Six months ago, I would have said the future of Canada was looking pretty grim. Universal healthcare is a dead letter: the federal government has openly declared that the provinces should feel free to violate the Canada Health Act with impunity, and sooner or later one of them will. We have deliberately and systematically moved from the middle of the pack, climate change-wise, to somewhere near the bottom. The media has become a cesspool of conservative partisans and business association propagandists. Parliament is a meaningless talk shop — with more and more of that talk happening in secret. There are many worrying problems.
And above all, these changes were being put into place by a new neo-conservative political movement sweeping the country, sort of Reform on steroids. The Harper Conservatives — the sort of “states’ rights” clowns even the Americans normally won’t give the time of day to — already had a majority government. They were lending both considerable resources and highly trained personnel to allied parties from Victoria to Montreal. Several of these were expected to seize power very shortly. Some already did. A blue wave was sweeping the nation, and one could only guess what devastation would be left in its wake.
The danger has not passed, but for the first time, I feel a small amount of optimism. The dream that the Conservatives could successfully export their passive revolution to the provinces now lies in tatters. Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, newly Harperized under Tim Hudak, have accomplished the incredible: they’ve forced the Liberals into a legislative alliance with the NDP and let the NDP become a sort of fake Robin Hood, pushing forward a tiny but wildly popular tax on the rich. In Quebec, the ADQ is dead. Its successor, the CAQ, will be competitive in the next election, but years of anti-francophone shenanigans from Ottawa and corrupt buffoonery by Jean Charest’s Liberals mean that the Parti Quebecois may well regain power
And in British Columbia, inexplicably, the Harperites hitched their wagon to the immeasurably corrupt and unpopular Liberal Party and its new leader Christy Clark, sending her a stream of top-flight advisors. Now there’s a bitter civil war between the Liberals and the BC Conservative Party — sort of a kooky clone of Alberta’s Wildrose. How this will be patched up is anyone’s guess. There is a strong possibility of an NDP government being elected next year, with the tacit support of the Conservatives (who are correctly reasoning that the resulting electoral annihilation of the Liberals will leave themselves as the heirs apparent to the British Columbian right). In retrospect, the Harperites probably wish they’d backed John Cummins’s Conservatives rather than Christy Clark’s Liberals.
Which brings us to Alberta. The media has been telling us for weeks now that Wildrose was the government-in-waiting in the oil province. Like with the BC Liberals, a stream of Conservative helpers trundled from the Harperite offices in Ottawa off to Alberta to do their duty. Wildrose was the Harperites’ dream: a brand new populist party, clean and ideologically pure, ready to build the separatist “firewalls” that Harper had insisted every province should erect against federalism, democracy, and the rule of law.Wildrose would lead the way into our country’s bright conservative future.
Well, maybe. The Alberta PCs, a corrupt bunch of alleged centrists who have recently raised the banners of Red Toryism and promptly had their decades-long rule written off by the mainstream media, crushed Wildrose in spectacular form last night. The PCs were helped immeasurably by Wildrose’s decision to let loose the backbench candidates to freely speak their minds — whether it was about how gays and lesbians will shortly be roasted in eternal flames, or about how only white candidates can truly speak for all Albertans. Wildrose is still more powerful than it used to be — it’s the Official Opposition now, although it’s a remarkably tiny one. But it remains to be seen how they will manage to improve on their position now.
And federally? The Harperites have lost the plot. They are lurching blindly back and forth between election fraud charges like the robocall plot or the In-and-Out scheme, and accounting fraud charges like the G8 slush fund and the F-35 debacle. In the process they can still do considerable damage to this country, but whatever grace period they might have been enjoying has clearly expired. That Postmedia should lead the charge against the government over the robocalls, after being one of the Conservative Party’s staunchest supporters in the last election, is evidence of the sea change now underway.
It’s hard to tell where this will end up. None of the neoconservative parties who have suffered defeats lately have been permanently dismantled. Possibly they never will. Perhaps they’ll all win their next contests. But I think that looks decidedly less likely today than it did last summer.
In the meantime, we can make two safe predictions about the future of the Harperite movement — and what it will mean for Canadian democracy. First, Wildrose’s “whites are best” moment illustrates a lesson the federal Reformers learned long ago. There are too many kooks, clowns, and crackpots in their ranks. The only way to successfully win is to muzzle everyone and control everything centrally — in short, to run an extremely dictatorial party organization in which the Dear Leader always knows best and independent speaking and debate is simply not allowed.
We are already experiencing the consequences of this in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on stifling public affairs bureaucracy in Ottawa, combing over every word of every public statement to be made by every public official from Cabinet ministers all the way down to the office janitors, just to make sure nobody says anything untoward. Wildrose might have won had they stayed true to this principle. Democracy, however, is always the loser. I for one don’t mind at all when a political candidate declares that he thinks his pasty white skin makes him uniquely qualified for public office. Any and all such bigots should feel free to announce their prejudices as loudly as possible. That way we know who they are and we can react accordingly.
Second, it is equally clear that no Harperite-style party can ever win an easy majority in this country. Harper couldn’t push his Conservatives back over the 40% mark in the opinion polls over the past six months despite the fact that both Opposition parties were leaderless, the economic indicators were improving, and the party was quite faithfully implementing their core campaign promises — more jets, more prisons, and more spying on people’s computers and cell phones. Even in Alberta, the hard right could not push past the mid-30s, percentage wise.
To intelligent democratically minded Canadians, the Alberta results are yet more evidence of the obsolete stupidity of our first-past-the-post system. The PC “steamroller” didn’t get a majority of votes last night. Wildrose didn’t lose nearly as badly as the seat counts would suggest. In a proportional electoral system we would have a minority government in which the Liberals and the NDP held the balance of power. Weird for Alberta, true, but it would definitely be a wild and exciting ride.
Harperites, however, will draw a different lesson. The Albertan results prove that there is basically no configuration in which a hard right party can enjoy a comfortable majority for more than short periods of time. The Harperites in Ottawa are in the same situation. Dancing on the knife’s edge, holding onto slim majorities, is for them the best-case scenario. Even that relies on juggling an extraordinarily complex three-way race that keeps them in first place only through vote-splitting. Despite everything you may have heard about Harper wanting to eradicate the Liberals and fight out a “pure” slugfest between the NDP left and the Conservative right, the Conservatives need both the Liberal Party and the NDP intact.
This means that there can be no room for electoral reform. Ever. Harperite rule relies upon tweaking the first-past-the-post system to turn your roughly 35% of the popular vote into narrowly superior blocks of seats in Parliament. Harper’s strategists clearly are very skilled at this task — they’ve pulled it off three times in a row now — but even they cannot maintain this juggling act forever. Eventually they will slip up, and when they do, the Conservative Party is going to be utterly destroyed.
Yes, destroyed. The Liberals and the NDP do not need the Conservatives nearly as badly as the Conservatives need the Liberals and the NDP, and in the future, anything less than a majority will almost certainly result in the Parliamentary sidelining of the Conservative Party by a Liberal-NDP coalition. Losing power will mean losing Harper — if he isn’t already gone by then — and the battle for succession will escalate into a right-wing civil war the likes of which we haven’t seen since the days of the Canadian Alliance: the conflict currently being waged between BC Liberals and BC Conservatives, or Alberta PCs and Wildrose, except that the battle lines will be drawn in every riding association across the country.
Which, in turn, is why you’re not seeing the sort of slippage back into normal, calm, non-election politics which all the pundits insisted would be the peace dividend of majority government. For the Harperites, there can be no such peace. Their support level isn’t high enough to ensure a second majority victory, and nothing in their current policy platform is likely to get them there, either. They won their 2011 majority through a mixture of luck, cheating, and Liberal-NDP feuding. Barring a major boost in popularity, in order to win the next election, they will have to fashion an equally useful set of tools for 2015, and they’re busy doing that as we speak.
I honestly don’t know where Canadian politics will be in five years’ time. But it’s definitely looking a lot more uncertain now than I would have said it was even just a few months ago.Tweet