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The long defeat -- Where the Canadian Right went wrong (Part Two)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted July 26, 2021

The Ascent of Progressivism

Trudeau barely won the 1972 election against a strong challenge from Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield. Trudeau’s campaign was assisted by a sympathetic media willing to ridicule Stanfield, and the rise of sharp “American-style” political campaign management reaching a crescendo in the Liberal Party. The New Democratic Party (NDP), the much-different successor to the CCF, supported the Liberal minority government between 1972-1974. Trudeau won a majority government in 1974, again based on rock-solid support from Quebec. In 1979, Joe Clark (who had been P.C. leader since 1976) won a minority government (a plurality of seats in the House of Commons). However, he ineptly mishandled his nine months in office, and the Liberals won another majority in 1980 (after the P.C. government had fallen to a non-confidence vote in the House of Commons). Trudeau interpreted his victory as a prologue to the ultimate culmination of what critics have later called “the Trudeau revolution.” In 1982, Trudeau brought in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which both its supporters and critics have sometimes termed a “coup d’état”. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms effectively enshrined nearly all of Trudeau’s essentially liberal ideals as the highest law of the land. It is hard to think of any country that has been impacted as decisively by one person, as has Canada by Pierre Trudeau.

The Failure of Conservatism

In the challenge to Joe Clark’s leadership in 1983 and the run-up to the 1984 election, Brian Mulroney, by virtue of a few strong pronouncements, let the mantle of being a “right-winger” fall on him. However, as it turned out, he was viscerally mostly a liberal. The Progressive Conservative majorities of 1984 and 1988 ended up being a “defeat in victory” or a “false dawn” for the Canadian Right. Insofar as he enacted the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, he was carrying out a longstanding Liberal policy objective, which traditionalist Conservatives in Canada had long opposed. He also precipitously raised the immigration numbers in Canada to a quarter-million persons a year (whereas they had fallen to 54,000 in Trudeau’s last year in office). Mulroney’s betrayal of “small-c conservatives” undoubtedly played a part in the birth of the Reform Party in November 1987. In the 1993 federal election, the Reform Party won 52 seats, while the Bloc Quebecois (which had arisen as a consequence of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and Charlottetown Agreements) won 54 seats. The PCs were reduced to two seats, while the Liberals under Jean Chretien won a majority in the federal Parliament.

The Reform Party and Liberal Austerity

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. Part of the Liberal Party’s strategy in the 1990s (in the wake of the collapse of Soviet Communism), 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; introducing Unemployment Insurance reforms, which drastically reduced benefits; the establishment of Canada Pension Plan reforms, which substantially raised the amount of contributions that have to be paid into the program; and also the Old Age Pension and Old Age tax-exemption claw-backs – which kick in at a relatively modest income threshold. It could also be argued that the Liberal Party, especially in the 1990s, has colluded with big banks, big insurance companies, and other major corporations, to the disadvantage of the broader Canadian public.

The Dawn of the Canadian Alliance

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 selected leader of the Canadian Alliance. Although he began well, he was increasingly sandbagged by the accusation that he represented “Christian fundamentalist extremism”, as well as being seen as just another “Albertan” from an Alberta centred party. The November 2000 election saw a continued refinement of the “hardball” political manipulations of another era (Davey-Coutts) carried out by the Liberal Party. In 2001, Stockwell Day was essentially destroyed by a generally unreceptive at best, mockingly hostile at worst, media; a negative strategy of ad hominem attacks by the Liberal Party; and, the perennial “conservative party” curse of caucus dissent/rebellion. The ensuing Canadian Alliance leadership selection process of 2002 was won by Stephen Harper.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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