Political parties are antithetical to the very nature of democracy. That being said, they ARE the reality that the Canadian voter has to deal with, so recent events (specifically, the Dion - May Accord) have thrust the question back to the forefront: What constitutes a party that is truly national in scope?
I suppose that depends entirely on how one defines the word "nation" (I can hear the collective moans from here).
The Liberal party, dating as far back as 1997, has sworn up-and-down that the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance/"Reform Alliance"/Conservative Party was not a national party, no matter HOW many candidates it ran, for several reasons:
1) It didn't represent the views of all Canadians from all regions;
2) It didn't have elected members from all provinces and territories.
The Liberals quickly abandoned reason #2 when they lost one of their "territory" seats and were flushed out of Alberta completely, since to stick to that definition of a "National Party" would, by default, also eliminate them. In fact, it would eliminate ALL of our political parties.
Which brings us to the latest, most widely accepted definition of a "National Party": A party which runs candidates in all 308 ridings in Canada. (Funny: The largest democracy in the world, India, had candidates from 38 parties elected in its most recent general election - not a SINGLE PARTY ran in every national riding. Not a single one.) Using this definition, Liberals are screaming bloody murder, some in public and most in private, about Stephane Dion's decision to not run a candidate against Elizabeth May in Central Nova. By this standard, there were 4 "National Parties" in the last federal election: The Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, the New Democratic Party, and the Green Party. Yet, oddly, one of those parties was left out of the televised debates, in favour of a party that ran only 75 candidates.
Well, because the party in question, the Bloc Quebecois, DID run candidates in every single riding in the nation - the Nation of Quebec. Which, whether they recognize it in BC or Nova Scotia, IS a nation in the eyes of BQ members, and as such, they ran candidates in every riding.
"You can't cherry pick ridings", say critics of the Dion - May accord. "You have to run 308 candidates, or you lose credibility and disenfranchise your supporters in ridings with no candidate."
It's a valid point.
Consider this, though: If the vote is split on your side of the political spectrum - if your supporters are quite likely to vote for someone else if it's suggested by you that they vote strategically - if your fundraising efforts are drawing less than terrific results - then you MIGHT be better off forming some sort of unofficial co-operative agreement with another party that appeals to your voter base. Whether it be to refrain from running a candidate only in the other leader's riding, or to split up the country into more manageable areas in which to run a campaign, the bottom line is that despite the bad optics involved, this type of coalition makes good political sense. It was toyed with, but eventually shot down, when the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties were trying to figure out how to stop vote-splitting on the right. Now the Liberals and Greens are going to use it to at least ensure that Dion and May have one fewer candidate to run against in their own riding.
The only problem with this sort of arrangement is that eventually, once it gets to the point where the Liberals aren't running candidates in Alberta, the NDP abandon BC to let the Greens run there, etc., you get governments that not only don't have any members from a certain area, they don't have any VOTES from a certain area, either - essentially, NO ONE in the area elected the ruling party. Makes for some hard feelings. Legislative coalition governments are a possible answer, but although these can work on certain issues (defence policy, environmental strategies, etc.) they seldom work across the spectrum - if these parties agreed on more than a few issues, they'd all be members of the same party. Look to Israel or India for an example of coalition governments, and how frequently they fail.
At the end of the day, this accord will ensure that Dion gets a few hundred more votes, and will help May somewhat, although why she isn't running somewhere like Vancouver Island is absolutely astonishing to me... I know you want to make a statement by taking on the ruling party's deputy leader, but come ON... it will take a LOT to beat Peter McKay, and the riding isn't exactly a Green Party powerhouse. But it leaves people asking what a "national party" really is...
And, as members of ANY party will tell you: "It's what we are, and those other guys aren't".
Glad we cleared THAT up.