Politics & Policy

Canadian Contortions

From the "worthwhile" to the exciting.

There seems to be a fixed conviction in the American mind that Canada and all things Canadian are dull. Connoisseurs of such matters may recall Michael Kinsley’s suggestion for the most boring newspaper headline possible, namely: “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” And any newspaper column that maintains otherwise has an uphill task.

Yet, I have argued in the past, Canadian politics, far from being dull, is in reality excessively exciting. Political parties in Canada emerge from nowhere (generally nowhere is on the western prairie), surge into power, squabble among themselves, lose credibility and office, and then disappear altogether or endure a purgatory-like half-existence as a purely regional force. While they last, however, they are roller coasters of innocent fun with all manner of eccentrics leaving the farm to liven up Ottawa.

Admittedly, there are also stable and thus arguably boring features in Canadian politics–but only two. The first is the dominance of the Liberal party–or as they are known, “the Grits.” The Grits are almost always in power because they seek to admit virtually every sector of Canadian society into their big tent and adjust their ideology to suit whatever the voters want at any one time.

The second stable force is the persistence of Quebec nationalism. It is persistent, of course, because it never succeeds in its stated objective of gaining independence for Quebec (though it came dangerously close to doing so in the 1995 referendum). But its unstated objective–using the threat of independence to squeeze money and special “rights” out of the other Canadian provinces–never fails.

Add the Grits to the grumbling appendix of Quebec secessionism, and you get the status quo of Canadian politics, in which the Liberals stay in power by promising the voters to keep Quebec inside the federation without making too many concessions. For those who share my perverted interest in these arcane contortions, Peter Brimelow’s book The Patriot Game: Canada and the Canadian Question Revisited provides shameful pornographic thrills.

Now there is a new revolution to enliven our jaded palates. In the 1993 election, the Progressive Conservative party went from being the majority governing party to winning a mere two seats in parliament and thus losing the status of an official party altogether.

It was replaced over the next few elections as the largest party on the right and as the official Opposition by, first, the Reform party (a sort of prairie populist outfit) and, next, by the Canadian Alliance, which was an attempt to broaden Reform’s appeal to Canadians outside the West by winning back the remnants of Progressive Toryism in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. These attempts were fiercely resisted by the so-called “Red Tories,” whose views were closer to the socialist third party, the New Democrats, than to any conservative philosophy, but who had traditionally exercised a dominant influence on the Progressive Conservatives in and out of power. And for good reason. By preventing their party from mounting a consistent and principled opposition to the leftward maneuverings of the Grits, the Red Tories pushed the entire political spectrum further to the left.

The Progressive Conservatives were an unusual example of historian Robert Conquest’s Second Law–”The behavior of any organization can best be predicted on the assumption that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies”–for the reason that they actually were controlled by a secret cabal of their enemies.

Last weekend, however, the Red Tories lost out heavily. Rank and file members of the two parties voted overwhelmingly–by 97 percent in the case of Canadian Alliance members and by 90 percent among the Progressive Tories–to “Unite the Right” and merge the two parties. The new party will now be the main official Opposition and is to be called simply “the Conservative Party of Canada.”

This new title is highly significant. For it acknowledges that the new party will be a center-right party rather than the zebra-like ideological hybrid going in all directions. For that reason it will probably lose some leading Red Tories like its former leader Joe Clark. But it will gain greatly in clarity of ideas and force of exposition.

That said, even this larger and more cohesive party has a hard fight ahead of it against an entrenched Liberal government under a new and popular prime minister, Paul Martin, who is regarded as much more effective and moderate than his predecessor Jean Chretien. In particular, its arrival promises three changes:

First, even if the new Conservative party loses the next election (now expected ahead of schedule in early spring), it will almost certainly increase significantly the number of parliamentary seats it wins. Many constituencies, especially in the central province of Ontario, were won by the Liberals in the last election with majorities smaller than the total vote of the two right-wing parties. Those seats are now vulnerable.

Second, the rise of a larger and more appealing Opposition party will drag Paul Martin’s government to the right, just as the Red Tories in the past allowed Liberals to move leftward without paying a price. Martin is a highly pragmatic politician who will happily disappoint his extremes in order to win votes and hold on to power. That would cause strains in the Liberal coalition, but it would also mean a friendlier attitude toward the United States from Ottawa.

And, third, it is the west rather than Quebec that is now in a secessionist mood, because the Liberals are imposing heavy costs on the oil economy of Alberta to comply with the Kyoto Treaty. Unless Martin yields on Kyoto–which would be a major climb-down both at home and internationally–there could be a serious constitutional crisis in our friendly neighbor to the north.

Since Canada’s new Tories are also likely to oppose Kyoto strongly for both economic reasons and partisan advantage, one possible solution to any such crisis would be a second general election that elected them on a platform of preferring Alberta to Kyoto.

Otherwise it is not absolutely inconceivable that such a crisis could end up with Alberta leaving Canada and applying to join the U.S. And surely that would be exciting.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”


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