Policy Development through Political Parties

Public policy affects all of us. If we want to have a say in ensuring that public policy is fair, equitable, and reasonable, we need to understand how it is developed, particularly by political parties.

First of all, political parties usually adopt policies within a general framework of principles or values to which they are committed. Before joining a political party, particularly for the purposes of developing or advancing their policies, it is important to find out about their principles and values (by visiting their websites, reading their literature, talking to their members) and deciding how close those principles and values are to your own.

For example, Conservative parties are usually strongly committed to freedom of economic activity, balanced budgets and family values. Liberal and social-democratic parties are often most strongly committed to principles of social justice and government action to achieve social justice. Parties like the Green party are particularly committed to the principles of environmental conservation, whereas the Bloc Quebecois (operating only in Quebec) is committed to the objective of Quebec independence from Canada as well as social justice in Quebec.

Second, if you are interested in assisting a political party to develop its policies or in supporting those policies, it is important to understand the major sources of policy influence within that party. For example, political party leaders have a major influence on policy. It is therefore important to join in and participate in the leadership conventions of parties and if possible to cast your vote for the leadership candidate whose principles and policies most closely coincide with your own. Party caucuses (made up of their elected members to Parliament or a legislature) can have a major influence on party policy. It is therefore important to get to know your elected member and to influence or support his or her role in policy formation. The staffs of political parties, party strategists and elected party officials also have an important role to play in the development and formulation of a party’s policies. Getting to know political party staffs, particular those involved in policy research and communications is therefore also important. And in most parties that profess to be democratic, the “grassroots membership” is usually accorded a role in policy development – the significance of this role being determined by how truly “democratic” the party is and the procedures it has adopted for allowing its grassroots members to “have a say.”

Political parties in Canada all have constituency associations (called Electoral District Associations at the federal level) composed of the party members in that constituency or electoral district. These associations usually have policy committees and meetings which develop policy resolutions for submission to the party executive for consideration at the party’s policy convention. Those resolutions which are adopted at the convention become party policy. Of course, while this process may appear democratic, it is very much affected by the environment created by the media and the influence of powerful party insiders. The media can create an atmosphere in which a particular policy idea will be strongly opposed or strongly supported when it is being debated within the party. Party insiders, including the leader, with strong influence over the policy-making process can kill or promote a policy resolution from the grassroots fairly easily and in accordance with their own wishes.

In seeking to participate in policy development through political parties, it is therefore very important for an individual to determine exactly “how democratic” a political party really is, through examining its constitution, its procedures for policy making, and the actual experience of members of that party in influencing its policy direction. Since very few of us will ever agree completely with the complete list of any party’s policies, it is also extremely important to determine how open the party is to having its policies modified by the actions and wishes of its members.


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