Sam Coates and I are currently touring the Anglosphere – meeting conservative politicians, writers and policy researchers. Last week I published a report card on US conservatism and today there is this extended post on Canada’s Conservative Party. Next Friday I’ll write about conservatism in Australia before writing a series of more general reflections on 28 days of travels.
Although Conservatives played the leading role in the founding of
Canada and led much of the country’s original development, the Liberals
have dominated the nation’s politics for nearly one hundred years. The
Liberal Party has ruled the Ottawa Parliament for more than 80% of the
last century. The Liberals’ recent long run of power only came to an
end after massive corruption during Prime Minister Chretien’s years was
exposed by new media. Even then, however, Stephen Harper’s
Conservatives were only able to win enough extra seats to become a
minority government. The Liberal Party has dominated Canadian politics
because of its successful attempt to identify itself with key sources
of Canadian identity. This has allowed it to build a broad and
enduring electoral coalition. In the same way that Britain’s Labour
Party has attempted to ‘own’ national symbols like the NHS, the
Liberals have attempted to ‘own’ the nation’s commitment to
immigration, to public healthcare, involvement in UN peacekeeping and
to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In the last two elections
the Liberal Party campaigned under the slogan ‘Choose Your Canada’ –
implying that the Conservatives were somehow alien to Canada’s national
Stephen Harper wants to end Liberal dominance and build an enduring Conservative majority
Stephen Harper became Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister early last
year. The Conservatives’ journey back to power after losing all but
two seats in the early 1990s was a long and arduous one. The nation’s
right had split into competing parties during much of the Chretien
years – contributing to Liberal dominance. Harper was the architect of
the rebirth of a united right – knitting together Reformers,
Progressive Conservatives and right-of-centre activists of various
political stripes who had ceased being involved in federal politics.
This fixer role was somewhat ironic because he was an original
‘splitter’ – helping to found Reform. Harper reminds many observers of
John Howard. He is not especially charismatic but he combines enormous
attention to maintaining internal party unity with a masterful instinct
for the art of coalition-building. Like Howard he is a practical
ideologue. His long-term aim is nothing less than a realignment of
Canadian politics. He wants to grow the Conservative electoral
coalition to include groups affiliated with the Liberals for much of
the 20th Century: French-speaking Catholics, aspirational working class
and lower middle class voters and immigrants of non-northern European
descent. This strategy will help him to make inroads where he
particularly needs to: the suburbs around Toronto, Canada’s largest
city, and rural, French-speaking Quebec.
The Conservative Party is 30 seats short of a majority and currently only holds ten of Quebec’s 75 seats (called ridings). French-speaking Quebec is therefore key to Harper’s ambitions for majority status although it is essential that in wooing Quebec the Conservatives do not frighten Western and Central voters. Harper works very hard at improving his French and begins all news conferences in the language. Although his Afghan and general foreign policy is unpopular with Quebec’s voters he hopes that the party’s deep support for more powers to be devolved to the provinces will create long-term support in this independent-minded part of Canada and contrast with the Liberals’ preference for a more centralised Canada. Last December the Conservatives secured parliamentary recognition of the Quebecois people as a nation. Although wholly symbolic Francophone Quebecers were hugely appreciative. The nativist views of rural Quebec could also underpin a Conservative renaissance in the province. Many Conservatives hope that Maxime Bernier (pictured) will succeed Stephen Harper as Conservative leader. Bernier is currently Industry Minister and is libertarian in his economic outlook. His mix of social and economic views will appeal to the Conservatives’ bedrock support in Alberta and Ontario. His personal roots in Quebec, where he has built one of the largest parliamentary majorities, may help the party to win the seats it needs to become the province’s largest party. He’s also well-placed to persuade Quebecers of the desirability of some economic liberalisation.
Margaret Thatcher built her majorities with the help of Essex Man. John Howard won the support of ‘battlers’ to become the world’s most successful conservative leader of recent times. The ‘Reagan Democrats’ ended Carter’s Presidency and gave President Reagan his landslide win over Mondale in 1984. ConservativeHome has recommended a ‘Morrisons Voter’ strategy to broaden Project Cameron. Stephen Harper has followed the same path. He has understood that left-leaning parties are making electoral inroads into wealthier, more cosmopolitan sections of the electorate and conservative parties can only prosper if they detach lower income voters from the left. The electoral group most targeted by Harper has been called ‘Tim Horton voters’ after the popular food chain that emphasises value for money and community involvement rather than frills or brand snob appeal. The policy formulation process carefully targets these voters. There have been tax breaks for parents who enroll their children in sports clubs. Another tax relief has subsidised the lunches of Canada’s huge army of truck drivers. These tax breaks are hated by those free marketeers who want a simpler tax code but opinion research says that they are much more impactful on voters than larger and more conventional forms of tax cut. As a Canadian Conservative strategist told me: There’s no point in delivering tax cuts if people do not know that they are getting it.
Immigrants to Canada
Many conservative parties around the world – notably John Howard’s Liberals – have built majorities through very tough approaches to immigration. Canada’s Conservatives have, for the moment, eschewed this approach. The nation has welcomed large numbers of immigrants for many years. The policy began by the Liberals became cross-party under Brian Mulroney when he markedly increased the annual number of immigrants. Some on the Canadian right want a much stricter policy. They want Canada to recruit fewer Muslims, in particular, and move emigration offices away from, for example, the Punjabi region of India. A different approach is currently prevailing. The Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity Minister Jason Kenney devotes his time to connecting with immigrant communities that the Liberals regard as their heartland. Rejecting the Liberal approach of dispensing grants to immigrant community organisations the Conservatives are emphasising traditional values – particularly in appealing to religious immigrants.
The biggest changes in policy made by Stephen Harper have been in foreign affairs. His administration has placed a strong emphasis on a hemispheric strategy: bolstering Canada’s sovereignty over the Arctic, improving relations with Washington and re-engaging with Latin America. But Mr Harper has also placed a big emphasis on the Anglosphere. This speech in Britain last year was a tremendous statement of the importance of the Canada-UK relationship. Canada’s NATO commitment has been deepened in Afghanistan. Sixty-six Canadian servicemen have died there and Harper makes a telephone call to the family of every fallen soldier. Canada’s military have long been starved of resources and the Conservatives are trying to make amends. In addition to extra resources they are liberalising procurement policies. There is more willingness to buy from abroad if it means that Canada’s armed forces get better equipment more quickly. Liam Fox has noticed this shift in policy and wants UK defence policy to learn from its successes. Perhaps the biggest foreign policy change of all has been the new government’s approach to the Middle East. Last summer Stephen Harper joined other Anglosphere leaders – Tony Blair, George W Bush and John Howard – in offering solid support for Israel in its conflict with Hezbollah. Canada even beat the USA to become the first nation in the world to cease aid to the Hamas-led Palestinian government. Although the wider pro-Israel shift has created some political difficulties in Quebec the policy has won widespread support from Canada’s 350,000 Jews.
Other Conservative policies
As a minority government there have been limits on what Stephen Harper has been able to do. Control of spending has, for example, been impossible. Spending has been rising by two or three times the rate of inflation – partly to buy parliamentary support from other parties. The huge raw material boom that has turned Alberta’s economy red hot is, for the moment at least, making these spending rises affordable – Harper has been running balanced budgets and is cutting national debt. There has also been room for tax relief. With Tim Hortons voters in mind there has been a 1% cut in the Goods and Services Tax. This is part of a $41.5bn tax relief plan over two years. In place of a Liberal promise to subsidise daycare facilities there have been across-the-board tax reductions for all families with young children. Telecom reforms should cut the price of mobile phone use in the years ahead. New minimum sentences have been introduced for a range of crimes and extra police officers have been recruited. Harper has initiated moves to elect and term-limit the members of the Upper House. He has moved away from Kyoto environmentalism without renouncing it. Instead of big promises to curb global warming – promises that Chretien’s Liberals were unable to keep – Conservative environmental policy has emphasised more local and achievable improvements in air quality, habitat protection and improved disposal of toxic waste.
A weak conservative infrastructure
If Canada’s Conservative Party is to succeed it will do so without anything like the conservative infrastructure that nourishes the Republican Party south of the border. Former Reform leader Preston Manning is investing in a series of conferences to train young conservatives in building new organisations and running campaigns. The Fraser Institute and Montreal Economic Institute provide detailed policy thinking but are not campaigners. Blogging Tories is the clearing house for an increasingly lively right-of-centre webroots and the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation is a twenty year-old campaign against government waste and higher taxes. But they are Davids when set against the left-leaning newspapers and television stations that dominate the media marketplace. The National Post newspaper – particularly when John O’Sullivan ran its editorial pages – looked set to perform the intellectual leadership role that the Wall Street Journal played in America but it has now drifted somewhat into a platform for a broader range of views. Macleans magazine – the Canadian Time – has also found more space for conservative perspectives under the respected Ken Whyte. The Conservative Government itself is seemingly aware of the need to change the terms of national discourse. It has defunded a range of leftist advocacy groups that grew fat from Liberal Government subsidies. It is also carefully including a range of more mainstream groups – particularly Christian, farming and hunting associations – that have previously been seriously listened to by Ottawa’s political establishment.
Eighteen months after becoming Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s popularity ratings are more or less the same as when he was elected although Canadians are becoming more relaxed with the idea of having Conservatives in charge. David Frum told me that he has yet to close the deal with the Canadian people and some commentators worry that he would be vulnerable to a Liberal Party with a stronger leader – such as Michael Ignatieff. A new election could be called at any time but the unpopularity of Stephane Dion, the current Liberal leader, means that there is no imminent likelihood that the Liberals will force a ballot. Dion has been subject to relentless blog and video attacks from Canada’s Conservatives (see the ‘Not A Leader’ videos). They have helped the public come to see him as remote from average Canadians. The news that he ate a hot dog with a knife and fork has become totemic and was lampooned throughout the blogosphere. There are now strict limits on the size of donations to Canada’s political parties. This has forced the parties into forms of retail fundraising and Canada’s Conservatives are proving much more adept at it. They have a much bigger warchest for the making and broadcasting of US-style TV adverts. The next Conservative campaign will be run from a modern, multi-media campaign centre in the suburbs of Ottawa. There is certainly an optimism amongst Canada’s Conservatives. The long years in opposition have produced a real hunger and desire to stay in power and build a governing majority. With conservatives struggling in Britain, America and Australia we can only hope that Team Harper will succeed.