Harper pulls a shroud over Reform

TheStar.com – Opinion – Harper pulls a shroud over Reform
November 15, 2008. James Travers

WINNIPEG—Two sounds are rumbling east and west out of the Manitoba capital this weekend. One is the well-deserved, self-congratulating applause of victorious Conservatives. The other is the old Reform party rolling in its unquiet grave.

Most vestiges and any illusions that this is still Preston Manning’s grassroots movement are gone. This is not just Stephen Harper’s party; it is an organic manifestation of his political vision and strategic pragmatism.

Much of that transformation occurred, largely unnoticed, in the incremental way party thinker Tom Flanagan recommends for advancing the Conservative brand of deep blue conservatism. But if historians, biographers and those who poke the political entrails are looking for a defining moment, a point of departure, they can find it here at only the party’s second-ever policy convention.

Before leaving for Washington and today’s emergency G20 summit, the Prime Minister described his government’s new willingness to intervene, particularly with cash infusions for the banks, as a solid marriage of fiscal necessity and Conservative principle. Harper set up Ottawa’s considerable shift to federal activism almost as an aside in Thursday’s keynote speech. First he celebrated the significant Conservative triumphs – back-to-back election wins, significant gains from P.E.I. to the Liberal Ontario heartland and, most of all, unity where once there was division. Then he introduced his party to the discipline of power with a warning about the dangers of dogma.

“Our work has only begun and we will have to be both tough and pragmatic, not unrealistic or ideological, in dealing with the complex challenges before us.”

That is, apparently, a different Harper than the one dismissed as too rigid to unite the right let alone lead a nation of diverse component parts. That, surely, isn’t the same Harper who, during a recess from federal politics, led the uncompromising National Citizens Coalition or once advised Alberta to build firewalls against an intrusive Ottawa.

Whether personal growth or political flexibility, the change reflects the tainted prize Conservatives won a month plus a day ago. Harper’s new reality is the new reality for Canada and the world. It’s far removed from the low tax, low activity administrations Reform and its political progeny conceived in opposition and, up to a point, Harper executed in his first minority mandate and wanted a majority to advance.

Some of the free market, enlightened regulation rhetoric remains familiar. What’s not is the formula. Cash infusions and even auto industry bailouts will now unbalance budgets; politicians, not the invisible hand, will decide corporate fate, and government, along with the influence of bureaucrats maligned as the agents of elite interests, will grow, not shrink.

This is not what Harper believes or wants; it is not what drew him into politics or shaped his policies before sweet boom times went sour. Instead, it is what happens when theory is disturbed by events and one set of priorities collides with another.

Harper has another, primary objective that plants the tombstone on Reform as decisively as the financial meltdown forces Conservatives to mothball cherished economic principles. Expressed in the Prime Minister’s convention mantra that Conservatives are now Canada’s party, it is to replace Liberals as the default national choice.

A second minority, secured by a 1.3 percentage point growth in the popular vote, does not cement that transition. Instead, it puts any loose talk of Reform’s social conservatism, talk about democratic accountability, recalling parliamentarians, two-tier medicine and referendums on abortion and capital punishment, behind this convention’s mostly closed doors.

For the moment, and at least until circumstances become more favourable, Conservatives are a party of the centre; a party, like Liberals before them, doing anything necessary to win and then to govern.

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