observations and opinion
Reform conservatism has become a mix of sullen centrism and gratuitous meanness
The reform movement wanted an elected Senate, accountable MPs, open government. It wanted less government, more fiscally responsible. Agree with it or not, Preston Manning’s movement was honestly radical in its beliefs. But few Canadians can be more disappointed in Stephen Harper’s government than the people he started out with.
When this 1,000 year long election campaign began, Prime Minister Harper and his crew looked to be in trouble: their vote flickered below 30 percent and the Duffy-Senate scandal was eroding that. The NDP looked ready to launch and no-one knew what Justin Trudeau would accomplish with the Liberals.
Two months later, things look different. The NDP, whose good numbers were predicated on public confidence they could get elected, have lost that credibility and with it, a lot of support. The Liberals are on the climb. But so are the Conservatives and most reliable, careful polling suggests Harper may ride inertia, the end of the mini-recession and Islamic face coverings, to some kind of a victory.
Which would be too bad, for the Conservatives. They need to lose.
In 2004, the new leader of the new Conservative Party (Stephen Harper) appeared on the brink of unseating Paul Martin’s Liberal Government. But a few ill-considered remarks from Harper, reflecting what people construe to be his true philosophy – a hard rightism – were exploited by the Liberals, spooking enough voters back over to give Martin an unsteady minority.
With the exception of his remarkable speech to the Israeli Knesset last year, we haven’t heard much from the real Stephen Harper since that moment. Harper learned that winning really did depend on speaking in soft, grey, modest tones. He squeezed through two minority wins after that and of course, when the Liberals imploded in 2011, Mr. Harper finally got the majority he had dreamed of.
Problem was, by 2011 Mr. Harper seems to have stopped dreaming. If he ever had a classically liberal economic bent, if he ever wanted to really “change” Canada into a more conservative, un-statist polity, he hasn’t used the levers of power to do it.
Instead, Harper’s Governments have followed a basically centrist path – modest deficits, modest and weirdly targeted tax cuts and modest programs, paired with a flamboyantly immodest foreign policy. To the outside world, Mr. Harper is a kind of blue-eyed Thatcher, his minions barking rhetoric while softening up Chinese plutocrats in the back room. At home, he’s a math teacher who grades your assignments really, really hard.
I do not count myself among the Harper Haters. Those people are nuts, and they are also wildly misinformed – they think Stephen Harper is some kind of right wing maniac, carving up their blessed green land with a bayonet and selling the chunks to the Americans. He’s nothing of the kind. He has governed in a generally balanced way, with some foolishness (the tax credit nonsense, etc), with some feistiness (the Middle East) and much sobriety. This guy hasn’t been a right winger – he’s been a big disappointment to right wingers.
Where did scary, right-wing Stephen Harper go? My own theory, founded on no direct evidence at all other than watching him govern for nine years, is that he has suppressed his core values and instincts for the sake of power. But it’s a struggle he sometimes loses. We see his buried nature leak out in small ways: killing the long form census, issuing gag orders to public servants, shit-canning his old favourites (Guergis, Adams and Soudis for example) and squeezing out most of the stronger Cabinet members.
Recently at a fancy gala, I was quietly quizzed by a member of the foreign diplomatic corps: what did I think about the election? And, in a more shaded and delicate question, what did I think of the Prime Minister? My answers were pretty simple: “I think the Conservatives are still likely to win.” Regarding Harper and his party, I said “There’s nothing particularly objectionable about their policies. I agree with some of them. But there is a gratuitous meanness to them. They seem to enjoy making their enemies squirm.”
I stand by that. The Conservative Party has become the Harper Party and in so doing, it has lost any ideological energy that once infused it, slumping into a sullen centrism. Grouchy and resentful about his inability to be himself, Mr. Harper has surrounded himself with people who vent their splenetic energies in small, stupid, unnecessary fights.
Most of their targets have been soft and powerless ones, such as civil servants and most recently, women wearing niqabs. These things are seen as smart politics but honestly, I think for Mr. Harper and the Polievres of this world, this stuff is also just fun. Look at the “Justin’s not ready” ads for instance: they ran far longer than necessary to make their point, to the extent that it became the subject of mockery. But the Tories just couldn’t help themselves: like high school newspaper editors, they fall in love with their own material. And they enjoy kicking their enemies, whether it works or not.
The niqab thing, of course, has worked: people are generally repulsed by the subordination of women and feel a deep disquiet at women dressed in medieval slave clothes. But if Mr. Harper was serious about this issue, he wouldn’t be pursuing a hopeless straw woman like niqabs at citizenship ceremonies. Instead, he’d be saying something clear and strong:
“Canadian women are first class citizens. They aren’t the property of their husbands or their fathers. Niqabs and burqas are a form of abuse, and they must go – everywhere.” And then he would propose to ban the things, using whatever tools at his disposal to accomplish it.
But he won’t, because even if he cares deeply about those women and their rights, he’s not prepared to risk being true to himself, at the risk of scaring the great mushy middle of the Canadian electorate.
Why does he cling to power at the price of his own principles? Well, power is fun. Way more fun than no power. And to be fair, Mr. Harper most likely believes the other parties would be worse. There’s no doubt he holds that opinion. In clutching power, however, Mr. Harper has managed to scare off most of the Progressive Conservatives and piss off most of the Reformers. There are some strong and good people in his Cabinet, but look around – have you heard from them lately? The price of power for Mr. Harper has been the intellectual gutting of his own movement and his party’s traditions. In the process, he has robbed his country of a necessary engine for change.
Canada needs a party that is prepared to think about radical reform, a party that is unwilling to bribe interest groups with billions of tax dollars. A party that really wants to do something bold about the First Nations. A party that will light-up free enterprise and wean us further from the state. We need a party that asks “does the modern state work?” A party that will explain why we really need to fight ISIS – somehow.
Canada needs a conservative party defiantly loyal to its principles, but which will not demonize those who disagree with it. A party that knows being “conservative” means to conserve the things in life we hold most precious: liberty, privacy, dignity, knowledge – and ground water. A conservative party that is willing to think and to learn. That is capable of shame.
We will not get this kind of Conservative Party from the incumbent Prime Minister. If he has the instincts, he’s lost the moves. Not many Conservatives will agree with the notion, but the truth is, the Conservatives need to lose for their own sakes. Then maybe, they will find their compass again.