If Canadian elections bore Americans, don’t feel bad, they bore Canadians, too. Still, the recent one was the most exciting in some time. Not because of who won (the Liberals–surprise!) but because June 2004 may end up being to Canada’s conservative movement what November 1964 was to American conservatism.
Barry Goldwater’s legacy was to unite social conservatives and Western anti-establishment and anti-government populists. Stephen Harper, Canada’s Conservative-party leader, may well leave the same mark on this country. Here are the key similarities:
‐Smaller government: The Conservative platform called for nearly $40 billion (U.S. $30 billion) in personal- and corporate-tax cuts, generous child-tax benefits, and a significantly lowered debt to GDP ratio. It firmly opposed the Kyoto environmental accord, and supported a role for private enterprise in the state-run healthcare system (nationalized healthcare being the third rail of Canadian politics).
‐Social conservatism: The party believes that “marriage is and should remain the union of one man and one woman” and promised to allow all members of parliament a vote of conscience on same-sex marriage (all the other parties support its legalization). It outlined a tough-on-crime program, opposed “judge-made law,” and is the home of Canada’s religious right–small though that group may be.
‐The West wants in: “We’re going to bring this part of the country into power,” said Harper on the campaign trail. Indeed, of the 92 parliamentary seats between Manitoba and the Pacific, the Conservatives won 68 to the Liberals’ 14. But the Liberals dominated other, more vote-rich regions, thereby condemning Westerners to yet another round of political under-representation.
‐Those darn elites: The Conservatives have their share of populists, individualists, and others who have grown tired of central Canadian and urban lawmakers whose policies, they feel, tend to be socialist boondoggles. Exhibit A: Canada’s national gun registry, now $1.5 billion over budget, applies to farmers just as much as it does to the gun-less urbanites who demanded it.
If all this is old hat to Americans, it’s brand new to Canadians, who’ve never before had a national party–let alone the official opposition–draw its inspiration from the American conservative movement. Canada’s old Progressive Conservative party was rooted in Great Britain; it was the party of Empire, Protestantism, and Tradition.
But Canada’s Conservatives are a new federal party, formed by the merger (more of a buyout), in late 2003, of the Western-based Reform/Alliance party and the remnants of the old Progressive Conservatives. The two parties were as different from one another as the Republicans of George W. Bush are from the party of Prescott Bush. Referring to the Goldwater delegates at the 1964 Republican convention, Henry Cabot Lodge is reported to have said, “What in God’s name has happened to the Republican party?” Similarly, referring to the 2003 merger, former Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark (who supported the Liberals in the election) declared that “some equate it to a death in the family. I regard it rather as a death of the family.”
So what lessons should Canadian conservatives draw from these parallels? Three come to mind.
First, be patient. The Goldwater election only began the consolidation of disparate conservative interests into the Republican tent. From tax-cut-and-growth policies to a new balance between individual and collective needs, Canadians are still relatively new to American conservative ideas, despite some experience with them at the provincial level over the past decade.
However, a growing number of conservative think tanks and like-minded lobby groups (such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation), plus an increased willingness by the media to give conservative ideas a fair hearing, suggest a growing influence in this country. For instance, no party that today hopes to win power in Canada can run on the promise of tax hikes. Furthermore, while immigrants to Canada have tended in the past to vote Liberal, immigration now primarily comes from socially conservative countries. Though evidence is scarce, this at least suggests a possible openness to conservative ideas.
Second, let Liberals be liberals. Goldwater’s defeat evolved into Reagan’s victory in large part because of what came in-between. Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Carter expanded the federal government far more than the average American ultimately tolerated.
At 41 percent, total government revenue as a percentage of GDP is already high in Canada and is poised to climb higher. The new Liberal government has pledged to increase public spending on health care and education and has promised to launch new big-ticket items such as a national day-care program. Given the scandalous and wildly irresponsible use of public money that was a hallmark of the previous Liberal government–it’s one reason why they were reduced from a majority to minority government–Canadians may soon rebel against paying more and more for poorer and poorer services.
Third, be a big-tent party. The election showed the damage some of the more wild-eyed conservatives can cause in attracting moderate voters. Conservative MP Randy White’s outburst–”To heck with the courts, eh? I think most people are getting sick and tired of judges writing the laws to suit themselves”–is good populist sentiment but is not the path to electoral success. Similarly, when the Republicans can’t control their more radical impulses–think of Pat Buchanan’s “There is a religious war going on in our country” speech at the 1992 GOP convention–the party tends to suffer at the polls.
This does not mean once again becoming a “centrist” party, though establishment types have predictably begun to suggest that as the route to power. Canadians “are the most stubborn centrists that can be found anywhere” writes one national columnist. In their current form, he writes, the Conservatives “will probably never be able to overturn history and convince Canadians to move far enough to the right” to embrace them. But this argument mistakenly assumes that for Conservatives to win, a majority (or plurality) of Canadians would first have to consider themselves ideologically conservative. This is incorrect. The challenge is to have Canadians believe the Conservatives, not the Liberals, represent mainstream opinion.
Of course, there are real ideological and temperamental differences between Americans and Canadians. We did not found our country on a tax revolt. We are uncomfortable with overtly religious politicians. To the extent that we define ourselves against Americans, we will remain less conservative as long as you are more conservative. On the other hand, people do change. In 1988, 53 percent of Canadians voted to oppose the Canada-U.S. free-trade agreement. Today, 70 percent of Canadians support NAFTA. Think of establishment Canada today as the equivalent of the New York Times editorial page; it won’t turn into the Wall Street Journal overnight.
Like Goldwater, Canada’s Conservatives lost the election. But, also like Goldwater, the Conservatives demonstrated that Canadians now have a clear alternative to the established liberal political landscape of this country, one that tilts distinctly to the right.
–Dan Dunsky is the producer of Diplomatic Immunity, a foreign-affairs program on TVOntario in Canada.