On the road to a Harper government?


in Canada, Politics

What seemed inconceivable a few weeks ago is becoming the stuff of the most cautious news coverage: Canada’s 39th government might be led by the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper. Having just read an endorsement of them in The Globe and Mail, the traditionally Liberal supporting Canadian newspaper, I can see the legitimacy of many of the Globe’s concerns with today’s Liberals. Too much time in government has had a negative effect on the Liberals. Paul Martin has proved, at best, a lacklustre leader who did not bring the kind of political energy or policy changes many of us hoped for in the post Chretien era. What I dispute much more is their conclusion that the Conservatives can be trusted as an alternative.

How then should we look at the question of the Tories in power? The first issue to come up for me is the one of values. While Stephen Harper has tried hard to reinvent himself and bring his party to the centre, it’s reasonable to ask whether they will be able to endure there. A policy platform including things like minimum sentences – as classically counterproductive conservative policy – makes me wonder about this. So too, the possibility of government by a party with its political centre of mass in Alberta.

Ultimately, one cannot wish, as I have often done, that there was an alternative party of government in Canada and then automatically reject one that emerges, looking as though it could fill that role. While I don’t like a lot of what is in the Tory platform, I can respect any party that is able to earn the support of a large number of Canadians and I think Canadian democracy is the stronger for the inclusion of such parties in the process. The presence of real debate and the possibility of losing power are essential in a system of parliamentary democracy.

Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a relatively short period with the Liberals out of power. Hopefully, during that time, the bulk of the social progress Canada has recently made, on issues like gay rights, will not be reversed. Perhaps a Harper government would also be able to do something to rebuild Canada’s international position: as I dearly hoped Paul Martin would do. In the process of cutting the deficit, Canada has slashed foreign aid and our international diplomatic presence. If Canada is going to maintain its role as a helpful fixer and leader in peacekeeping (a mantle that has already badly slipped), we need to commit to the armed forces at a level that reflects the operational tempo of a Canadian military increasingly committed to a large number of complex places and projects around the world. The danger, or at least a danger, is that the Tories will focus instead on hopelessly misguided policies like militarizing the Arctic: an action that would serve virtually no Canadian interest.

A spell out of government may even allow the Liberals to rebuild themselves: shedding some of the excess that has arisen from a long stretch in government and hopefully reforming its leadership. Obviously, if Martin loses, his position as party leader will become untenable. Given the many successes of these twelve years of Liberal government, and given the relatively painless nature of the transition of power from Chretien to Martin, the latter man would have nobody to blame but himself.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous January 15, 2006 at 2:06 am

“But we also know that public opinion in an information-enriched society provides a natural check on immoderate policies and behaviour. Political parties are in the business of currying public favour; a governing party, even an unnatural one, will not stray too far, too frequently, from the social consensus. The dynamic of democratic change keeps competitors for power within reasonable bounds. So it will be for Mr. Harper and his Conservatives.”

Let us hope so.

Anonymous January 15, 2006 at 8:11 am

“So too, the possibility of government by a party with its political centre of mass in Alberta.”

Because heaven knows Alberta is filled with nothing but rednecks and Bush-style neocons, and therefore, any political movement with its base that province is automatically suspect. If you’re concerned about the effects of a Conservative goverment, please express your concern in terms of the party’s beliefs instead of resorting to flippant anti-Albertanism.

“Perhaps the best that can be hoped for is a relatively short period with the Liberals out of power.”

Is that really all you can hope for from a Conservative government? An Acting Government to hold the reins while the Liberals spend their 18 months in the penalty box? How about hoping that the Conservatives move forward with some of the democratic reform initiatives that Martin promised but never delivered on? Even if you don’t agree with the Conservatives’ policies, giving Harper a few years to reform Ottawa could end up a big win for the country.

“Hopefully, during that time, the bulk of the social progress Canada has recently made, on issues like gay rights, will not be reversed.”

What other “social progress” would you identify, other than gay marriage? And how much of that progress was a result of the Liberal government, and how much was a result of the courts? Mr. Harper is clearly on the losing side of the gay marriage argument, constitutionally, and he has promised not to invoke the Notwithstanding Clause to overrule the courts. The Conservatives have also voted, at their most recent policy convention, not to introduce any legislation on abortion (leaving Canada as the only western nation without any law regulation abortion). Draging out the social conservatism boogeyman isn’t fair to Mr. Harper or the Conservatives. They’ve more or less adopted a pragmatically libertarian approach to social policies, which is a monumental shift from the old Alliance days and a big risk considering who makes up their political base. What more would you have them do?

Milan January 15, 2006 at 9:47 am

Good points, and I am always happy to see some substantive discussion here.

My concerns with an Alberta-centred party have a lot to do with national cohesion. Much as we in the west often resent the domination of Canadian politics by Ontario and Quebec, it’s a kind of bargain that has generally kept overall regional tension at the level of a serious annoyance rather than an outright threat.

I don’t deny the possibility that the Tories might make some real progress, as I acknowledge quite openly in the area of foreign policy. Democratic reform, like the establishment of an elected Senate, hopefully based on some kind of PR, would also be a valuable use of governmental time. One trenchant criticism of the Liberals today is that they have squandered much of their time in government and lacked an overall strategy.

The social policy changes you define smack to me of Harper trying to do the minimum possible in order to look like a safe pair of hands to most Canadians. It’s certainly at odds with his past statements. It’s also a bit dubious from a party that has shifted in the direction of the Alliance since the merger, with moderate Tory sorts joining the broad and often incoherent camp that is the Liberals.

R.K. January 15, 2006 at 1:01 pm

I’d say the biggest piece of Liberal “progress” on social issues has been to not allow the agenda to roll back, as it has been in the United States.

Hopefully, provincial initiatives like harm mitigation drug policies will eventually filter up to the national level.

Sylvia January 15, 2006 at 9:24 pm

I’m afraid that if the Conservatives get a majority they will do what the B.C. Liberals did, which is to conveniently interpret a protest vote as a positive mandate, and use that to justify radical changes that the majority wouldn’t knowingly vote for.

Anonymous January 15, 2006 at 9:39 pm

“The power of the majority is limited: it does not prevent rivers from flowing, mountains from standing there, or people from being different. The majority must take the existence of rivers, mountains and people’s differences into account.”

Andre Laurendeau

Ben January 15, 2006 at 11:17 pm

I know little enough of American politics, and even less about the particulars of Canada I’m afraid, though I gather you have a fairly typical two party liberal/conservative set up.

I applaud your willingness to accept democratic defeat, and such statements as “The presence of real debate and the possibility of losing power are essential in a system of parliamentary democracy.”

I think the possibility of losing should be extended to both main parties together though. At present, one can win a landslide simply by being slightly less bad than the other. Consequently (as Sylvia says) it’s hard to distinguish a positive vote for the conservatives from a negative one against the liberals.

I think we really could do with a proper multiparty system to promote better democracy. For what it’s worth, I’ve only voted in two UK General Elections, and neither time for one of the big two…

cURIOSITYkILLEDtHEcAT January 16, 2006 at 11:52 pm

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

Milan January 21, 2006 at 5:58 pm

There are more electorally related posts on the blog:

Canadians go to the polls on Monday (Jan 20)

On the state of Canada’s armed forces (Jan 17)

Casting my absentee ballot (Jan 9)

Milan January 23, 2006 at 5:32 pm

Election day (Jan 23)

Electoral calculus (Jan 21)

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