The end of Canadian conservatism?
By Mark Wegierski
While the current federal election campaign in Canada seems to be going relatively well for the Conservative Party, a lingering question which may be asked is, to what extent does the Conservative Party actually represent substantive conservatism? Indeed, despite all the Liberal scare-mongering about a Tory "hidden agenda," the Conservative Party of Canada is, indeed, a very, very moderate party. By carefully examining just how moderate the Conservative Party of Canada really is, the author of this article hopes to introduce a proper sense of balance in regard to discussions about the political spectrum of current-day Canada. All the Liberal accusations of "extremism" need to be put in some historical and cultural context.
Looking back to the third week of March 2005, Canadian traditionalist conservatives could well have been dispirited. The Conservative Party convention seemed to indicate that the party is unlikely to mount spirited, substantive resistance to the so-called "Trudeau Liberal vision of Canada." A Conservative M.P.s' leaflet distributed at the convention, "Is Christianity under attack?" was seen by the media and the party's "mainstream" as so "extremist", so far "beyond the pale", and so "unacceptable" - that the very reaction to it might well have confirmed the point it was making. It was also reported in the media that a delegate who tried to introduce a resolution calling for some kind of restrictions on federal bilingualism policy, was virtually howled down by the crowd. Among its various effects, federal bilingualism policy mandates that most federal civil servants speak both French and English - which prevents many persons who know only one of the official languages from obtaining government jobs.
There have been reports that there are federal government bilingualism "SWAT teams" circulating in Western Canada - and that when some government employee's French is a little rusty - they simply get punted from their job.
On March 21, the Dominion Institute (with its ironically traditionalist-sounding name), released a study which purported to show that 1 in 6 Canadians was a "victim of racism" - and that various kinds of "racism" were very deeply ingrained in Canadian society. Considering that the supposed hardcore racists (such as people who did not wish to marry outside their race, or who did not wish to have a person of a different race as their next-door neighbour), could be identified at little more than ten percent of the population, it might not have been a cause for much alarm. Nevertheless, the study did its best to manufacture a sense of crisis, with the proposed solution - more "education" of course.
On the same day, three opposition M.P.s (including a member of the Conservative Party) introduced legislation calling for a total ban on "racial profiling" by the federal government and its agencies, with various government ministries to be required to report to Parliament as to how they were living up to that obligation. The great "abuse" they could point to was ONE Arab-Canadian being banned ONE time from taking a commercial aircraft flight.
On March 22, Statistics Canada released its study showing that "visible minorities" (a term of official usage) were going to be half of the population of Toronto and Vancouver by 2017 - or, as the headlines read, "minorities to become majority." Ironically, most informed observers could tell you that that is the current state of Toronto and Vancouver.
All these studies lack an important *context* - the regime of "employment equity" (the Canadian term for affirmative-action) - i.e., of preferences in employment and post-secondary education for designated groups; of tight hate-speech and anti-discrimination laws; of high immigration policies of about a quarter-million persons a year; of a society and education system - from Early Childhood Education to university - almost totally absorbed by "anti-racist" instruction; and of the virtually ceaseless derision of conservative straight white males in the media and the pop-culture.
Indeed, it could be argued that, over the last four decades, the Canadian Right has conclusively failed to articulate a "counter-ethic" to the currently-prevalent "Liberal idea of Canada", and is now on the fast track to extinction in the Canadian polity. The origins of the decline of the Canadian Right can be traced to the battles from 1963 to 1968 between Liberal Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and staunch Conservative John Diefenbaker (who was Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963), and the initial burst of "Trudeaumania" in 1968 to 1972. It was in those years that a more traditional Canada was fundamentally overturned, especially as symbolized by the adoption of the new flag, dubbed the "Pearson Pennant" - and the attendant, vast, social engineering initiatives. The culmination of "the Trudeau revolution" was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982).
Indeed, the social framework of Canada had been changed so drastically by the 1980s, that Brian Mulroney's huge Progressive Conservative majorities of 1984 and 1988 ended up being - for "small-c conservatives" - little more than a "defeat in victory" - or a "false dawn." The term "small-c conservative" arose in Canada because the "big-C Conservatives" - the Progressive Conservative party - were often remote from substantive conservatism.
Without a single identifiable conservative on the Canadian Supreme Court, with very few conservative-tending judges anywhere on the bench in Canada, and with a vast adjudicating structure of hundreds of "quasi-judicial" human rights tribunals and commissions - the Charter of Rights and Freedoms became a vehicle for massive, unidirectional social engineering.
The Canadian Right tried to regroup through the launching of the Reform Party in 1987. The Reform Party faced a climate of unrelenting media and institutional hostility -- especially in the 1996 controversy over the extension of anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians.
It could be argued that part of the Liberal Party's strategy in the 1990s, to draw the sting of Reform Party criticism, was to adopt so-called fiscal or economic conservatism. The extent of the Liberal austerity measures against the mass of ordinary Canadians included: not rescinding the Goods and Services Tax, as they had explicitly promised to do; the Unemployment Insurance reforms, which drastically reduced benefits; the Canada Pension Plan reforms which substantially raised the amount of contributions that have to be paid into the program; and the Old Age Pension and Old Age tax-exemption clawbacks. It could also be argued that the Liberal Party, especially in the 1990s and today, has colluded with big banks, big insurance companies, and other major corporations, to the disfavour of the broad Canadian public.
Preston Manning launched the United Alternative initiative in 1998. This culminated in the creation of the Canadian Alliance - whose full, official name was the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance. The initiative failed to achieve its ultimate goal - a merger with the federal Progressive Conservative party - largely because of the intransigence of one man - federal P.C. leader Joe Clark.
In 2000, Stockwell Day was elected leader of the Canadian Alliance. Although he began well, he was increasingly sandbagged by the accusation that he represented "Christian fundamentalist extremism." The November 2000 election was full of various mendacious accusations and "dirty tricks" carried out by Liberal Party operatives.
In 2001, Stockwell Day was essentially politically destroyed by a concerted campaign of the media, the Liberal Party, and dissidents in his own caucus. The ensuing Canadian Alliance leadership selection process of 2002 was won by Stephen Harper.
The merger between the Canadian Alliance (under Stephen Harper) and the federal Progressive Conservatives (under the leadership of Peter MacKay), was announced on October 16, 2003, and finalized by December 2003. This move, coming after decades of negativity for the Canadian Right, appeared to be a bright move forward. In March 2004, Stephen Harper was elected leader of the reconstituted Conservative Party.
The June 2004 election was perhaps one of the most critical in Canadian history, and was supposed to represent the culmination of the Canadian Right's attempt to regain the political initiative. Nevertheless, Stephen Harper essentially flopped - considering that the Liberals were highly vulnerable, especially over the financial scandal where over $100 million (Canadian) of federal government money apparently went to the personal coffers of prominent Quebec Liberals. That scandal had already been identified in the Auditor-General's Report in February 2004.
In April 2005, the Gomery Inquiry investigating this "Adscam" raised the ire of very many Canadians, but the Conservative attempt to topple the Liberals in a non-confidence motion was stymied by the exercise of all of the various powers of government and political wiles of "the natural governing party" (which is what Liberals unabashedly call themselves). The Liberal government was finally defeated in Parliament in November 2005, thus necessitating the calling of an election for January 23, 2006.
Although the election campaign appears to be going fairly well for the Conservatives (ahead of the second set of major leaders' debates), it should be remembered that a Harper minority government might not be able to achieve much. This is because neither the Bloc Quebecois nor the New Democratic Party are likely to be coalition partners with the Conservatives. Indeed, it is possible there would be a Liberal minority government with backing from the NDP, even if the Conservatives had the largest number of seats in the federal Parliament. In terms of Harper having any hope of initiating major change, comparable to at least one-tenth of that carried out by Trudeau, a working Conservative majority would be required. And even Mulroney's huge majority of 1984 found itself sandbagged by infrastructural (media, civil service, special-interest group) opposition.
It could be argued that one of the central reasons for the continuing failure of the Canadian Right since the 1960s is the ongoing establishment of vast, liberal-leaning governmental, juridical, media, academic, educational, and corporate structures - a nexus of interests some have called "the managerial-therapeutic regime" - which could be characterized as socially liberal and economically conservative. There is also the fact that "North American" pop-culture is the primary "lived cultural reality" for most people in Canada, which tends to reinforce socially liberal, consumerist/consumptionist, and antinomian attitudes, especially among the young. Unlike in most other Western countries, where various countervailing factors of various kinds exist to the hegemony of the managerial-therapeutic regime, current-day Canada is probably an example of such a managerial-therapeutic system in its "purest" form.
Some of these countervailing factors in the United States include such things as the far greater saliency of the military, the far greater presence of organized religion (both in regard to fundamentalist Protestants and traditionalist Catholics), homeschooling as a major social trend, the existence of probably hundreds of more traditional-leaning private colleges, and a large network of right-leaning think-tanks and publications - which together are part of what some have called the "Right Nation." At the same time, the United States has a more robust tradition of independent-minded, left-wing, anti-corporate, ecological, or agrarian dissent, such as that typified by Ralph Nader, Christopher Lasch, Rachel Carson, Helen and Scott Nearing, and Wendell Berry.
It could be argued that social, political, cultural, and economic life in Canada -- lacking, in fact, either an authentic Right or Left -- has therefore become the least subject to popular will and democratic input, indeed, it could be called "post-democratic." The lack of robust democratic participation and input in Canada should be of concern to theorists across the political spectrum. Insofar as the system maintains itself through massive "prior constraint" against a very broad array of ideas, beliefs, and opinions, its pretense to be upholding democracy is questionable. Such a profound lack of equilibrium is profoundly harmful to a more "ideal-typical" form and exercise of democracy.
Trying to continue to exist in such a context, the Canadian Right may well be on the fast track to extinction. There are also a number of structural and cultural political problems in which the Canadian Right has been and is embroiled, most notably, their lack of appeal to Quebec. There is the long-term "Quebec problem" of the Canadian Right. There is also the lack of appeal to older immigrant groups (the so-called "white ethnics") - who might have been a natural constituency for them. There is also their lack of appeal to most of the newer immigrant groups (the so-called "visible minorities"). The Canadian situation is markedly different than the situation in the United States, especially in regard to the extent of "minority conservatives" in both countries.
Because of the ongoing decline of conservative thought in Canada, there are only sporadic attempts to ever articulate a "counter-ethic" to the prevalent "Liberal idea of Canada." Such attempts are especially rare among currently-active conservative politicians. There is, furthermore, an astronomical inequality of financial resources as between massive left-liberal infrastructures and mostly isolated "small-c conservatives" in Canada.
Given the direction of development of historical, social, cultural, and economic processes in Canada over the last four decades, and the various factors mentioned above -- the incoherence of the articulation of a "counter-ethic," the hardening of a once-robust parliamentary democracy into a "managerial-therapeutic regime," the very low profile of any possibly competing countervalent power-centres such as the military and churches, the increasing centralization of the polity in the federal government, the prevalence of "North American" pop-culture with its amplification of socially-liberal, consumerist, and antinomian attitudes, and the various structural and cultural political problems for the Canadian Right -- notably their lack of appeal to Quebec and "white ethnics", and the fewness of "minority conservatives" in Canada -- it could be argued that the Canadian Right is approaching extinction in Canada. The future of Canadian politics is therefore very likely to move in the direction of a "post-democratic" and de facto "one-party" system - which will be overwhelmingly socially liberal and economically conservative.
Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher, published in Alberta Report, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen, Review of Metaphysics, Telos, and The World & I, among others. His article about Canada was reprinted in Annual Editions: World Politics, 1998-99 (Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1998).
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