required to uphold. 

According to Elections Canada, we currently have 19 registered federal parties—though some, such as the Rhinoceros Party, are not as well-known as, say, the Conservative Party. 

In terms of composition, federal parties include Members of Parliament, political staffers, card-carrying members, and those in the electorate that identify with the party, but are not necessarily official members. 

Political parties also have an organizational structure, which includes riding level Electoral District Associations (EDAs) and a national arm that reaches across the country. 

As it turns out, parties do a lot more than just choose their leaders

Parties’ roles in Canada’s political system


Political parties serve at least four critical functions in our democracy: selecting candidates for elected office, contesting elections, aggregating policy perspectives, and engaging citizens in politics.  

Increasingly, Canadian political parties are being criticized for failing at the last function— engaging citizens in politics. Several reports have concluded that parties lack participatory opportunities for members and many party members agree.  In 2000, 73% of party members strongly agreed the party should do more to encourage local associations to discuss public policy. There appears to be a separation between what parties can be expected to do, as key linkages between the citizen and the state, and what their current actions actually reflect.

Not party to that party


In defence of political parties, the environment in which parties operate has become more challenging in recent years. Canadians are less likely to express attachment to a particular party by joining it than previous generations. Soon an important source of income—the per-vote subsidy, which I will talk about more in my next blog— will also be eliminated. This context might provide some justification of why parties appear so centred on electoral success –perhaps, they simply don’t have enough resources to cultivate their other functions. In other words, it is viewed as a less risky use of resources for parties to focus on getting your vote, rather than advising you how to contribute to their policy positioning.  Admittedly, it is not a realistic expectation for political parties to forego such electoral priorities to fulfill their other functions. 

Yet, we need to ask ourselves, is there necessarily a trade-off between election driven behaviour and behaviour that fulfills parties’ other functions as crucial intermediaries? Of course, grouping all the parties together is an over simplification of their behaviour. Nonetheless, Canadians aren’t satisfied with their political parties – only 23% of Canadians believe that political parties care what people think.  If both members and non-members in Canadian parties are dissatisfied with the current level of engagement facilitated by parties, isn’t it time to ask Canadian parties to do the jobs they supposedly, signed up to do? 

Next time I’ll be looking in more detail at political party financing, and how—considering their funding base—Canadians can put pressure on parties to fulfill their roles beyond elections. 

Related posts


It’s My Party
Whose party is it anyway?
Democracy Talks Dispatches: University students skip the party  
Samara in the Lab – Political Party Puzzles 
Where’s the respect? Reengaging citizens with political marketing done right 

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