Politics & Policy

O Conservatives

Canada’s right-leaning party has a real chance for reform.

No longer is Canada’s Conservative Party hamstrung by a minority government. On Monday, 61 percent of registered voters trekked to the polls to hand Prime Minister Stephen Harper his first clear majority in the House of Commons: 167 seats out of 308 total. Claiming 102 seats was the New Democratic Party (NDP), a left-wing wallflower that has suddenly blossomed into the loyal opposition.

Because of Conservatives’ tenuous hold on power, Canadians have held four elections in the past seven years. “Now that we have a majority government, it will produce more stability,” says Ben Eisen, a policy analyst at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (FCPP). It also will provide greater clarity.

“It looks as if Canada is moving to a two-party system, where you have a choice on the right and a choice on the left,” says Peter Holle, president of FCPP. Canada has almost eliminated the one quirk in its system: the Bloc Québécois. Since 1990, the separatist movement has hollered for Québec’s independence — and murmured its assent to receiving subsidies instead. But in this election, Quebecers said, “ne plus”: The Bloc’s share of seats plummeted from 49 to 4. Gilles Duceppe, the first Bloc MP to be elected and the party leader since 1997, lost his seat and resigned on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the NDP cashed in on the Bloc’s ruins. Forty-five of the 68 seats the NDP won came from former Bloc districts. “I think people in Québec essentially got bored with the Bloc,” says Holle. “They’re in an environment where there’s a tradition of big government. Québec is a left-leaning province, and the platform of the NDP was pretty weak from a conservative point of view.” Among the NDP’s populist promises were a cap on credit-card interest rates, a sales-tax rebate for household heating, a hike in the corporate tax rate, and oh, by the way, a cap-and-trade system.

More surprising, however, was the collapse of the Liberal party — which once touted itself as the “natural governing party” of Canada. After losing 43 seats, the erstwhile juggernaut is now a third party for the first time since its founding in 1867. Party leader Michael Ignatieff, a former professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, lost his seat and resigned the day after the election. “The Liberal party moved to the left during the election,” Holle reasons. “I think people on the left said, ‘Might as well vote for the real thing.’ More right-leaning liberals who were aghast at the NDP’s potentially gaining power would have then split off to vote for the Conservatives. The bottom line is, the Left split the vote.”

The Liberals’ demise was so unexpected that the even the NDP’s placeholder candidates won — including four college students. Pierre-Luc Dusseault, at 19 years old, became the youngest MP elected in Canada’s history. Another young candidate, Ruth Ellen Brousseau, won her French-speaking district despite living three hours away, speaking little to no French, and taking a vacation in Las Vegas during the campaign.

Whatever the Liberals’ travails, the Conservatives now are fully in control. “There’s an opportunity for the Conservative party to put in place an aggressive reform strategy,” Eisen says. And there’s evidence they have one: Harper has promised to continue a scheduled decrease in the corporate tax rate to 15 percent. He’s also pledged to end government subsidies to political parties. “The Conservative government has been committed to strengthening and deepening the relationship with the United States,” Eisen adds. “They’ll likely maintain a policy of free trade.”

All of which is welcome news. Unfortunately, the Conservatives also have a history of tepid leadership. From their admittedly weak political position, the Conservatives allowed government spending to increase at a rate faster than that warranted by the growth in population and economic activity. As a result, government spending’s share of gross domestic product actually rose from 15.2 in 2006 – when a longtime Liberal government lost power — to 18 percent in 2009. During the recession, the Conservatives even shepherded their own stimulus package through the commons.

David Henderson, a research fellow at the Hoover Institute, has his own doubts: “[The Conservatives] have a bill that they’ll now be able to pass that would impose some pretty extreme surveillance of the Web. It’s kind of a USA PATRIOT Act, but maybe more so. And Harper’s really stepped up the drug war in Canada — more so than his predecessors. On the economic stuff, I’m happier. So it’s a mix to me.”

For the first time since 1988, Conservatives hold the reins. Mr. Harper already has earned a place in the history books as the third Conservative prime minister to win three consecutive elections. But if he wants that place to be larger than a footnote, he must avail himself of this opportunity to enact real conservative reforms.

— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute. 


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