Once more into the breach; well, at least, into the polling booth. The Harper Conservatives begin their quest to gain a majority government sporting numerous attributes, including money, organization, and five years in office. But among the party’s carry-on items is some serious baggage, including a reputation for ruthlessness and secrecy. This mixed record is reflected in opinion polls showing that most Canadians have never warmed up to Stephen Harper’s government; they presumably sense something false and untrustworthy in it, a view exacerbated by a spate of recent scandals, including RCMP investigations.
Some suggest these concerns are unwarranted; that being in office has moderated the Conservative party, its leader especially; and that it has become a party in the traditional mode of past Canadian governments. Indeed, one prominent columnist expressed just such a view in a recent article published in a national newspaper. His argument was based on two specific premises, the first that Canadian governments are elected to serve all Canadians and not merely their supporters; the second, really a corollary of the first, that Stephen Harper’s personal aim has long been for the Conservative party to replace the Liberal party as Canada’s ‘natural ruling’ party, and thus has been moderated. In short, the writer suggested people should have no fear of a majority Conservative government headed by Stephen Harper.
Are these premises correct? In 1991, I interviewed Stephen Harper. He was then policy advisor to the Reform Party. Towards the end of the interview he remarked that no governing party wants too much support as that would mean incurring too many electoral debts. A minimal level of voter support is preferable, while–in our first-past-the-post electoral system–gaining a majority of seats.
Strikingly, the Harper government since coming to office has not sought to greatly expand its appeal, but has instead played assiduously to its base (roughly 35 percent of the electorate). Where moderation has occurred, for example in running a deficit during the recent recession (and then only grudgingly), one senses the Conservatives have done so merely as a tactical and temporary measure, a bow to the government’s minority status that would disappear with a majority. In the main, the party’s appeals to voters beyond its base have been narrow, presumably just enough to garner a majority of seats. Indeed, there is nothing otherwise in the government’s actions since 2006 to suggest it desires to represent or take seriously those who are not its core supporters, its ‘tribe.’ For the Harper Conservatives, politics seems a perpetual war waged against a host of real and imagined enemies liberals, socialists, feminists, intellectuals, cultural elites, etc.
The second premise, that Harper wants to forge a Conservative Dynasty at the heart of Canadian politics seems at first plausible. In the past, to be sure, Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments alternated office on the basis of hugging the middle ground.
But the Harper Conservatives are the spawn of different parents, the Reform and Alliance parties. The latter, especially, was a revolutionary party; well, at least as revolutionary as Canadian parties get.
One needs to remember that, while the Reform party, of which Harper was a major player, hated the Liberals (and liberals), they also held particular contempt for the Progressive (Tory) Conservatives–the ‘wets’ as Margaret Thatcher referred to them. The Reformers scoffed at the mushy centre of Canadian political life. They eschewed politics as usual and despised ‘the game’ played by the old parties, desiring instead to smash the old rules and conventions of the existing party system. Neither the Reform nor Alliance parties aspired to govern in perpetuity; they did not wish to be mere successors to the Liberal and Conservative regimes. One suspects the Harper government equally shares no desire for permanence, though no doubt some of its individual MPs aspire to long pensionable service.
One may construe that the aim of the Harper Conservatives is not to govern forever, but to render government irrelevant. Like similar parties in the western world for the past thirty years, their aim is to replace government with governance embedded in the rules of the marketplace and international trade and security agreements, and maintained by a larger military and police presence, while placing real democratic decision-making beyond the effective control of citizens or any future government they may choose to elect. In simple terms, the point is to smash Humpty Dumpty in such a way that no future Queen’s parliament could put it back together again.
Elections would continue, but they would be rendered even more meaningless than many Canadians apparently view them today (as evidenced by a general decline in voting).
It is understandable that some would wish to see in the Harper Conservatives some signs of moderation and respect for Canada’s political diversity; in this long winter when Canada has been buffeted by seemingly endless snow and cold, we all hope that spring will soon be here. But hope should never blind us to the cold facts on the ground political or otherwise.
Trevor W. Harrison is a professor of political sociology at the University of Lethbridge.