Thinking About the Federal Election: Blog One: Conservative and Liberal Parties in Canada
By Judith Stamps
In 1993, the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, then under the leadership of Brian Mulroney, suffered a severe collapse, finding itself with 2 seats in Parliament, 10 short of official party status. The decade that followed belonged to the Liberals. In the interim, a new party, the Reform Party of Canada developed under the leadership of Preston Manning. Established in 1997, it was expression of western alienation, centred primarily in the prairie-provinces. Steven Harper is a founding member. In 2000, the group reconstituted itself as the Canadian Alliance. It focused on the idea of reducing government spending, especially on social programs. In 2003, the Alliance voted to disband and merge with what was left of the Progressive Conservatives, then under the leadership of Peter McKay. Post merger they became simply, the Conservative Party of Canada. In 2004, members elected Harper as their leader.
Harper’s conservatism bears scant resemblance to the conservatism of an earlier Canada. Past conservatives believed in ‘natural elites’. But they held an organic view of society in which elites have a moral obligation to care for all of its members. In the 1970s and 80s Canadian conservative elites jettisoned the organic view in favour something more fragmented: society as a collection of competing individuals. They retained the elitist idea, plus a traditional focus on security and military spending nationally, and on law and order domestically. During these years, a similar ‘neo-conservative’ transformation gripped right leaning elites in most other western industrialized nations. In this sense, Canada has been in step.
Mapped onto Harper’s neo-conservatism are religious affiliations, rarely noted in mass media reports. Certainly Harper draws no attention to them, and conventional journalists ignore them. But we need to consider the tenets of Harper’s church, and decide for ourselves how relevant they are to his policies. Harper attends the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical sect with about two million members. Seven main points of its belief system are: distrust of mainstream science; disdain for the environmental movement; an attending belief that God will disallow/cancel out any attempt to destroy creation—no need to worry about the planet then; a distrust of media; a strong belief in party loyalty; a belief that libertarian economics is God’s will; and belief in dominion theology—the idea that God calls on humans to subdue and control all of creation. In addition, the church holds that the State of Israel is prophesied, and must be kept strong, a view sometimes called Christian Zionism.
Harper’s outlook can be seen usefully as a Canadian variant of the Christian orthodoxy that informs, for example, the American Tea Party. Similar movements have appeared in Germany, France and other western nations, the most extreme versions of which have been Neo-Nazi movements. As such Harper’s choice of ISIS as the essential enemy, and Bill C-51 as the solution, is entirely understandable. Ditto for his views on scientists, and science in general. Because ‘evidence-based’ is a popular term, the Harper Government uses it to defend, for example, its views on medical cannabis. Because it rejects science, the party is free, in a sense, to cherry pick its facts, in other words, to use science as just another rhetorical device. Whether you believe that Harper will be defeated on October 19th 2015 depends partly on your prediction of where we are in the anti-science pendulum swing. Are we done? Or are we moving more into the grip of religious fundamentalism? Unhappily, economic downturns favour the latter.
The Liberal Party of Canada has had its own hard times. In 2004, the party was rocked by a public enquiry into an ad program it had devised to counter Quebec nationalism. The program had gone seriously sideways. The ensuing ‘sponsorship scandal,’ as it came to be called, revealed a series of sins much grander than the misdeeds of any Canadian senator, Mike Duffy, for example. In 2011, the party found itself for the first time in its history, at 34 seats, in third place, with New Democrats playing official opposition to Conservatives. After some fumbling, the party chose Justin Trudeau as its leader in 2013. Trudeau is the eldest son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who served as Liberal Prime Minister of Canada from 1968 to 1984. His charisma is yet to be matched in Canadian politics: during his first term ‘Trudeau-mania’ T-shirts were a staple on streets and common in store windows. Liberal policies have been consistently progressive: they have given us the Canada Pension Plan, universal health care, Canada Student Loans, official bilingualism, multiculturalism, peacekeeping, and the cannabis activist’s favourite, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The Liberal’s fall to third place did not, as with the Conservatives, result in a realignment of the party’s ideals. It has been steadfast in maintaining the concept of a just society defined as: a government that seeks the greatest good for the greatest number of citizens, based on the primacy of individual liberty. Justin Trudeau’s vow to support the Canadian middle class, broadly defined, is representative of this outlook. So is his view on legalizing cannabis. Although couched as ‘keeping the kids safe,’ probably for the best in this climate of opinion, it is a classically liberal concept. Many of his supporters were devastated when the party chose recently to support Harper in passing Bill C-51, Canada’s intrusive, anti-terror Bill. It remains to be seen, if it is ever seen, how amendments to C-51 that Trudeau has proposed would preserve the liberties for which the Liberal Party of Canada has always stood.
Trudeau has been much tried by the Conservative’s attack ads, which cast him as a fumbling kid. Negative attack ads, a staple of US politics since the 1960s, are more recent and more controversial in Canada. It is impossible to say what effect they will have on this election; we’ve yet to see the worst.
It is clear from watching the new, younger Liberal Party that it is a more flexible and open creature than are its counterparts, led by the old. The policy to legalize cannabis, for example, bubbled up in 2013 from the ranks of the Young Liberals—the 20 year olds. In recent days Trudeau has introduced an impressive 22-member team of economic advisors, with representation by women and visible minorities, and from a variety of regions. Trudeau’s rivals portray him as economically naïve. But if his economic plans are not spelled out, it is as much as anything a sign of his intention to run the party democratically. He’s been criticized as well for setting the Liberal Senators free from party affiliation to think and vote as they please. In truth, the notion of setting senators free is the simplest and best idea yet for senate reform in Canada.
VARIETY IN CANADIAN PARTY POLITICS.
A key ingredient in Canadian federal politics is the ‘whipped vote.’ Unless instructed otherwise, MPs are expected to vote with their leader. When they don’t, they are ousted, and must sit as independents, or join another party. Newly minted independents need to seek re-election. This practice has been criticized as undemocratic, and is one feature that differentiates Canadian democracy from its American counterpart. But an interesting side effect of this process is the rise of alternative movements and parties. In the American Congress, parties contain difference because their members can vote as they please. In the Canadian Parliament, parties externalize difference. Thus ‘externalized,’ alternative thinkers have little choice but to form alternative parties. In this way whipped voting has given us the New Democratic Party, the Bloc Quebecois, the Green Party, and several others.
Stay tuned for Federal Election, Blog Two, where we look at the results of two such movements: the New Democratic Party, and the Green Party, and a few less prominent ones. Meanwhile I sign off with this thought. The Greek philosopher Socrates is reputed to have said: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” This statement is intended to encourage introspective thought. In introducing Bill C-51, the Harper Conservatives have given this sentiment an entirely new twist. Left to rule, they’ll soon be examining your life, my life, and everyone else’s. For this reason alone, they must be resisted. Let us vow to stop them.