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View From The North
October 17, 2008

Canadian Federal Election Leaves Social Liberalism Unchallenged
by Mark Wegierski

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 federal Parliament.
• 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 Canada.
• 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 country.

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 like Trudeau.

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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.

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