A liberal country?
On September 7, 2008, Stephen Harper, the Conservative Prime Minister
of Canada, called an election for October 14, 2008. After a relatively
short campaign of 37 days, the results are in.
The Conservatives have strengthened their minority government, but
they have failed to win a majority of the 308 seats up for grabs in
the federal Parliament.
• The Conservatives won 143 seats (38 percent of the countrywide
vote) but faired poorly with Quebec voters, where they only held
on to 10 seats, the same as before.
• The Liberals rather calamitously fell to 76 seats (26 percent
of the countrywide vote).
• The Bloc Quebecois maintained a total of 50 seats (10 percent
of the vote countrywide, but all of it was in Quebec, the only area
in which they ran candidates) as the separatist voice in the Canadian
• The New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s socialist third-party,
significantly increased its total seats to 37 (with 18 percent of the
countrywide vote) — 17 from Ontario and 9 from British Columbia.
• The Green Party won 7 percent of the countrywide vote but
not a single seat — as its votes were widely scattered across
• Two independent candidates were elected.
The circumstances of the election were said to generally favor Harper — a
weak Liberal leader and the splitting of the left-of-center vote among
the Liberals, NDP, and Greens. Nevertheless, he did not win a majority,
largely because of the anti-Conservative frenzy of the media, as well
as his failure to break through in Quebec. The lack of success in Quebec
was attributed to his rather maladroit proposal of cutting $45 million
in funding to the arts and his “get-tough-on-crime” proposals,
which were interpreted as “putting 14-year old kids in jail.”
Not surprisingly, the Harper Conservatives failed to win any seats
in two large, very multicultural megalopolises of Toronto and Montreal
and only nibbled at the margins of Vancouver. Indeed, it could have
been predicted that Harper would face great difficulties, as Toronto — the
media, cultural, and commercial hub of the country — was implacably
opposed to the Conservatives.
Few today remember that, up through the 1950s, Toronto was considered
a Conservative bastion, “Tory Toronto.” Since the 1960s,
four decades of activist, “transformational” politics by
the Liberals and NDP have annihilated the older Toronto — and
the country has followed. The result is that the values of a few trendy
and/or grungy neighborhoods in Toronto are being imposed on the whole
Without a majority government secured, Harper cannot even breathe
a whisper in the direction of endeavoring to carry out some activist, “transformational” politics
of his own. Indeed, the threat of a hidden agenda has been the staple
of Liberal, NDP, and Bloc scaremongering tactics against the Conservatives.
It was undoubtedly within Harper’s discretion to veto the giving
of the Order of Canada (Canada’s highest civilian award), to
Dr. Henry Morgentaler — one of the most prominent and strident
pro-abortion activists in Canada. It was within his discretion to voice
concern over the unchecked reign of the federal human rights commission
and similar federal tribunals, which are stifling freedom of speech.
Harper chose to not do anything that could be interpreted as substantively
Conservative, presumably to afford him the chance of finally winning
a majority in the federal Parliament. Then, during the campaign, he
was tripped up by the cuts to arts funding and by the proposals to
tighten the Criminal Code.
Harper might now have some room to maneuver in at least one area,
namely, strengthening the context of affordable family formation in
Canada. A number of changes to the tax code and social funding could
increase the incentives for Canadians to have children within stable
family structures. A program of generalized tax cuts could in some
contexts strengthen the family.
The most essential political problem of Canada is that it lacks a
fairer balance and debate between the Right and the Left, such as that
which arguably occurs in the United States. Since the 1960s, the local
Tory and Conservative traditions in Canada have been almost annihilated.
Canada noticeably lacks meaningful right-leaning infrastructures such
as foundations and think tanks; the Intercollegiate Studies Institute
(ISI) is probably one of the most effective examples of such in the
United States. Canada has also lacked a galvanizing Conservative magazine
like the early National Review, despite various attempts to get such
a publication underway.
After the assaults on traditional Canada initiated by Liberal Prime
Minister Lester Pearson (1963-1968) and spectacularly continued by
Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1968-1984, except for nine months
in 1979-1980), a desiccated Conservatism became the main tendency of
the Progressive Conservative Party (the adjective had been added already
in 1942). Thus, the Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney, who won
two huge majorities in 1984 and 1988, was a social liberal. The Canadian
media climate in the 1980s, before the Conrad Black media revolution
of the 1990s, and before the coming of the Internet as a mass medium,
was itself worse for Canadian Conservatives than today.
The Reform Party was formed in 1987 by Preston Manning as a voice
of Conservative and Western Canadian protest. Becoming a countrywide
party in 1991, Reform won about 20 percent of the vote in the 1993
and 1997 federal elections. However, the vote-splitting with the federal
Progressive Conservatives — and the media and intellectual climate
of total derision against the Reform Party — assured the Liberal
Party of a comfortable majority in those elections. The Canadian Alliance
(officially called the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance) created
in 1998-2000 failed to win the November 2000 election. Finally, the
merger of the Canadian Alliance and the federal Progressive Conservatives
in December 2003 created a reconstituted Conservative Party, of which
Stephen Harper won the leadership.
In the June 2004 election, a Conservative majority may have been possible,
but Harper, tired of the anti-Conservative media frenzy, withdrew to
Alberta in the last week of the campaign. A Conservative majority might
also have been possible in the January 23, 2006, election. Now, Harper’s
third attempt has come so close — and yet so far.
Canada truly needs several years of a Conservative majority government
headed by someone who is to some extent a visceral Conservative — something
that has not been the case since the early 1960s. If the Liberals had
their decades of a radical, thoroughgoing, total Liberal like Pierre
Elliott Trudeau, then surely a Conservative like Harper (who is clearly
moderate and cautious by temperament) could finally be given a chance
to exercise some real power in Canada. However, the social and cultural
context of Canada is indeed becoming increasingly weighted against
the Conservatives — precisely because of the multi-year, unapologetic,
unabashed, activist, “transformational” politics of figures
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Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer, social critic, and historical
researcher and is published in major Canadian newspapers, as well as
in U.S. scholarly journals such as Humanitas,
Review of Metaphysics, and Telos, and in U.S. magazines such as Chronicles
and The World & I. His writing has also appeared in Polish, British, and German publications.
See author's bio and other articles.
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