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Hard right? Hardly

Paul Wells says social conservatism is on the rise; Andrew Coyne disagrees


 

Just so we’re clear: I don’t really care whether the Harper government conforms to one definition of conservatism or another. Neither do I carry any brief for conservatism, as such, though I might hold conservative views on specific issues. When I say that conservatism is dead in Canada, I am not mourning or despairing. I am merely stating a fact.

The reason that’s worth stating is that there is a party that continues to carry on as if it were conservative, though it conforms to no known definition of the word. And all right, yes, I’d prefer that people should be who they say they are and do what they say they will do, and that things should be called what they are and not what they are not.

So I suppose in that sense I should be delighted to find, via my friend Paul Wells, that I’ve got it all wrong: that the Conservatives are in fact robustly, unabashedly conservative, that indeed conservatism is “on the march across Canada.” Why, it’s the biggest swing to the right in “half a century.” It’s Harper’s hard right turn.

This is contrarian analysis at its finest. Under the Conservatives, spending, which conservatives once promised to cut, has been growing at a rate of 8 per cent a year. The budget, which conservatives once aimed to balance, is now in deficit to the tune of $54-billion, with literally no end in sight. Corporate subsidies, which conservatives once vowed to eliminate, continue to be doled out by the billions every year; much of the auto industry has been nationalized; the number of regional development agencies has increased by one. Conservative MPs now run around the country boasting of the pork they are bringing home to their ridings, complete with novelty-cheque signing ceremonies.

The top marginal rate of income tax remains where it was a generation ago, while the tax system has been further complicated with the addition of a slew of special credits for children’s sports, transit passes and other good causes. Employment Insurance has been larded up with supplementary payments that make a return to insurance principles more remote than ever. The Canada Pension Plan has been allowed to swell to Caisse de Depot-like dimensions. The great statist vehicles of the 20th century — Canada Post, Via Rail, the CBC — likewise continue to stalk the land, subsidies and privileges intact, while private oligopolies in air travel, finance and telecommunications remain largely protected from foreign competition. All were once the objects of conservative reform efforts. No longer.

The political reforms that were the bedrock of democratic conservatism in the age of the Reform party, aimed at giving more power to ordinary MPs and, via referendums, to the citizens at large, are now but a memory, replaced by a PMO whose all-controlling zeal exceeds even previous records. The philosophy that distinguished the conservative approach to constitutional matters — decentralizing power to the provinces, commitment to the equality of provinces and citizens — has been replaced by massive increases in transfers to the provinces generally and a raft of special concessions — powers, money, an ill-defined “national” status — to Quebec.

But that is to look at the matter through the narrow lens of fiscal, economic, democratic and constitutional conservatism. Rather than obsessing on such arcane matters — you know, the whole size and role of government thing — friend Wells encourages us to see the glass as socially full. Because even as it was giving ground on every one of all those other fronts, the government has been delivering for social conservatism. Why, “look at the victories” social conservatives have won, Wells suggests, “in just the past few months.” Yes, let’s.

FOREMOST AMONG them, of course, is that interminable business at Rights and Democracy — a quasi-non-governmental-organization that few people had heard of before it blew apart. Granted, it’s an interesting story, in a car-crash kind of way, and I’m sure the party’s supporters are cheered by the general tenor of the directors the Conservatives have appointed to its board, but really, is it that big a deal? Is there a country on this earth that is one whit more democratic or rights-aware on account of this agency’s activities? Will it make an ounce of difference to the future course of the Middle East that an $11-million organization (that’s a little less than one half of one ten-thousandth of federal spending, if you’re scoring) now tilts in the same pro-Israel direction as the government that pays its freight?

Second, the Conservatives have given a $3.2-million grant to Youth For Christ. Imagine that: a faith-based NGO receiving federal funding. Whatever will they think at, say, KAIROS?

Third, the Conservatives are opposed to providing heroin addicts with a safe place to shoot up, namely at Vancouver’s Insite centre. Probably a Liberal government would have taken a different view, though I don’t notice the party agitating to open more such centres. Indeed, Insite is the only legal safe-injection facility in any jurisdiction in North America. So is it the Conservatives who are to the right, or the Liberals who are to the left?

Oh, but I forgot the crime bills. You know: the whole tough-on-crime thing. But exactly how much tougher-on-crime is Canada, four years after the Conservatives took power? When Rahim Jaffer was let off with a $500 warning for allegedly driving-drunk-while-speeding-with-cocaine-in-the-car, it was pointed out — correctly — that he received no special treatment, that in fact this sort of thing happens all the time in the court system: 50 per cent of all drug charges are stayed, withdrawn, or otherwise plea-bargained away. And while the Conservatives complain that their crime bills have been held up by the Senate, the truth is that the bills would probably have passed by now if they weren’t proroguing Parliament every six weeks. But then, they probably best serve their purpose by remaining unpassed, as a way of keeping the base ginned up.

Which is sort of my point. The Wells argument is that, while each of these anecdotes may not look like much on its own, “taken together” they add up to quite a lot. But do they? Is this, as Wells claims, an incremental but nonetheless sweeping social-conservative agenda, which the Tories’ other concessions and retreats have served to obscure? Or does it amount to a few largely symbolic baubles the government has thrown in the socons’ direction, knowing they’re so starved for affection they’ll take anything?

I’d argue the latter. That socons seem pleased is more a statement of how thin their “agenda” really is than of how far the Conservatives have gone to appease them. It may be that “they have not had so much good news from Ottawa in half a century.” But that’s not saying much. The truth is that even on the socon scale the Conservatives barely register.

LET’S TAKE the single most important issue to social conservatives, the issue that in large part defines the movement: abortion. What has the Harper government done about abortion? Answer: nada. Canada remains the only country in the developed world with no abortion law of any kind — a state of affairs that was never legislated, never decreed from the bench, and has never been supported in polls by more than about a third of the electorate.

Sorry, did I say they haven’t done anything? That’s not quite right. It is the stated policy of the current government, not only that it will not introduce an abortion law, but that it will not allow any of its members to introduce such a bill — that, indeed, it does not want to see the issue even debated. In its militance in defence of the status quo, the Harper government has in fact gone rather further than the Chretien government.

But what am I saying? What is that beside the earth-shattering news — one of Wells’s “victories” — that the government of Canada will not pay to promote abortion in Third World countries. They’re paying to perform abortions here in Canada, you understand, hundreds of thousands of them since they took power, but they are no longer proselytizing for them a half a world away. “Another such victory and…”

The other issue that Conservative apologists like to point to is day care. The official story is that the Conservatives, by defeating the Paul Martin government, saved the country from the horrors of state-run day care, substituting in its place the $100-a-month Universal Child Care Benefit.

Except it isn’t in place of government care. It’s in addition to it. It may have escaped most people’s notice, but the Conservatives have continued to fund provincial day care programs — maybe not on the scale the Martin Liberals would have, but still plenty, and in diametric opposition to their own rhetoric. Budget 2007 boasts of providing “an investment of $250 million per year starting in 2007–08 to provinces and territories for the creation of new child care spaces.” That’s on top of existing funding of $850-million a year “in support of federal-provincial-territorial arrangements established in 2000 and 2003 for early childhood development and early learning and child care.” So that’s $1.1-billion a year for something that social conservatives are supposed to view as an abomination.

Here, as elsewhere, Conservatives are careful to pay lip service to socon concerns. Wells quotes a Conservative strategist: “This is the future of conservatism. This is an absolutely fundamental question: do we take children out of homes so they can be raised by the state, or do we put money into homes so parents can raise them?” To which the Conservative answer is: yes.

In truth, the Conservatives differ little with their opponents, on these as much as other issues, except in their utter devotion to whatever is popular with the public. Wells argues that “social conservatism offers Harper what he has always coveted: a sharply divided electorate where he owns a sizable chunk of the voters and the other parties fight over what’s left.” But he also points out how quick the other parties have been to ape the Conservatives on an issue like crime. But isn’t that the point? That’s where the public is. The Conservatives may be to the right of their opposition. But they’re smack dab in the middle of public opinion.

BUT TAKE heart, small-c conservatives. It’s all part of a Cunning Plan:

“The days of winning on economic conservatism are over,” the Conservative adviser told me. “No real conservative government is going to win without having a significant portion of our agenda on social issues.”

An election run on free trade, deficit reduction, tax cuts and productivity is one where any of the major national parties can appeal to voters who care about those issues—certainly the Liberals, under Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin or Michael Ignatieff, perhaps even one day the NDP. “If we have an election about deficits, it’s going to be, do we get rid of them in three years or four years? It’s not going to be, do we get rid of deficits or not?”

That’s true: any of the major parties could, if they chose, appeal to voters on economic issues. The only problem is, none of them are. The reason we’re not going to have an election about deficits is not because all parties agree on the necessity of getting rid of them. It’s because they’re all agreed not to do anything about them, or certainly not until after the election. Tax cuts? Productivity? Who is talking about any of that?

The one exception is trade, where the Conservatives have been pursuing an aggressively pro-free trade agenda, signing deals with a number of smaller states, launching negotiations with the European Union and preparing to do the same with India. Yet here again this has been largely for lack of any real opposition from the Liberals, or even the NDP. And while the Tories invoke the gospel of free trade out of one side of their mouth, they remain stout defenders of supply management in international talks, just as the Liberals were.

That would be the policy of imposing quotas and tariffs to drive up the price of such essential foods as milk, eggs and poultry to three or four times world levels. But there I go again, obsessing over one of those economic issues. Single mothers trying to feed their kids just need to be reminded: the Conservatives are all about family values.


 

Hard right? Hardly

  1. Ooooh *snap!

    Gonna be an awkward moment at the water cooler tomorrow, look out Wells!

    In other news: Conservatives not conservative, "conservatism" proves to be nothing more than a brand, Canadians like Canada the way it is.

    Good piece though, AC, I always appreciate your clarity both in thought and the written word.

    • ""conservatism" proves to be nothing more than a brand, Canadians like Canada the way it is."

      Are conservatives considered Canadians or do we have to pass political ideology tests before we qualify?

      • We will add your ideological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service us. Resistance is futile.

      • Hey, you're the guy who's always complaining that our Conservative party is not at all conservative.

        Why? Because Harper is chasing the votes. And they're not going to be won with a platform that meets the definition of "conservative". So he tacks to the "centre", where most Canadians are.

  2. Not quite a "Slow March of Fascism," but still a pretty damn good in-house rebuttal. This magazine (and its attached) website may have its trashy moments, but it is still a fine read.

  3. Chretien's greatest lesson that Harper is learning to master is get the masses (voters) to ignore the government or be hypnotized by tokens.
    Given the options however, it's become very easy to succeed by doing nothing. ( Success being measured by votes survived and days in power. )

  4. Andrew & Wells, this is a good one you've got going here. The opposite of the sort of superficial "analysis" you get in a lot of other quarters (e.g., Lawrence Martin). You two and Chantal Hebert are some of the few political writers in this country with your lights on upstairs.

    • Amen to that.

    • Strongly disagree.

      Your statement is like the parrot saying; Cookie, Cookie! Give me a cookie………….

  5. "When I say that conservatism is dead in Canada,…I am merely stating a fact."

    Yes, the grade of the slippery slope doesn't seem to be levelling for the SH government. Hard to even call them neo-cons. I don't mind them moving from the right, but they don't seem to have a plan; and they are so inconsistent, hypocritcal and manipulative on some key issues, its hard to bear.

  6. Put the Coyne and Wells pieces together, and you can make a case that Harper is falling into the trap that John Kerry found himself in in the 2004 election, where the only people who didn't think he was a dangerous liberal were liberals themselves, who thought he was too conservative. The goal is to look conservative to conservative, and moderate to moderates, not the other way around!

  7. "This is contrarian analysis at its finest. Under the Conservatives, spending, which conservatives once promised to cut, has been growing at a rate of 8 per cent a year. "

    If anything, that shows that Conservatism is a live and well in Canada. Stephen Harper is following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Brian Mulroney…

  8. The only question that remains is whether Harper would act differently if he had a majority. Given Harper's ruminations on social conservatism, the answer appears to be yes. Given that the Harper government originally introduced a deflationary budget into the face of the most serious economic downturn in 60 years and the potential collapse of the financial system, the answer appears to be yes on the fiscal side as well.

    I guess some may argue that Harper has matured in government and learned how to govern from the centre. He and his government cannot simultaneously argue that they were forced by the opposition due to the government's minority status into spending like drunken sailors. Either he is governing from the centre by choice, in which case he may well have matured politically, or he is governing from the centre because he is constrained by the minority parliament and the opposition parties to do so, in which case there is still reason to fear what a majority Harper government would do if you are in the centre or on the left. If you are on the right, hope springs eternal.

    • What the hell are drunken sailors doing in the political centre?

  9. Well the two major parties are dancing around small distinctions in a right-leaning atmosphere, the direction of the their rhetoric being somewhat different.

    But that's not a right wing tax plan, that's simply a bad tax plan. The tiny targeted tax rebates are meaningless in the grand scheme of things, the other stuff if just foolhardy (Mulroney already pushed the highest tax bracket as low as is realistic).

  10. Oh, and in case my meaning wasn't as limpid as spring water, governing by ideology is proof of political immaturity. No single worldview can explain all phenomena, much less act as the ultimate arbiter of policy.

    • It's been interesting to watch your gradual transition from "Harper=scary right wing ideologue" to "Harper: I admit he's governing from the centre, but since it's possible he's not doing so by choice, there is still reason to fear what he would do with a majority."

      As for the "deflationary" budget estimate; if most of the "stimulus" had been avoided (with the exception of the Home Reno Tax Credit and a few other confidence-building measures), I'm pretty sure we'd be where we are today, minus the $100 billion hangover.

      • What has been even more interesting is to watch Harper's transformation from an opposition leader who once had principles to a Prime Minister who has only one guiding principle – power at any cost.

      • I'm not. A large portion of that stimulus was mental. It was that investors were shown that, "we're taking this whole thing seriously" which the previous budget did not do in the slightest. Would we be recovering today if the banking industry had looked on and decided, "We don't dare risk expanding credit until we're sure we've got our own bookes completely under control."

        Government stimulus is what I think made the banks willing to loosen up the very small bit they did.. because they knew more money would be coming to people through various things, so there was reason to think they may be paid back.

        • Of course, we'll never really be able to prove or disprove what you and CR are disagreeing on; it's what historians call a "counter-factual" (e.g., What if Hitler hadn't invaded Russia?). But I will say this on your side of the ledger — I deal with a lot of business executives in my work, most of them are solidly right-of-centre fiscal conservatives, but during the financial meltdown, I was struck by how they all tended to favour turning the government spending spigots on. They just felt that somebody had to step up to the plate and provide stimulus and liquidity, and government was the only logical actor that could do that.

          • I take your point, especially since every other major economy in the world was doing the exact same thing.

            The most risk-averse thing to do was to turn on the spigots, as the Opposition was demanding and every other member of the G20 was doing, and hope for the best.

          • "The most risk-averse thing to do was to turn on the spigots …"

            You hit the nail on the head. However, you forgot to mention that Harper promised to do so in the G20 summit of 14-15 November 2008 and then immediately turned around and produced a deflationary fiscal update on 27 November 2008. Nevermind what the Opposition was demanding or not, the Harper government had already promised this to our G20 partners. And then immediately reneged.

  11. Hard right: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

    Rebuttal directions: "You can find our store by heading down Hwy. 401 until you get to the Slauson Cutoff. Get out of the car, cut off your slauson, get back in the car."

  12. That was gooooood! Except for that error about Canada’s abortion laws. “Canada remains the only country in the developed world with no abortion law of any kind”. There are laws and regulations that control abortion service in Canada and I fail to see why journalists don’t get that yet. I direct you to the BC Access to Abortion Services Act. Look it up. Then visit the Canada Health Act and note that in one province a gov’t paid abortion is only available within a hospital setting. Abortion laws in Canada are like the prostitution laws. Abortion is not explicitly illegal, yet laws and regulations set the boundaries for behaviour. These Lars are pro-choice in Canada. Please get that right in the future.

    • That's a good point, thanks for noting that, especially the significant provincial regulation.

    • There may be laws about who pays for an abortion, but I think what Andrew means is that there is no law that prevents you from or criminalizes getting an abortion, if you can afford to pay for it and can find someone who will do it, all the way up to 1 second before birth.

    • What's a "Lars"?

  13. Just for clarification, what is so wrong about the size of the CPP reserve fund? Should we have a PAYGO system, or no pension system at all? Both sound like a recipe for disaster.

  14. Coyne wins this round, knocking Wells off his feet with a right hook and a blast of reality. Is this a KO? No, Wells is getting up. He's back in the fight, folks! Can't wait for Round Two!

    • Three hundred and twenty-eight comments so far. One of the best Wells columns ever?

      Guess you have answered your own question. As I mentioned on the same Hard Right column : "This comment board needs more critical thinking and less manufactured consent. "

      Coyne's blog makes up for the deficit. Will be interesting to see how many die hards flip sides.

  15. The invisible hand will guide us, dude. And if we must have pensions at all, they can only work if they are presided over by free-marketeering wunderkinds like Bear Stearns, acting with as few restrictions as possible.

  16. The Reform party, of which if memory serves Stephen Harper was once a member, proposed converting the CPP into a system of mandatory individual retirement accounts (akin to locked-in RRSPs), along the lines pioneered in Singapore and Chile.
    Harper used to make the argument that any time you have a large block of funds sitting around in government hands, sooner or later somebody will be tempted to spend it or to divert it to ends for which it was not intended: to enrich CPP benefits further, or to force the CPP fund to invest in high-tech or green firms (or to divest from socially harmful industries like tobacco).
    I've made the case, also, that the One Big Fund approach homogenizes the varying risk tolerances of different investors, forcing everyone to share, for example, in the Caisse's ill-advised plunge into asset-backed commercial paper. Older people, nearing retirement, should not be as heavily invested in stocks as younger people, who can ride out any short-term declines. Yet with the CPP/QPP, everyone has the same portfolio.

    • And with the US Social Security system, everyone shares the same vault of… treasury bills. If certain economists are correct, the US will be drawing down on its Social Security piggy bank very soon, as it becomes a net payor instead of a net accumulator. Anyone else see a wee little pitfall a-coming?

      At least Canada is in a slightly less awful CPP-QPP mess than that. Please tell me that we're in a slightly less awful mess than that.

    • Harper used to make the argument that any time you have a large block of funds sitting around in government hands, sooner or later somebody will be tempted to spend it or to divert it to ends for which it was not intended: to enrich CPP benefits further, or to force the CPP fund to invest in high-tech or green firms (or to divest from socially harmful industries like tobacco). All of these have been proposed at one time or another, though not so far with much support. But give it time…

      Isn't that last "proposal" EXACTLY what the QPP has been up to already?

    • Strictly speaking, the CPP reserve fund is not in the hands of the government.

      Also, individual investors are generally terrible at investing. They are not rational (there are mountains of empirical evidence that humans have all kinds of cognitive defects that cause them to make irrational investment decisions). If they were, we would not need anything like the CPP, or even these locked in RRSP-style investment vehicles.

      And everyone having the same portfolio is an odd idea. The portfolio is just a means of smoothing net contributions and net liabilities. If it makes you feel better, think of the CPP's bonds belonging to the old farts and its equity assets belonging to the young bucks.

    • Let me also just say that the CPP reserve fund is impeccably managed. I agree that the QPP/Caisse is a mess and a good cautionary tale. That is indeed why the CPPIB should be very hard for governments to tamper with.

    • The beauty of CPP is that it never retires. So you can have higher risk, higher returns with low management fees. Neither Caisse nor CPP is in any danger of going belly up, your commercial paper comment is a red herring. Individual investors do it every day. And they have every right to. But if we let the masses gamble the rent money, we end up looking after more of them.

  17. The situation is therefore one of unstable equiilibrium in a quasi-chaotic system… small shifts can lead to very significant differences in outcome.

    This is a very interesting point, and worth examining further. Certainly, in a country like Canada, minor differences in policy on many issues are magnified and distorted to seem like huge gaps. Canadian politics is mostly about symbolism, rather than substance, so it's easy to see how relatively small shifts could trigger significant differences in outcomes.

  18. "When I say that conservatism is dead in Canada, I am not mourning or despairing. I am merely stating a fact an opinion."

    • I agree. These conservatives were never conservatives to begin with. They've been radicals, since day one.

      • Yes, they're all a bunch of crazy radicals. They're not sane and grounded, like you are.

  19. I'd say the opposite: minor differences in policy are only magnified amongst the chattering class (i.e. us), not the general public. If anything they're low-pass filtered in the public consciousness – small differences go unnoticed and large differences are often mistaken for small ones.

    However, the public is (I think) profoundly aware that the status quo is not great. Material wealth and comfort can only mask unhappiness to a certain degree. Hence small shifts can easily snowball into a an avalanche. This is how, for example, we went from the governing party introducing a bill in 2000 which defined marriage as "the lawful union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others" to the same governing party introducing a bill in 2005 which legalized same-sex marriage. Small differences in thinking can lead to big changes in our society.

    • I'd say the opposite: minor differences in policy are only magnified amongst the chattering class

      I agree with this sentiment…but this is because things in this country ARE great. We live in an accepting society. Our governments have more or less balanced the books for the past 10 years and even now, when they've chosen to blow a bunch of money on stimulus, it's much less than other governments. By and large, this is a free society.

      Lots of room for improvement of course. But things are pretty good.

    • "Material wealth and comfort can only mask unhappiness to a certain degree."

      To what unhappiness are you referring?

  20. This was a well-argued and interesting commentary. Thank you.

  21. Dot, that comment was sarcastic, but unfortunately it sailed right over your head. I don't really think the quality of a blog post has much to do with the number of comments it receives. My views on the subject are reflected in many other comments that I've made, such as this one:

    As an aside, Paul Wells tweeted this on twitter recently:

    "My libertarian friends keep judging this government on fiscal discipline and finding it…random; pointless; non-conservative. — But its brand offer is social conservatism, which has wide-ish and very, very deep support, both in the country and at the PMO — And by the measure of advancing that agenda, this has been the most activist two months in *half a century.* OK I'm done".

    In my humble opinion, this is the most absurd tweet that Wells has ever twitted. The surge in "activism" is imaginary.

    http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/02/23/rights-and-dem

    Also, these ones:

    <a href="http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/02/24/rights-and-democracy-i-say-tomato-you-say-this-has-nothing-to-do-with-the-middle-east/#IDComment58563525

    ” target=”_blank”>http://www2.macleans.ca/2010/02/24/rights-and-democracy-i-say-tomato-you-say-this-has-nothing-to-do-with-the-middle-east/#IDComment58563525

  22. Because spending is easy and popular, cutting spending is not? Just a guess.

    • Yes, Bean, exactly. Also, when you're drunken and swaying as a drunken sailor is want to do, much less likely to fall off the edge and into the water if you stay in the centre.

  23. I'm inclined to agree more with Coyne's analysis than with Wells', though to be fair to Wells, he was really focusing on a bit narrower target, i.e., the social conservatism side of the equation. Coyne sort of covered the whole spectrum. There are a couple of strains of US political history running through this — first of all, the "lip service to socons" thing, that of course was done to perfection by Ronald Reagan. Also, the appeal to "values voters" was Karl Rove's Big Thing. But you have to be wary of thinking that things that work in the US will work THE SAME WAY in Canada. E.g., the significantly smaller number of evangelical Christians in Canada is important to remember.

  24. Well, if I missed the sarcasm, I certainly wasn't the only one. Here were the replies which you answered, uncorrected, unlike mine:

    FVerhoeven: I agree it's a good column by Wells…

    Gaunilon: I wouldn't measure the quality of the piece by the comment count, but I'd have to agree this was one of Wells's best columns…

    In any event, I was just poking you in the ribits.

    • If you're looking to that Gaunilon fellow as some kind of standard for catching the subtleties of amphibious dialogue, I think you may want to set the bar a little higher.

      • It's my ambiguous amphibiousness. I'll try to flag my sarcastic comments with little winks in the future. ;-)

        • …or perhaps use an ampersand to let us know when your meaning is emphatically amphicentric.

        • For the record, though, I'm sarcastic less than 10% of the time. Most of the time, I'm being serious.

          But was that sentences one of those times?

  25. Great! Let's buy a couple of automobile manufacturers, and stimulate ourselves out of this recession, and double funding for the arts, and quadruple funding for the arts in Quebec, and let's have a high-speed train…

  26. Paul pls. don't encourage Andrew. It always ends up in another tedious column. Would that we were all perfect like Andrew Coyne?

    • Perfect what?

  27. Take a look at Paul Well's Fan Club if you want to see extremism. If CSIS isn't parked outside of their house, then GW, The KKK , and Wal-Mart are surely pulling the strings in Ottawa.

  28. The result of Harper’s childcare policy has seen the provinces move to own this issue. The 1200 annually for each child appeased voters while funding withdrawal tested the ability of households to pay signifigantly more for the service. This was a successfull offload to the provinces and municipalities, but a high price was paid by individuals and women’s participation in the workforce was reduced. Enter Harper’s moves to cancel pay equity.

  29. God damn, am I ever glad there are people smarter than I am to write things like this.

  30. Bravo, Coyne.

    One of the things that I found interesting in Wells article was that Canadians are much more conservative than many are willing to acknowledge. It is not a coincidence the more liberal governments become, the more conservative Canadians get.

    "The facts of life are conservative" Margaret Thatcher

    • "…Canadians are more conservative than many are willing to acknowledge."

      I think there's even more truth to that than you intended. I think Canadians are quite socially conservative by inclination but it's trendy to espouse socially left views.

      In terms of fiscal conservatism, on the other hand, I think Canadians are not very socially conservative. The popular mantra that the winning political combination in Canada blends fiscal conservatism with social leftism strikes me as wrong. Any country that favours a welfare program, a healthcare program, and the amount of subsidization that we do is not fiscally conservative – yet I think most Canadians do think that they are fiscally conservative! It's trendy to be "fiscally conservative" rather than a "tax-and-spend liberal", but it's very uncool to favour cutting any of the programs that were put in place by tax-and-spend liberals. Likewise, it's trendy to favour any and all climate change initiatives, any and all women's "health" initiatives, and any and all "education" initiatives. But when it comes right down to it, people aren't actually that keen to support Green Shifts, abortions, and legal action against schools that refuse to pander to the pc initiatives of the day.

      • "…but it's trendy to espouse socially left views."

        "Likewise, it's trendy to favour any and all climate change initiatives, any and all women's "health" initiatives, and any and all "education" initiatives…"

        Right – because the values of a self-proclaimed conservative are honest, bedrock and grassroots, while the values of a self-proclaimed liberal are just flighty, stupid and prone to change with the direction of the wind.

        My values are my own, they've been arrived at through decades of though and research and I don't need you telling me I'm just a stupid trend-following hippie. Are you even aware of your own arrogance?

        By the way, what you call "fiscal conservatism" might better be described as "good governance", which has long been recognized as something Canadians of all political stripes value.

        • There is nothing more arrogant than presuming to put words in someone else's mouth.

          • Nice try. But in two direct quotes, you used the word "trendy" which you used to dismiss liberal values as flighty or temporary. It's the whole basis of your earlier post.

            Who do you think you are, to accuse anyone who doesn't agree with your principles of just following trends? (ie not holding to any core values)? Are your principles the only "real" principles?

            And by the way – I say again: what you call "fiscal conservatism" is merely good governance, neither liberal nor conservative.

  31. PM Harper is succeeding because he knows what Canadians want. Competent Liberal Government without the sleaze and corruption (Had it not been for the sleaze, Paul Martin would be into his second 200+ seat majority right now).

    As to the elusive majority, Harper already has it in ROC (136 to 99).

    I have been saying since the times of both Dion and Ignatieff that Duceppe is Harper's main target. With Duceppe's "nous sommes les resistants" idiocy at the Bloc Quebecois's 20 year celebration of….what?…providing the opening, and with Lucien Bouchard's comment that sovereignty is unachievable providing the context, the CPC is jumping into the Quebec political scene con brio to clearly show that the Bloc is irrelevant to the things that matter to Quebeckers. This is where the game is being played, and Ignatieff and Layton are largely spectators now. (This must be pleasing to Harper after enduring Duceppe's absurd taunts about federal arts funding cuts being some kind of anti-Quebec attack).

    Andrew Coyne seems to want us to believe that Harper is in some kind of difficulty with his "base" or with "true conservatives" but as Paul Wells points out, there is no evidence to back this claim up. The base is most satisfied with the current state of affairs, thank you very much. There is simply no pleasing Andrew Coyne, so why bother trying?

    The big difference is that Paul Wells does reporting, while Andrew Coyne offers us his opinion. As one commenter noted, Andrew Coyne's opinion is not fact.

    • "Harpers hard right turn" is not opinion? hmmm.

    • The base is not "most satisfied with the current state of affairs." The base simply has no other logical place to go.

      • Correct. If there was a federal equivalent of Wildrose I'd be jumping to back them 100%.

        My hope for the next election is a reduced Conservative minority to get rid of Harper, and hopefully replace him with someone who remembers what conservatism is supposed to be.

        • "Instead of government dominating the lives of Canadians through taxes and regulations, the Libertarian Party of Canada believes that Canadians should be free to run their own lives."

          http://www.libertarian.ca/

        • "If there was a federal equivalent of Wildrose I'd be jumping to back them 100%."

          You Conservatives are going around in circles. First, you create a genuine grassroots movement called Reform which splits the right but at least has the benefit of clarity of purpose and principle. Then, when it becomes clear that Reform cannot gain power on its own, the two parts are reunited after a few iterations of party names, only this time with the Reformites in the driver's seat. Now that you Conservatives have been in power again for a while (all hail the Vulcan Chessmaster !), you're disgruntled once again and once again you are talking about spliting into pieces. Make up your damn minds. Either you want power and have an idea how you wish to exercise it, or you don't, and you can go back to being the right wing equivalent of a Trotskyite faction. In either case, don't whine about alienation, Western or otherwise. You do it to yourselves.

          • Well M, this is sort of a ritualized dance that we may see repeated many times, and it's partly a product of our first-past-the-post electoral system. Federal Reform-CPC is not the only example of this. In BC, a lot of people have forgotten about this, but in the 1990s there was this thing called the BC Reform Party at the provincial level, and they cost the BC Liberals an election (Campbell vs. Glenn Clark). They didn't win a single seat if I recall correctly, but they drained enough votes from the Liberals to allow Glenn Clark's NDP to win a majority of seats while actually losing to the Liberals in popular vote. I think there is a decent argument to be made that forming successful alternative parties that truly reflect people's views (rather than these big-tent, mushy "compromise" entities) would be more viable in a different electoral system.

  32. "The great statist vehicles of the 20th century — Canada Post, Via Rail, the CBC…"

    I'm not sure I'd call these "great statist vehicles." Most European countries have state-run post offices, rail networks and broadcasters. Even the Americans have the US Mail, Amtrak and federal grants to PBS.

    Thirty years ago, the federal government owned all of these plus the national airline, a large oil company (that continued to buy competitors), steel mills (and coal mines?) in Cape Breton, one of the major railways, aircraft manufacturers Canadair and deHavilland, a uranium refiner and a bunch of other businesses (http://www2.parl.gc.ca/Content/LOP/ResearchPublic… All have been sold, closed or otherwise divested.

    At best, maybe "the few remaining great (?) statist vehicles…" but even that seems a stretch.

    • OECD is recommended that we privatize Canada Post

  33. Andrew, there's no contradiction in saying that our current government is both "hard right" and "no longer conservative". The apt political term is "reactionary" – these people don't want to slow down the pace of change or to preserve something precious, but rather to turn back the clock to some imagined anachronistic past that inhabits their dreams. The rest of us are just along for the ride.

    • I'm not a big fan of Harper or his government, but I have to point out that you could just as easily argue that it's the NDP, or the left wing of the Liberal Party, who wants to to "turn back the clock to some imagined anachronistic past that inhabits their dreams." As many have pointed out, the NDP in particular often seems to be stuck in 1965-1975, in a world where we can and should all expect to have high-paying unionized jobs for life with huge benefits (including fat pensions), without a worry in our head about foreign competition or how we're going to pay for all of this — in part because we've got a huge baby boom on the go, so all our kids will join the labour force any pay lots of taxes to pay for it all.

  34. No, because I didn't flag it. I'm going with Gaunilon's ampersand.

  35. I'm late enough here that I'm buried in page 2, so you both (Coyne and Wells) will probably never see this, but…

    I'd like to take issue with the characterization of the government's repeated attempts to close Insite as a "turn to the right". The merits of Insite are irrelevant to this question, in my mind; the government's desire to close it out is actually a strong statist position.

    That it is the only one in North America is important; it's the province (and the city) trying a new approach in healthcare, something that the Tories and their belief in strong provincial powers should support. The courts, including the Supreme Court of British Columbia, have repeatedly said that it's the jurisdiction of health care and not criminal policy, and is thus constitutionally under provincial jurisdiction.

    The people of British Columbia have seen fit to elect a government that supports its creation and funding; the courts have listened to the arguments of the government and ruled that it is not their jurisdiction; but still they feel they must intervene and tell this province it is wrong.

    How is extending the federal government's power to interfere in provincial matters a conservative position or potential victory?

    • If we supply free drugs to addicts, why not free cigarettes to smokers, free sex to rapists, and free booze to alcoholics? An addiction is an addicition.

      • Seriously? That's what passes for logic in your head?

        Here, let's turn it around: 'If we're going to outlaw drugs because of addicts, why don't we outlaw cigarettes because of smokers, sex because of rapists, and booze because of alcoholics? An addiction is an addiction."

        Think. From your head.
        That thing you do from your heart? That's not thinking.

      • Insite doesn't supply drugs. It supplies clean needles, sanitary environments, medical supervision, and addiction counseling. Insite merely grants an exemption to possession laws.

      • ….free web space to people who are addicted to posting their thoughts?

  36. It really doesn`t matter what political parties call themselves or whether their policies are making hard right or hard left turns, the conservatism of Canadians will not change.

    I would argue that we live conservative lives. We live in conservative houses and drive conservative cars and have conservative jobs and take conservative vacations ( why are Canadian women the last to go topless ), and even our kids are conservative ( you don`t think so ?…..try this: those of you who are old enough to remember what it was like to be a twenty-something in th 60`s or 70`s…..compare the idle idealism of that time with the bullish efforts of today`s twenty-somethings striving to get the education to get the career to get the house…car… vacation etc.
    We may live conservative lives but we want to treat others in a liberal manner especially the disadvantaged, hence our pride in our social programs.

  37. Honestly, Mr.Coyne, something wrong perhaps? You seem overly emotional. Could good solid reasoning have abandonned you?

    I think it has, for some time now. You see, this political tugga war is not happening all of a sudden. There has been a huge, incremental build-up to all of this mayhem of parties not knowing or telling us where they stand, let alone implementing some of those "standings for or against."

    Are you really not aware of this incremental build-up over time? Where have you been? While some of us were reading the writings on the wall, others may not now recognise their own "signature".

    • This is how you sign your signature today: The right is open for attack regardless and the left will be spared in any case.

      Signing with an X instead would have been just as valid; I mean, many people used to do that.

  38. Reading over the posts (which I usually do AFTER posting my first post!! that way one tries at least to circumvent the steamtrain rolling down over top of any individual thought one might have)……

    I find this amazing, actually, how the struggle between two, three, four, five, six, seven (tell me when to stop counting) opinioin writers has become THE political issue today.

    And we're still wondering why Canadian politics are going down the drain?

    Get a grip! If opinion writers want to practice politics, get elected first.

  39. Coyne's is certainly the better argued piece, but as usual he is convincing in part because he does not set up a counter-factual. Coyne has some objective notion of what conservatism is, whereas Wells' argument is more rooted in a comparison between the Liberal and Conservative positions. Indeed, Coyne slips when he admits that this may be more of an example of how left wing the Liberal party is. He is admitting, in other words that there was a shift, albeit one from the left to the center. Even then he is a bit less convincing insofar as the median voter in Canada is almost certainly a Liberal.

  40. I'm inclined to support Well's position that this is 'an incremental but nonetheless sweeping social-conservative agenda, which the Tories' other concessions and retreats have served to obscure'. The issues you mention that may appear to be 'largely symbolic baubles the government has thrown in the socons' direction, knowing they're so starved for affection they'll take anything', taken together with things like his muzzling of criticism and possible contempt of parliament, seem to confirm a pattern. By the time Harper is ready to make more substantial changes, citizens will have become accustomed to the warnings of his critics and disregard them. His current economic policies are politically expedient, and he appears to have succeeded in dumbing down the debate by accusing the other guys of wanting to raise taxes, so he's got public opinion on his side on that front as well. All in all, it's very worrisome.

    • And, BTW, I suspect that Cannon's 'mistake' the other day about his party's position on family planning was a trial balloon.

  41. Phyllis' husband.

    • Kudos on the obscure 1970s sitcom reference.

    • Kevin wins a special hors-série set of steak knives.

  42. Nice analysis, as indeed is Mr. Wells's, but there is little if any real conflict between the two pieces. Mr. Wells does not try to argue that fiscal conservatism is on the march. And on social policy, the two authors agree that the advancing of the conservative agenda has been no more than incremental to date. So such difference as there is comes down to whether that incremental progress should be interpreted as meaningless baubles thrown to the base, as Mr. Coyne argues, or as the first steps in a continuing programme. Here Mr. Wells argues rather convincingly, including via quotes from Mr. Harper himself, that it is part of a strategy. That surely is given more credence by the fact that the Conservatives have up until now had to operate within the confines of a parliamentary minority. Mr. Coyne's counterargument appears to be that the Conservatives are merely passively reflecting the centre of public opinion at any given moment, rather than seeking to advance an agenda. In the absence of an accumulation of facts and citations as complete as that offered by Mr. Wells, I can't help but find this unconvincing.

  43. I am sick and tired of people referring to the Conservative Party of Canada, as a conservative party. It is not conservative! It is neo-conservative. I don't know who said it, but I remember reading something like this about the difference between the two.

    Conservatives believe in protecting civil liberties.
    Neo-Conservatives believe civil liberties are an unnecessary restriction on government power.

    Conservatives believe in a smaller, less intrusive government.
    Neo-Conservatives are prepared to spend money, and expand government reach without restraint, provided it helps them further their agenda.

    Conservatives believe in fiscal responsibility and reducing taxes.
    Neo-Conservatives fool people into thinking that tax cuts are beneficial, covering up the fact that they are loans that taxpayers, their children, and their grandchildren will have to repay with interest.

    Based on our present minority government's record, it is clear that we are being governed by a deceitful bunch of neo-conservatives. They call themselves conservatives to trick Canadians into giving them a majority in the next election. Don't fall for it! And, God help us if they succeed!!!

    • I always find the triple exclamation mark to be particularly convincing. I'm surprised that my university composition teachers didn't recommend that.

      • Nonetheless, morvin is onto something there.

      • So am I.

  44. One thing I have pointed about before is that in realtiy if social conservatives wish to make shifts in public policy in Canada it would more much more logical to attempt this at the provincial level first. Yet the most prominent conservative premiers Danny Williams, Jean Charest, Ed Stelmach, and Gordon Campbell I don't are all that much more conservative than say Dalton Mcguinty on either fiscal or social issues. Tim Hudak who is very close to people like Jason Kenney and Guy Giorno is running a solid social conservative platform but I most independent observers would argue it is still doubtful Hudak can win even with McGuinty's mediocre peformance. I actually think the Ontario PC's with Hudak are more socially conservative than Stelmach's PC's in Alberta

    • Tim, I agree with your last statement to this extent — most Tory voters in Alberta (especially in the two big cities, which account for a whopping chunk of Alberta's overall population) are animated by a desire for relatively low taxes and for government to let business (particularly the oil industry) do its thing. Other than the occasional symbolic piece of red meat fed to the rural redneck types, an examination of the actual historical record shows that social conservatism has never been a big focus of the Alberta PC party. And that is something that is often misundersood, ignored and/or misrepresented by non-Albertans when they opine on Alberta politics.

      • Even though Wells doesn't tend to talk about provincial politics that much I actually think there is a strong ideological bond between Guy Giorno, Tim Hudak, and Jason Kenney who are all socially conservative catholics from Ontario. Tim Hudak is catering to people much farther to the right such as Randy Hillier and the OLA than either Danielle Smith or the Alberta PC's ever did with very little press attention outside of the inside baseball Queen's Park types. What is interesting about this is while I think Hudak will lose in the next election to McGuinty he is still represents a party that in the past has been in government far more than the Wildrose Alliance or even the Alberta PC's and supposedly exists in the most socially liberal province in the country. I actually wonder if some of Harper's moves towards social conservativism is not related to Hudak's recently increased catering of socons.

  45. Another article and subsequent banter about POLITICS rather than any real issues. Anyone that acutally gives a damn about Canada as a sovereign, cohesive unit in which people can live long, free and prosper has no options other than to vote for the party which they hate the least. Viable alternative parties are either ignored or maligned by the media, or hijacked by people that don't understand how to work the system without selling out. Discouraging stuff.

  46. Isn't maintaining the status quo, supporting existing institutions, the sine qua non of a conservative? Harper and company are on a well-traveled path. Reform is neither their destination nor route. Conservatism under their tutelage is not dead and has not turned hard right. They're always turning right, which is to say, forever going in circles. Never moving forward they remain backward. Coyne and Wells are both right and both wrong. I only hope they agree: it's time for a change. Harper is well past due.

  47. New Democratic Party
    It is NOT new nor is it Democratic! In fact it smells a bit Communist!
    Any chance Macleans could spill oodles of ink waxing poetic on this subject? Not likely ;)

  48. "However, I believe that there is a strong general sense in our society that the status quo is unacceptable – people may not be able to put their finger on the causes, but everyone can see that virtue and common decency are not where we'd like them to be. "

    That's right: too many people are not able to put their finger on the causes, but everyone can see…..what? Double vision? Two opposing pictures being held up side by side, not being able to touch upon one another to come to a unified view? I would think so. Most definitely I would thnk so.

    These are also opposing pictures: the one is how people live within a practical sense, and this is how people live within a theoretical sense. But by god, there has to be a way for combining the two into one.

  49. Bravo, brilliant, Andrew. So brilliant, the Liberals should use it in direct mail (not being sarcastic; it sums up nicely why I'm not a Conservative voter anymore). Wells is officially pwn3d.

    We've now reached a strange place in life where the drooling masses bicker fiercely over who's more conservative or who's more liberal in the US and Canada, entirely on the basis of brands and symbolic gestures. Government has devolved into a system of democracy based on whoever can mutter their frat boy insults the loudest. God help us all.

  50. If you want to know why people have offshore assets you just have to look at the politicians Canadian voters support. When offered a choice like Reform they cry like babies and run to the nearest politician who will tell this "its all right, we will take care of you if you elect us".
    Sadly Harper learned this and is now just sticking to the suckers, aka voters. They deserve it.

  51. Andrew, I'm surprised…no, shocked at a rather glaring error in your article entitled "Hard Right? Hardly". In the said article you appeared to blame the Conservatives for Jaffer's charges being withdrawn. The fact is, the provinces are responsible for the administration of justice in accordance with section 92(14) of the Constitution Act of 1867. There is a new provincial mandate that all Crown Attorney offices must follow called "Justice on Target" wherein crown offices are required to withdraw/divert to community service or fines a percentage of all charges, particularly those dealing with fraud, mischief and theft. Let's be fair Andrew: Harper may be a lot of things but please don't blame him for McGuinty's soft-on-crime-approach.

  52. "Not only would this have reduced the quality of childcare raising its per-capita cost."

    Not true.

    It might have cost more. It would be better quality. And it would mean more working mothers contributing to the economy, and much more successful societal outcomes 20 years later. Although focussing on at risk children (not that they should be ignored) research comes up with results like this http://www.learninginfo.org/early-childhood-educa… repeatedly.

    There's hardly a better long term investment that ECE. It's a policy no-brainer, if not for the morals of "raised at home" getting in the way.

    You lament that "Canada has suffered a serious "dumbing down" in the last century", yet a beacon for hope is something you detest.

    The state should stay out of our bedrooms, but our children's futures, not so much.

  53. Every time I feel ashamed to be a New Zealander I console myself that it could be worse: I could have been Canadian.

    BTW, what kind of country riots over Ann Coulter?!!

  54. The Wells argument is that, while each of these anecdotes may not look like much on its own, “taken together” they add up to quite a lot. – The very well point I so agree.

  55. Not only in Canada, most countries don't bother conservatism.

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