© Geoff Brookes
The Prime Minister of Canada – a Conservative – ponders his future. He feels like he has accomplished some great things, including a recent free trade deal. Taming the deficit isn’t quite accomplished yet, but it’s so close it might as well be done already, he thinks. He’s changed the tax system extensively, including reductions in corporate taxes. Some of his opponents – heck, sometimes the broad spectrum of public opinion – have portrayed him as authoritarian bordering on dictatorship. Nevertheless, he chuckles, and allows himself a smile of satisfaction.
Is it Stephen Harper? It could be. Or it could be Brian Mulroney. The description fits both men, at least within the lines that they might have written about themselves.
So far, Stephen Harper has nurtured the core of his party’s base sufficiently to maintain the support of about 30% of the electorate, according to most polls. It’s that extra few percentage points over 30% that will determine the outcome of the 2015 federal election.
And that’s where the storyline diverges from the Mulroney chapter. Mulroney did not maintain the traditional support of his party in Western Canada. That tactical failure led to creation of the Reform Party, which was an alternative conservative party. When the traditional “PC’s” and reform candidates split the conservative vote in Ontario, it resulted in a catastrophic conservative defeat in the 1992 federal election, as Jean Chretien’s liberals swept Ontario to a resounding victory. This pattern would be repeated until the two “conservative” parties finally re-united a decade later.
But something funny happened with that “ugly duckling”, the Reform Party, in 1991-92. It woke up and saw Preston Manning as its Daddy Duck. It thought that it stood for the common people. It made up rules for recalling politicians between elections. It wanted public plebiscites on key public issues. It wanted to shake up the “old boys”, “closed door” style of government. It wanted public consultation. Dang it all, it thought that it could make Canada’s Senate “equal, elected and effective”.
One of Manning’s earliest advisors was Stephen Harper. But Harper didn’t share Manning’s grassroots idealism.
“At this point, I did not fully appreciate that while Stephen was a strong Reformer with respect to our economic, fiscal and constitutional positions, he had serious reservations about Reform’s and my belief in the value of grassroots consultation and participation in key decisions. . .”
For several elections, the Reform party (and its successor parties) wandered in the political wilderness, with a substantial minority of seats in the House of Commons, but they never came close to forming the government of Canada.
Goodbye grassroots. Hello Napoleon.
Stephen Harper cobbled together a coalition of Progressive Conservatives and Reformers to create the new “Conservative Party of Canada”. The word “Progressive” disappeared, as did the historical concept of “red tories” – the inclusion of Conservatives with more centrist or left-leaning views. The grassroots concept disappeared as well…. despite the occasional lip service to the concept, and the intermittent, ambling “study” on reforming political institutions.
And, gosh darn it all, Harper did it – he won the 2006 election. He did it by imposing unprecedented control on the candidates, members, and executive of the Conservative party. Harper’s office would control the scripts, and even the timing or existence of public debates and forums. He ran a ship that was so tight it could have squeaked through the canals in Venice.
And, by jing, he did it a couple more times. And each time the scripts were more carefully vetted. Hey, why stop there? Why not control who is in the audience as well! Why didn’t we think of that before?
Orwell said it would be 1984 – the year Mulroney was first elected – but in fact it turned out to be 2015, with Stephen Harper. Or maybe Orwell had a “progressive” vision of the future, with increasingly artificial public speeches and venues.
I can only speak for myself on this point. I describe myself as a “small c” conservative. I believe in freedom of all kinds, as unfettered as possible by public institutions, subject only to the collective rule of law, with tolerance and respect for the rights of others. I believe in the value of every human life. I believe in small government, because I don’t want it to unduly restrict our inherent personal freedoms.
The strange thing about my “conservative” beliefs is that they prohibit me from voting for the Conservative Party of Canada in this election. I have no wish to vote for someone who wants to determine whether or not I am permitted to stand in the crowd, or what the speaker may say to me.
Stephen Harper, meet Bill Murray.