It’s Conservatives who changed to fit Canada

TheGlobeandMail.com – news/commentary/opinion
Published Friday, Jul. 15, 2011. Last updated Saturday, Jul. 16, 2011.    Jeffrey Simpson

Grind your teeth all you want, opposition MPs. There’s more than a little truth in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent assertions that his party is “Canada’s party.”

True, roughly three-fifths of Canadians did not vote Conservative in the last election. True, too, would be that Mr. Harper ran the opposite of a conservative fiscal policy, having been a big spender from his first day in office.

Still, he won a string of minorities and now, with his new majority and the Liberals and Bloc Québécois routed, he bids fair to see his party in office for a decade. Critics don’t like what’s happened, but they should settle in for the long haul.

Worse for them, Conservatives will likely end 2011 in a stronger position yet. Conservative provincial parties are almost certain to win elections in Newfoundland and Saskatchewan later this year. Conservatives are ahead in the polls in two provinces governed by other parties – NDP in Manitoba and Liberals in Ontario – with elections set for October. Prince Edward Island and the Northwest Territories are voting this fall, but their electorates are too small to influence national trends.

If Manitoba and Ontario should go Conservative, the party would become the leading party – federally and provincially – everywhere west of Quebec. Throw in New Brunswick and Newfoundland, and the Conservatives would govern at least six provinces, with the B.C. “Liberal” government being, for all intents and purposes, a conservative government.

Where the population is growing, the voting pattern is becoming more Conservative. Where the country’s affluence is increasing, the voting pattern is becoming more Conservative.

Where people are inclined to give money to political parties, Conservatives are benefiting. Where people are inclined to vote (among the elderly in particular), Conservatives are benefiting.

Not for the first time, a political party – in this case the Conservatives – has borrowed another party’s approaches and been successful. The Conservatives spent money before and during the recession as if governing from the centre-left. For this, they were not criticized by their own hard-core conservative supporters, apart from scattered and inconsequential media voices.

There was no Tea Party movement in Canadian conservative ranks, no coterie of true believers in small government, just Conservative MPs who were as delighted to spread largesse around their districts. In this, they read their electorate correctly, since, for all the talk about Canadians moving in a conservative direction, most of them opposed any reduction in the ambit of government.

Farmers who are overwhelmingly Conservative still love either supply management or direct subsidies. Families with children love their child-care cheques, which cost the treasury a lot, can be considered a “tax expenditure” and therefore a form of government spending. Regional development grants, subsidies for energy projects, infrastructure spending galore, tax breaks for everything from kids’ ballet classes to truckers’ lunches – a whole panoply of government spending undertaken by these Conservatives would be unrecognizable to U.S. or British conservatives, but they work politically here.

Conservatives have challenged almost no sacred cow handed down from decades of Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments. To say therefore, as Mr. Harper has, that the country has become more conservative stands reality on its head. Rather, the Conservatives became more traditionally Canadian or, to put matters another way, have learned that Conservatives had to evolve from something much more ideological into something more malleable.

Having learned that lesson, the Conservatives became the country’s dominant political party, not so much because the country changed, although it has in a few ways, but because the party changed to fit the country.

The country is changing slowly in ways the Conservatives understood. The westward drift of the population helps the Conservatives, as does the aging of the population. The post-recession trauma left fewer Canadians supportive of big government solutions. The big, new immigrant groups from South Asia and China didn’t much look to government for solutions in their previous countries, and responded to the Conservative messages here.

The Quebec obsession that drove the country’s agenda for four decades, and remains the prism through which the occasional media commentator purports to understand Canada, is passé.

The Conservatives accepted many of the verities they inherited but had often denounced, and then adapted better than their opponents to the slow changes in Canada.

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