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Better Red than Dead

Why compassionate conservatism will never go to its grave


BY David Olive
Illustration by Graham Roumieu

“I am their leader. I must follow them.” —Andrew Bonar Law, Britain’s sole Canadian-born prime minister (1922-23)

How often have I heard the wistful lament from left-wing friends: “Whatever became of the Red Tories? I never thought I’d say it, but I miss them.”

The answer is that Red Tories still rule the day, even in what appears to be an almost reactionary era, and always will. The apparent death knell for the compassionate version of conservatism that came to be known as Red Toryism was initially sounded in Ontario in the mid-1990s during the first, brutal stages of Mike Harris’s so-called “Common Sense Revolution.” For progressives elsewhere in Canada, the seeming demise of Red Toryism might have come with the earlier elections of Bill Vander Zalm in British Columbia, John Buchanan in Nova Scotia or Brian Mulroney in 1984—a period in which the hard-line conservatism of Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl had come to the fore throughout the democratic West (Italy and France always excepted).

Dating from 1980 or thereabouts, a discredited progressivism was licking its wounds from Pierre Trudeau’s relentless arrogance and the shortcomings of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and his tragic adventure in Southeast Asia, and subsequently went into a prolonged hiatus. For the past two decades, the public agenda can easily appear to have been set by an extremist strain of conservatism, its power brokers holding high office, and its shills—David Frum, Mark Steyn and the like—consuming most of the oxygen in the punditocracy. The historical and logical basis for those cheerleaders’ arguments has always been dubious at best, proving Dalton Camp’s old adage, in self-deprecating reference to himself, that “obviously it is possible to be a columnist and not be a writer at all—present-day examples abound.” But the right-wing pamphleteers’ near-monopolization of mainstream op-ed pages made all the difference.

Yet public life continues to be dominated by mild progressivism and activist government. Bill Clinton was wrong in his crowd-pleasing 1996 declaration that “the era of Big Government is over.” The record program spending in Ottawa under Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper, and the freespending GOP-controlled Congress of 2000-07 and the Bush II administration prove it.

Bush has vetoed one (1) congressional bill, and that concerned a social-conservative issue, not runaway spending by a GOP-controlled Congress. U.S. government spending has reached such stratospheric heights that Congress has recently lifted America’s approved debt ceiling to U.S. $9 trillion— a near doubling of the republic’s national debt in the short six years since Clinton left office. Hikes in defense and national-security spending post- 9/11 account for less than half of the total increase. Most of the additional spending has been pure pork, most egregiously symbolized by a U.S. $250-million “bridge to nowhere” in Alaska to connect the mainland to a tiny, unpopulated island.

The mantra that it’s a neo-con world, and we just live in it, is understandably difficult to dispute. But I would argue this has mostly to do with the nearcomplete absence of progressive voices in the mainstream media. (Thank God for progressive bloggers.) For when you look about you, what exactly has changed? Are farmers, Bombardier and Big Oil being starved of their traditional handouts? No, despite candidate Harper’s condemnation of corporate welfare in the 2004 general election. Have any of the U.S. presidents and Canadian prime ministers who vowed to dismantle the U.S. energy and education departments and the Canadian Wheat Board followed through on those promises? No. Education is not even a federal responsibility. But Bush’s first major priority on taking office was his No Child Left Behind bill that called for mandatory teacher testing and school grading—an audacious imposition of federal power in a state jurisdiction. Have they privatized the post office in either country? No. Quite the opposite. In the wake of 9/11, Bush re-nationalized airport security screeners, along with creating the Homeland Security Department, the biggest new bureaucratic entity since Harry Truman combined the armed forces.

In a nutshell, government in democratic nations is progressivism interrupted by occasional vitriolic objections to “big government” that are routinely ignored in practice, if not rhetoric.

Neo-conservatives are self-described “former liberals mugged by reality.” They are, more accurately, ideologues who’ve never been subjected to the rigours of governing. Consider that Mike Harris hit his zenith of Grinchdom—asking welfare recipients to get by on less than $2 a day, slashing civil-service jobs and closing hospitals—at a time when Ottawa was furiously cutting transfer payments. Meanwhile, social-democratic premiers Gary Doer, Michael Harcourt and Roy Romanow were busy shuttering rural health clinics and imposing social-welfare austerity measures of their own. The only difference between Harris and his counterparts elsewhere in Canada during those grim mid-1990s years of recession and fiscal crisis was that Harris’s peers wielded their scalpels with obvious reluctance, while Mike the Knife did it with overt zeal.

But then what happened? By the late 1990s, when Ottawa was beginning to run surpluses and restoring cuts to provincial transfer payments, Ralph Klein—unapologetic about the take-no-prisoners cost-cutting of his early premiership—began spending lavishly on education, health care and social services.

And Mike Harris, en route to a balanced budget, opened the spending floodgates, increasing provincial expenditures on health care to record levels. In the neo-con playbook, private-sector efficiency always trumps public ownership (a theory constantly disproved by the Enrons of the world). Yet Harris never did honour his promise to privatize Ontario Hydro, TVOntario or the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. In the latter case, despite the Klein precedent of privatizing Alberta’s liquor outlets, Harris as premier was not eager to forfeit the $1 billion or so in annual LCBO dividends paid to Queen’s Park. The controversy over an earlier decision to back a privately built and operated superhighway, the 407, was sufficient to dissuade Harris from pursuing his privatization agenda.

On gaining political power, even the most hardright conservatives of our times have either bent eventually to the popular will that demands social justice once the books have been balanced (and sometimes, as in Bush’s America, when they decidedly have not), or they have been booted from office. So it has been for Manitoba hardliner Sterling Lyon and Saskatchewan’s Grant Devine; for the Parti Québécois on the two occasions it has been ousted from power (due to rebellions among civil servants upon whom cutbacks had been imposed, and not the shifting politics of separatism); and most recently for the 109th U.S. Congress.

Put simply, reactionary nostrums with rare exceptions do not survive the imperatives of the political arena. This phenomenon was ably described long ago by Jonathan Manthorpe, then Queen’s Park correspondent for The Globe and Mail, in his 1974 examination of the Conservatives in Ontario, The Power and the Tories: Ontario Politics—1943 to the Present (Macmillan). “As a government, they have survived since 1943 not by a superior philosophy [read ideological fixation], but by superbly executed pragmatism. To a large extent the Conservatives have not led the province; rather, they have been dragged along by the needs and demands of the people.”

Drew and an unbroken succession of Ontario Tory premiers—Leslie Frost, John Robarts and Bill Davis—brought in the first laws against racial, ethnic and gender discrimination. They built the “400” series of superhighways; York, Trent and Brock universities and a network of 22 community colleges; and Ontario Place, the Ontario Science Centre, Science North and North America’s largest zoo. They relentlessly promoted an entente with Quebec francophones and fully funded Catholic schools at the risk of alienating their small-town electoral base. They embraced medicare in the 1960s, and the death of inner-city superhighways in the 1970s (killing the proposed Spadina and Scarborough expressways). And they protected the Toronto Islands residential community in the 1980s, over the objections of the city’s own Metro Council. They did these things once the values of universal access to quality health care, environmental rehabilitation and neighbourhood preservation had asserted themselves among voters.

Those Ontario Red Tories ruled uninterrupted for 42 years—a tenure, it was often noted, that was rivaled only by Joseph Stalin. By contrast, the hard-line Tory team of Harris and Ernie Eves was evicted from Queen’s Park after just eight years, so arrogant was their early devotion to a mean-spirited style of governance, and so foolhardy was Eves’s zeal in supporting the locally unpopular U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

That was a mistake Brian Mulroney would not have made. Vilified, with reason, for his highhanded governance and overarching self-regard, Mulroney might have been the father of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. But he also negotiated with Reagan strict curbs on acid rain (later earning him the assessment by ecology groups as the best environmental PM in recent Canadian history). And with his fellow Red Tory, external affairs minister Joe Clark, he courted enmity with both Reagan and Thatcher by taking the lead among Commonwealth nations in hastening the demise of apartheid in South Africa and condemning the Reagan administration’s meddling in Nicaragua, then further alienating Washington by taking in political refugees from El Salvador, Guatemala and other victims of U.S. intervention.

With Stephen Harper in residence at 24 Sussex, it’s especially difficult to deny the triumph of neocon ideology over pragmatic attention to popular sentiment. This is, after all, a fledgling government notable for its contempt both of the press and not infrequently the electorate. The Harper government lacks support for its agenda in pursuing an unpopular foreign policy in Afghanistan and the Middle East; effectively revoking Canada’s ratification of the Kyoto treaty on climate change; expressing hostility to same-sex marriage; and attempting to alter a system of governance that has worked well for 139 years by politicizing the selection of senators and federal judges. The latter is a recipe for U.S.-style gridlock, an overturning of the concept of representation by population and a threat to the impartiality of the courts.

But contrast the records of private citizen Harper with Prime Minister Harper.

As a private citizen, and president of the ultraright National Citizens Coalition, Harper badmouthed Canada as a “second-tier socialist country,” and lauded the “superior” system of governance south of the border. He called for private-school vouchers that would have undermined the publicschool system. He urged Klein to declare a de facto independence from Canada by, among other things, defying the Canada Health Act by introducing twotier health care. (Klein demurred.) Harper backed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, denouncing Prime Minister Jean Chrétien as an embarrassment to his country and the world for declining to join in creating that quagmire. In the 2004 election campaign, Harper was tolerant of homophobes, antifrancophone racists and pro-life zealots among his candidates for the Commons. He explained that his constituency was “similar to what George Bush tapped.”

No one would accuse Prime Minister Harper of since having undergone a policy transplant, and he still too often exhibits the personality traits of a man who trains Rottweilers for a living. But in making a rare prime ministerial appearance before a Commons committee to answer for his proposed Senate reforms, Harper betrayed a gradual awakening to the fact that his plans for a radical reinvention of Confederation is an idea greeted with about as much enthusiasm as the pine beetles ravaging the forests of Western Canada. His 2005-06 campaign once again proposed to drive a stake through the Grits’ long-promised national daycare initiative, But it did call for a raft of goodies including child-tax credits, daycare-related subsidies and even tax breaks on the purchase of tools for building-tradespeople. In vowing a 2 percent cut in the loathed Goods and Services Tax, Harper was at least beginning to honour a promise the Liberal’s reneged upon: to scrap the tax altogether. And Harper put a muzzle on his more outspoken candidates whose views were “off-message” with everyday Canadians—just as Red Tory Robert Stanfield long ago refused to sign the nomination papers of Leonard Jones when the popular Moncton mayor objected to official bilingualism.

Again, no one would mistake for genuine progress Harper’s recently unveiled Clean Air Act, with its ludicrous call for zero carbon-dioxide emissions by the year 2050—a target so far in the future as to be farcical. What’s relevant here, in a piece of proposed legislation widely panned even by his supporters in the press, is that Harper’s agenda is gradually becoming aligned with that of the public, just a year after taking office in January. His party’s opposition to same-sex marriage has morphed into a free, nonbinding vote in the Commons, rather than an earlier threat to invoke the notwithstanding clause in the Constitution. And since the recent demise of the neo-con agenda with the November 7 recapturing of both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives by the Democrats, Harper will see that mimicking the policy and even the language of the Bush administration (we must not “cut and run” from Afghanistan, Harper said earlier this year, before the GOP’s legislative disembowelment) is a policy dead-end now that Bush is about as unpopular with Americans as with Canadians.

Even before the landmark U.S. mid-term election, the Harper government had rebuked Washington over its intrusion into Canadian territory in the Arctic passage and a proposed mandatory passport for American travellers that threatened to gut tourism revenues for B&B operators on both sides of the border. Ottawa will now find that its new best friends in the U.S. capital are Democratic committee chairs Charlie Rangel, Ike Skeleton, Henry Waxman and Hillary Clinton, and not the lame-duck president and his even less popular veep.

Far from being on the wane, Red Toryism will continue to assert itself as it has done since John A. Macdonald perfected it in the early years of Confederation. It is not, to repeat, a daring or visionary style of governance. However, it is a necessary corrective to occasional excesses of progressivism, whose best ideas it has routinely co-opted.

As a group, neo-conservatives are utterly reliant on the pragmatism of skilful politicians to see their views become law. And you can count on one hand the number of skilful politicians who want to ram the edicts of extremists down the throats of Canadian voters.

Neo-conservatism is the wave of the past. Its one virtue—the tidy life of ideological “moral clarity”—is hopelessly undermined by its polarization of those who are “right” and “wrong,” its obvious service to the self-interest of a select few, and the dead end of negativism. Progressivism is messy, disputatious, experimental, often hobbled by curiosity about imagined possibilities when decisiveness is called for— and it is the dominant factor in elevating the human condition since the origin of the species. It is not for the faint of heart or mind. Even that progress most widely acknowledged as necessary is a tough sell. As Robert Kennedy said, “One-fifth of the people are against everything all the time.” The genius of Red Toryism has been to embrace and popularize progress whenever it has threatened to morph into a radicalism that might tear down the good with the bad. Thus Red Toryism in its various forms has long endured as the populist, pragmatic expression of progressivism. Only when progress goes out of fashion will Red Tories.

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