Canadians express serious dissatisfaction with political parties:
- More than 50% of Canadians said parties’ #1 priority should be “reaching out to Canadians,” but awarded the lowest grade in that role.
- Across parties’ six core areas of responsibility, Canadians award grades of D through F.
- 69% of survey respondents say parties and candidates are only interested in their votes, not their opinions.
- Those involved in political parties hold similar views about parties’ priorities as other Canadians, but award slightly higher grades.
Political parties dominate Canadians’ understanding of politics. Partisan debate often frames the news coverage out of Ottawa, and most of us consider party and leader preferences when casting a ballot.1 After the election is over, parties structure how governments form and legislatures function. Even Members of Parliament acknowledge the incredible influence of their party on their daily life. One former MP said, “It was the challenge of deciding to become an MP. I’ve always been an independent thinker [but] the majority of [political] life was governed by someone else and you had to adhere to the [party] policy.”2
This report explores Canadians’ perceptions of political parties from a new angle—what Canadians think parties should be doing, and how well they are performing those roles. It is intended to spark a conversation about what role these organizations—so vital to democracy—could (and should) be playing in our political landscape.
The Role of Political Parties
During elections, parties select their candidates, present policy platforms and encourage citizens to vote. Beyond elections, parties also provide an entry-point for citizens in the political process and a local presence through riding associations. As a result of their important functions, they benefit from generous public subsidies including tax credits to donors and election expense reimbursements.
From an accumulation of academic research on political parties’ functions, Samara has identified six key roles in three areas:
- Recruiting candidates and competing in elections
- Encouraging people to vote
- Hearing ideas from party members
- Reaching out to Canadians so their views can be represented
- Coming up with new policy ideas and solutions
- Explaining what the party stands for
In a national survey of 1807 people, conducted by Samara in 2013, Canadians were asked to rank the importance of the six roles and then evaluate parties’ performance (see chart “What do Canadians want from parties?”). Canadians awarded parties barely passing (D) or failing (F) grades on all six roles.
Roles involving elections—“recruiting candidates and competing in elections” and “encouraging people to vote”—received the best grades. These roles reflect the parties’ most public functions, which are covered extensively by the media. Elections are also when parties expend the tens of millions of dollars they’ve accumulated from supporters and public subsidies.
Despite this, in the eyes of Canadians, “recruiting candidates and competing in elections” is viewed as the least important job for political parties, with only 4% of Canadians ranking it the number one priority. This may suggest citizens see the focus on winning elections coming at the expense of hearing their views: in the same survey, a full 69% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “Candidates and political parties are interested only in people’s votes, not their opinions.”