Do Conservatives want to finally change things, or continue being perennial losers?
By Mark Wegierski
Marjory LeBreton, in her recent article, “The Conservatives’ existential identity crisis.” in The National Post (July 3, 2022) (a reprint from Policy Magazine Canada that also appeared on the English-language Canadian frontpage of msn.com) correctly notes that the Conservative Party of Canada is going through an existential crisis. But, in this author’s opinion, her recommendations are all wrong.
It all goes back to Brian Mulroney. He may be one of the most disappointing Prime Ministers that Canada has ever had. Although he won two huge Progressive Conservative (that was the official name of the party from 1942 to 2003) majorities in 1984 and 1988, it could be argued that his record, as far as social and cultural conservatism, was abysmal. He brought in Employment Equity (Canada’s version of Affirmative Action), intensified multiculturalism, and imposed unprecedently high immigration policies on Canada. As far as the Free Trade deal, free trade with the U.S. had been traditionally opposed by the Conservatives (who looked to Britain), and supported by the Liberals. John Turner, who argued patriotically for Canada, was clearly more of a traditionalist conservative than Mulroney. Mulroney also acquiesced to the Canadian Supreme Court decision in 1988, that removed all of the already vestigial restrictions on abortion.
Indeed, one of the traits of Mulroney’s “strong leadership” was to sideline “small-c conservatives” and social conservatives from playing a role in his party. (The term “small-c conservatives” is used to refer to more ideological conservatives in Canada – as opposed to the “big-C” Conservative Party, which was frequently less ideological.) One recalls how more ideological conservatives were derided as “cashew conservatives” in the 1980s. Mulroney once snidely declared that all the ideological conservatives in Canada could fit into a telephone booth. The result of all this bullying of the core of his party was the emergence of the Reform Party of Canada, in November 1987, and the electoral disaster of 1993, when the P.C.s were reduced to two seats. Had Jean Charest (then the leader of the federal P.C.s) reached some kind of accommodation with the Reform Party around 1996, Canada’s history might have taken a better turn.
The so-called “Centre-Right Opposition” in Canada has had a perennial underdog status in twentieth-century Canada, especially after the federal election of 1963, when Liberal Lester B. Pearson defeated the staunch Tory, John Diefenbaker. The Liberals under Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau gleefully practiced “activist”, “transformational” politics, using their governments, which were usually based on monolithic support from Quebec, to fundamentally transform Canada. This included the change of the country’s flag, which many political theorists could interpret as a marker of “regime-change”.
The Liberals (frequently with the support of the left-wing New Democratic Party) created vast liberal-leaning structures in the media, judiciary, government bureaucracies, and the academy. Liberal high immigration policies were calculated to forever undermine what had in the 1950s and earlier, often been called “Tory Toronto”. The multifarious structures and arrangements created by Pierre Elliott Trudeau are frequently termed the “Trudeaupia”. It is hard to think of any one individual who has had as much impact on his or her society, as Pierre Elliott Trudeau on Canada.
After sixteen years of Trudeau (from 1968 to 1984, except for nine months in 1979-1980, under the ineffectual Progressive Conservative, Joe Clark), Canadians were ready for some real departure from Trudeauvian policies in 1984. What Mulroney gave them was essentially a continuation of Trudeau, which almost inevitably led to the emergence of the Reform Party.
Because of the vote-splitting between the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance, and the federal P.C.s, Liberal Jean Chretien coasted to easy victories in 1993, 1997, and 2000. Finally, in December 2003, the Canadian Alliance and federal P.C.s were able to merge as the Conservative Party – from which the “progressive” adjective was precipitously dropped.
Liberal Paul Martin Jr. was reduced to a minority government in 2004, and finally, in 2006, Conservative Stephen Harper won a minority government. He won a strengthened minority government in 2008, and, ultimately, a majority government in 2011. However, Harper’s governance in 2011-2015 was a profound disappointment to “small-c conservatives” and social conservatives. He could have done a lot more with a majority government, despite the overheated rhetoric of his left-wing critics.
Nevertheless, before the 2015 election, numerous books critical of Harper appeared, accusing him of trying to impose a “dictatorship”.
Marjory LeBreton now tells us that only a so-called moderate form of conservatism can win in Canada.
For all his supposed "Machiavellianism", it could be argued that Mulroney misunderstood what "power" really is. Power is not an inert thing, an end in itself, but rather a means to other ends. As the Liberals and NDP clearly understand, power is the ability to affect the social and physical environment -- to strengthen, or introduce changes to, people's behaviour-patterns and attitudes -- using a wide range of coercive, utilitarian, and normative instrumentalities. Presumably, those effects one wishes to induce and introduce are those in accord with one's own value-systems and beliefs.
Canada has today reached a situation driving towards the most extreme forms of “political correctness” and of what critics have called the ideological hegemony of left-liberalism. It’s possible that only the vast, resource-based wealth of Canada allows the country to avoid some more obviously dystopic and violent outcomes. The weakness and incoherence of the “Centre-Right Opposition”, especially in the 1980s, has contributed to the inability of Canadian society today to somehow temper vast, onrushing societal velocities and trajectories.
The embrace of so-called moderate conservatism – when the “centre” of the Canadian political spectrum has been lurching leftward for decades -- is the path of perennial conservative failure.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based, Canadian writer and historical researcher, published in Alberta Report, Calgary Herald, Ottawa Citizen, and The Hill Times (Ottawa), among others. His article about Canada was reprinted in Annual Editions: World Politics, 1998-99 (Dushkin/McGraw-Hill, 1998).