Heralding a new progressive Canada, from sea to shining sea

Debate: Be it resolved that Canada is progressive

Michael Den Tandt says yes, it’s evident in polls and policies across the country

Incremental conservatism, they call it – the notion that over a span of years, Canada and her people may move, inch by inch, into the “big blue tent” and beyond into the Conservative fold. Indeed, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks before crowds of Tory loyalists, this is precisely the shift he claims to have led.

“Well, you and people like you, in every corner of Canada, got to work,” Harper told a Calgary Stampede audience in July. “Volunteers, taxpayers, citizens, who loved this country and loathed what the other parties were doing to it. And we built a party, a party to carry conservative ideas to Ottawa.” Loud huzzahs.

It is a powerful idea. It resonates not only with Conservatives but also with their foes who also wish to believe the country has been transformed, though for different reasons. For New Democrats and many Liberals, the inexorable rightward creep is the dominant article of faith in the demonology underlying their view of Harper and his cabinet.

But is it true?

Without question, there is some small-c conservative policy emerging above the waterline now, mainly via the 2012 budget, in a way that was not evident in the minority years. Corporate taxes are coming down; the public service is shrinking. The budget is on track to come into balance by 2015. The immigration and refugee systems are being overhauled. Ditto Employment Insurance (EI). Old Age Security (OAS) is being tweaked, with the age of eligibility due to rise gradually to 67 from 65, beginning in 2023.

In a nod to Conservative symbolism, the monarchy is back in the names of the Canadian military services. The long-gun registry is, of course, dead; the Wheat Board monopoly is abolished; and Canada is a nominally less hospitable environment for marijuana entrepreneurs and petty gun criminals.

The Harper government is pursuing trade liberalization on a global scale, with Indian and European deals imminent. Perhaps most obvious, the government is now aggressively extractivist. The Conservatives have staked their political future on easing global market access to Canadian natural resources, whether by streamlining the environmental review process or by pushing for new pipeline construction (though, so far, with mixed results).

Moreover, one could argue that the country’s socio-political goal posts have been moved sharply and perhaps irreversibly rightward, simply by virtue of the new Conservative coalition between Ontario and the West, forged in the 2011 federal election. Of 166 Conservative seats won, 145 were west of the Ottawa River. Only five were in Quebec. This is deemed to herald the eclipse of the so-called Laurentian Consensus – a coalition of Eastern liberal elites – that ruled Canada virtually uninterrupted in the last century.

With Alberta on the ascendant economically and demographically, as the 2011 census confirms, and with 30 new seats pending in the House of Commons, mainly to the advantage of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia (Ontario gains 15 seats, Alberta and B.C. six each, Quebec three), it stands to reason that the West’s influence will only grow, as Quebec’s declines. Since Quebec is the most conventionally progressive major region of Canada, that does not seem to augur well for progressives.

However, there is another way to look at all of this.

Could the Conservatives in the House Please Stand Up?

We may bring it to light by posing this question: Is there a single policy measure in Budget 2012 that could not conceivably have been introduced by, say, a John Manley- or Frank McKenna-led Liberal government, given economic circumstances similar to those faced by the Harper government today? Setting aside questions of inflection and tone – that is, political personality and brand marketing – just how transformative has the great transformation been?

The last significant consumer tax cut in Canada – Harper lopped two percentage points off the GST in his first mandate – is now a fading memory.

New consumer tax cuts were promised during campaign 2011, but they take effect after the budget is balanced in 2015-2016. Fiscal conservatives within the Conservative Party of Canada were pushing hard, last winter, for more-aggressive action on spending. They were overruled. A proffered $8-billion in spending cuts became $5-billion on budget day.

It is true that immigration is being overhauled. Nonetheless, anyone with more than a cursory knowledge of the file will acknowledge that Minister Jason Kenney’s reforms are more commonsensical, cleaning up backlogs and harmonizing selection with economic needs, than ideological. Through the Tories, tenure levels of immigration have been steady at roughly a quarter million newcomers a year. There is no question of reductions, as might once have been the case under a “right-wing” conservative regime.

If anything, the number of newcomers is likely to rise. Conservatives have correctly identified immigrants as a potentially active source of support.

There has been a hue and cry from the opposition parties about reforms to OAS and EI. However, here too, the rhetoric mostly does not withstand scrutiny, from a strictly policy perspective. Raising the age of eligibility for OAS is common sense, given an ageing population, greater longevity and the looming labour shortage. It is unfair, most reasonable people would agree, that workers in seasonal industries can benefit annually from EI while others contribute year-round and collect seldom or not at all. People who are out of work should have a greater incentive to accept a job, even if it is not the perfect job, than to collect EI. This is not controversial on Main Street or particularly conservative.  

Crime and Punishment

The long-gun registry, though a flashpoint for Conservatives supporters, was always more of a rural-urban issue than a conservative-liberal one.

Polls showed that upwards of 80 per cent of respondents in rural areas favoured abolition of the registry. Even in New Democrat-held ridings in Northern Ontario, sentiment was overwhelmingly anti-registry. It makes sense, therefore, that although all Conservatives may have been opponents of the registry, not all opponents of the registry were Conservatives or even conservatives. This makes the registry an imperfect bellwether for trending right-wing sentiment.

Crime? Well, yes, the Conservatives have “cracked down” on some criminals, with Bill C-10, the Conservative’s omnibus crime bill. But on the biggest justice question of all, from a social or moral standpoint – capital punishment – they have steered well away. Why?

Despite polls showing that a clear majority of Canadians are in favour of capital punishment for certain crimes, the debate is deemed too fractious and potentially divisive. Possible costs outweigh perceived benefits.

Again, this is not a sign of rightward drift.

Trade and Health Care

The trade question is moot. Liberals under Jean Chrétien aggressively pursued trade liberalization, too. If anything, the Harper government’s move to broaden free trade beyond North America has a Canadian nationalist whiff.

Harper’s explicit promise to open up trade with China – a direct response to President Barack Obama’s delaying of the Keystone XL pipeline last winter – is the kind of veiled anti-American rhetoric that once drove Conservatives barmy.

Harper has not touched publicly funded and delivered health care. Federal health spending increases are set for 6 per cent annually to 2017, after which increases will be tied to nominal GDP, with a floor of 3 per cent annually. That may be cowardly, given the demographic and funding crisis facing the system in the middle term, but it is not particularly conservative.

“Third Rails”

Last but not least are the two issues that were once reputed to be at the heart of Harper’s social-conservative “hidden agenda”: a repeal of gay marriage and a new abortion law. Because they do internal polling, the Tories have long known what an Ipsos Reid poll recently showed, yet again. That is, most Canadians, upwards of 60 per cent, no longer care if gays and lesbians marry. Only a small fraction – 6 per cent – would see abortion banned.

Hence, the Conservatives’ unipolar focus on the economy above all other issues. It is, they believe, what all Canadians have in common.

Provincial Election Outcomes

Perhaps the best argument against the notion of the country’s inexorable rightward tilt, however, can be found in the provincial capitals.

In British Columbia, Liberal Premier Christy Clark – a conservative – is running a distant second in the polls behind the New Democrats. In Quebec, now former Liberal party leader and (former) Premier Jean Charest just lost against a resurgent Parti Quebecois. In Ontario last fall, an unpopular, scandal-plagued Liberal and liberal government led by Dalton McGuinty won re-election (albeit with a minority), partly due to a perception that the challenger, Conservative Tim Hudak, was making immigrants into scapegoats. Last spring in Alberta – putatively the most conservative of conservative bastions – Progressive Conservative Premier Alison Redford – a liberal – trounced up-and-comer Danielle Smith and her Reform-inflected Wildrose party.

That outcome was attributed to so-called bozo outbreaks among Smith’s candidates, in which they made socially conservative (read regressive) remarks that set Albertans’ teeth on edge.

The upshot, in terms of the national temper, is stark. The Harper government, like that of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin in the 90s, is free to make market-oriented, somewhat fiscally conservative adjustments to policy. It is not free to make radical free market-oriented reforms.

Nor is it free to introduce measures that offend the increasingly entrenched consensus that the state has no business meddling in the private, personal or moral lives of citizens. As Pierre Trudeau famously said in 1967, purloining a phrase from then-Globe and Mail editorial writer Martin O’Malley: “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.”

The new polarization of Canadian politics, in other words, is a chimera.

As a people, we remain, rather determinedly, what we have always been: socially progressive, fiscally conservative. The Harper Conservatives, albeit grudgingly, appear to have reconciled themselves to this reality.

It remains to be seen whether the New Democrats can do so or will do so.

Equally unknown is whether the Liberals, who once owned this particular patch of political earth, intend to try to take it back.


Michael Den Tandt is a national political columnist for Postmedia News, which is based in Ottawa. His columns appear regularly in the National Post, Ottawa Citizen, The Gazette, The Chronicle Herald, Calgary Herald, Edmonton Journal, The Vancouver Sun and on Canada.com, among other publications.


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