The Changing of Canada’s Gods

The Changing of Canada’s Gods

J.M. Smith: Canada’s Changing Gods

WHEN I cast my early ballot in Canada’s recent election, I was reasonably confident my vote for the Liberals would be put to good use. After all, even with the Liberals declining in the polls, trailing the incumbent Conservatives, the party hadn’t finished below second place since 1867, and it usually finished first.

Alas, that 145-year trend was broken on May 2, when the Liberals received just 19 percent of the vote. They placed behind not only the Conservatives but also the social democratic New Democratic Party, which will form the official opposition party for the first time. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won a majority after ruling as a minority for five years. The shift was so dramatic that the national historian Peter C. Newman was forced to change the working title of the political book he is writing to When the Gods Changed: The Death of Liberal Canada. Basically, the Left was strengthened, the Right was strengthened even more, and the Center (Center Left from the American perspective) was decimated. How did that happen? Why did the gods change?

It is tempting to blame Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, who retired the day after the bruising results. Some have succumbed to the temptation. “[M]aybe, just maybe, Michael Ignatieff is simply not everyone’s cup of tea,” lectured a columnist for the Globe and Mail. “Politics can be cruel that way.” But politics was equally cruel to the other two leaders the Liberals had in the last five years, Paul Martin and Stephan Dion. Martin, who came to power highly anticipated after serving as finance minister for the better part of a decade, drove the party to its first election loss to the Conservatives in twelve years. Martin’s successor, Dion, similarly failed to gain traction with voters. Maybe, just maybe, the Liberal problem was much larger than the leadership failings of Michael Ignatieff, very real as those were.

In fact, the roots of the party’s problems can be found in what might be called the Liberal Paradox: the success of programs initiated and implemented by the Liberals has been the very factor responsible for their downfall. As the Liberals have found out the hard way, what is good for the country is not necessarily good for the party.

The Liberal Paradox began with Pierre Trudeau. In 1981-1982, Prime Minister Trudeau tackled and achieved the patriation of the Constitution, granting Canada full and final political independence from the United Kingdom. It was a tremendous step symbolically and substantively for Canada, a country that permanently struggles to remain unified. All provinces endorsed the 1982 Constitution Act—all, that is, except for Quebec. The province simply did not (and probably still does not) want to be a full, normal member of the country. The Liberals have not won a majority of Quebec’s seats since the 1980 election. They essentially turned the seat-rich province over to the Bloc Quebecois, which advocates full independence for Quebec. In pursuing his greatest achievement—the uniting of a fractious, diverse land—Trudeau lost a majority of Quebecers for his party.

Similarly, in 2003 Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien introduced campaign finance laws that put McCain-Feingold to shame. Corporate contributions were capped at $1,000 and individual donations at $5,000. Most observers agreed that the bill was a terrific way of maintaining citizen control over the democratic process. The nonprofit watchdog group Democracy Watch called it a “huge step forward.” As the leading party in the twentieth century, however, the Liberals had amassed an unbeatable combination of corporate and wealthy-individual donors; corporate contributions made up 60 percent of the funds gathered by the party in the 2000 federal election campaign. Chretien’s law clearly destroyed that advantage, handing the fundraising edge to the Conservatives, who maintained a stronger grassroots pool. Not for nothing did the then-Liberal Party President Stephen LeDrew memorably call Chretien’s bill “dumber than a bag of hammers” when it was proposed. In 2008, the Conservatives brought in more than $21 million (CAN) from over 112,000 contributors. The Liberals, meanwhile, took in less than $6 million from only about 30,000 contributors.

Why did Chretien push through a program that was correctly predicted to damage deeply his own party? Chretien said Canadians only have to look to the United States to see the effect that overwhelming donations by big business have on the political process. He said that while Canadian politics are not nearly as influenced by corporate dollars, “the perception is there.” Less altruistically, some have said Chretien wanted to strangle his longtime rival, Paul Martin, when he succeeded Chretien as Liberal leader. With a fundraising deficit, Martin was sure to find being prime minister difficult, and he did.

Whatever his motivations, Chretien’s law (alongside Trudeau’s maneuvers) helped dim Liberal fortunes long before Michael Ignatieff took over. It was inevitable that the Conservatives would reap the benefits of these structural changes. What wasn’t inevitable (or foreseen) was the political skill of Stephen Harper. Whatever one thinks of Harper’s policies, it is clear that he ranks with the Conservatives’ greatest leaders when it comes to political strategy. He succeeded in uniting the Progressive Conservatives with the far-right Canadian Alliance, turning Canadians conservatives into a force to be reckoned with. He survived five years of minority government before telling election-weary Canadian voters during the campaign that the only way to steady parliament was to grant the Conservatives a majority. “We need a stable, majority Conservative government,” Harper repeated, a formula notable for its word placement, with stability being emphasized. Harper suggested a third minority Conservative government would collapse almost immediately, pushing Canadians into yet another election. It was an arrogant, high-stakes argument, but it worked on Canadians, exhausted of going to the ballots. This year Harper was granted his majority.

Most frustrating is the Left’s inability to pull a Harper and unite. The Liberals, the NDP, and the Green Party, if combined, would have won a majority of the popular vote in May and would have won a majority of seats in the preceding elections. The inability of the Greens to join up with the NDP or Liberals is particularly galling, given that the former hold a single seat and nearly halved their vote total. Polls are showing that Canadians would like the three parties to join hands, but the NDP and Liberals have very different histories and, truth be told, philosophies. The NDP is a classic European democratic socialist party, while the Liberals are much more business- and American-friendly. The NDP advocated Canada leaving Afghanistan years ago, while the Liberals remain committed to keeping troops there to train the Afghan army; the NDP wanted to raise corporate tax rates, in contrast to the status quo–favoring Libs; and only the NDP called for an aggressive cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.

While certainly liberal by American standards, the Libs have long been seen as Canada’s centrist party. Just as importantly, for most of the twentieth century, the party was very good at occupying the center. Liberals governed 67 of the 100 years from 1900 to 2000, making them one of the most successful parties in any Western democracy. Appealing though it might be in the short term for Liberals to merge with their left-wing comrades, veteran party strategists are reluctant to sully the party’s brand for the sake of rectifying what they hope is a temporary, albeit unprecedented, dip in fortunes. Current Liberal Party president Alfred Apps argues that they must remain “a resolutely centralist political party.” Yet a merger is likely the only way to halt the Conservative juggernaut in the short and medium term.

Historic as the Liberals’ woes are, it is anything but certain that the party will permanently remain in the loser’s circle. It was not long ago that the Progressive Conservatives, the nucleus of Harper’s Conservatives, were thought to be nearly extinct. In 1993, the PCs were reduced to a pathetic two seats, and the right wing was split between them and the Reform Party (later renamed the Canadian Alliance). They spent a decade in the political wilderness after their 1993 rout, but not much more than a decade. Now they seem as unstoppable a political juggernaut as the Liberals seemed then. When the Liberals coasted to four consecutive electoral majorities in the 1990s—some spoke of a benign dictatorship—few would have thought that journalists would soon be writing the party’s obituary columns. And yet here we are.

Canada’s liberals and lefties and their allies abroad can take some solace in the knowledge that Harper is unlikely to break radically with Canada’s social compact. Unlike, say, George W. Bush, who upon winning reelection in 2004 declared his intention to use his political capital, Harper is far more cautious. Rather than gloat or announce his plans to turn Canada into a Heritage Foundation dream, the prime minister promised he would tread carefully. “Surprises are generally not well received by the public,” Harper said after the nation’s fourth election in seven years. “So we intend to move forward with what Canadians understand about us, and I think with what they’re more and more comfortable with.” Politicians should generally not be taken at their word, it is fair to say, but Harper’s success so far is owed to his ability to crawl instead of run. He has rejected right-wing pleas to axe Canada’s public health system or reopen debates on abortion and gay marriage.

Still, a Conservative is a conservative. Harper has cut sales and corporate taxes, avoided confronting climate change, and increased military spending. If Canada’s Left is to regain control over the country’s future, another 145 years will be too long to wait.

Jordan Michael Smith last wrote about Canada for Dissent in 2010.

Image: Stephen Harper (Richard Lewis, London Summit, 2009, Flickr cc)

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