Canadians have soured on Big Government

Posted on June 10, 2011 in Governance History

Source: — Authors: – news
Jun. 9, 2011.    Kevin Libin

There was once a Canada where a vast part of the country believed deeply in the virtues of Big Government. Where the public rallied behind a man named Pierre Trudeau who promised he could, by force of will and policy, command an economy and engineer a society. Three decades after Trudeau -no doubt, in large part, because of Trudeau -that Canada no longer exists. The nation today is one where people are disenchanted with grand government schemes and large national projects, with the idea that government is good at all that much besides maintaining law and order and defending our borders. Canadians in 2011 are about as soured on Big Government as you can get.

That’s what the annual Barometer survey released Wednesday by the Manning Centre for Building Democracy suggests. Conducted in the days after the federal election, the poll offers the most helpful insight yet into why the Liberals suffered their worst defeat in history. In all their years in power, one of the Liberals’ most lasting achievements, it seems, has been to turn Canadians against liberalism.

Already, more Canadians (about 33%) identify themselves as Conservative than at any point since the mid-1980s; fewer Canadians (20%) are willing to call themselves Liberal than at any time since election studies began tracking in 1965.

“Party identification is more stable than votes,” says André Turcotte, the associate professor at Carleton University’s school of journalism, who coauthored the Barometer report with pollster Allan Gregg. That means the Liberals’ troubles run far deeper than having a flawed series of leaders; it means more Canadians than ever see a Liberal party foreign to their values and beliefs.

The survey tells us a lot about why. The Liberals’ legacy of championing multiculturalism and group rights has become a washout: 80% of us say we prefer government to treat us as individuals than as a member of some identity group. Canadians have had quite enough, too, of the moral relativism of the Trudeau legacy: only 18% of us agreed that “right and wrong” are merely a matter of the beholder’s eye.

Trudeau’s notions of a “just society,” deploying the power of government to rescue underperforming regions and individuals, has been largely lumped, as well: Though 56% of us generally agree that poor people are often victims of circumstance, and 63% of Canadians agree to some extent that we “all have a responsibility to look after those less fortunate than ourselves,” it would seem we wouldn’t readily trust that role to government.

Almost three-quarters of Canadians agree that when there are problems to be solved in this country, the government’s role is to “support individual initiatives first rather than always trying to find its own solutions.”

Nearly the same proportion believes government should focus on creating equality of opportunity rather than trying to engineer the equality of results, ensuring we all enjoy the same lifestyles. A majority of respondents, meanwhile, agreed that in most cases, the government’s attempts to rehabilitate criminals are doomed to failure, while fewer than a quarter of us are willing to buy that government action is the best medicine for economic problems.

Canadians’ confidence in the ability of government to fix our problems is clearly fading. Three times as many people say they’re losing faith that government can solve social challenges, like improving health care and education, or environmental issues, as those who say their confidence is growing in government remedies; twice as many Canadians report decreased confidence in the government’s ability to addressing economic challenges than are encouraged by the government’s record.

After watching time and again as large-scale government schemes are tried and fail -think: the National Energy Program; the Kyoto accord; or the disastrous constitutional upheavals that were the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords -the Canadian mainstream, it seems, has developed a strong taste for small-government conservatism, says Preston Manning, founder of the Manning Centre and the former leader of the Reform party. Two out of three Canadians say they want the government to “get smaller” and out of their way so they can do more for themselves. This cannot be comforting news for a Liberal party that has stood for so long for the power of government as an agent of good.

Far from disavowing the Trudeau legacy of meddling, the Liberals maintain him as an icon in the party, looming larger than the more restrained Laurier. Trudeau’s successors, reared on the legend, have sought largely to emulate his fetish for sweeping endeavours, whether it’s realigning the national economy with a climateminded Green Shift, proclaiming the Kelowna accord the saviour of First Nations, stripping the notwithstanding clause from the Charter of Rights or developing a national daycare strategy. It’s true that such bold plans haven’t only tempted Liberals: Brian Mulroney wears the blame for Meech Lake and Charlottetown. But only the Liberals -save, perhaps, Jean Chrétien, their last successful leader, who operated a notably unambitious, relatively conservative, agenda -seem yet to grasp that the population has moved on.

“I think it’s harder for them because they’ve been on that kick,” in part because they’ve governed for such a large part of the last four decades, Mr. Manning says. Canadians aren’t necessarily ideological about small government, the way the U.S. Tea Party might be, he says; it’s that they’ve been burned too many times by big -usually Liberal -government failures.

Still, the Barometer survey, accurate within 3.1 percentage points nine-and-a-half times out of 10, doesn’t suggest the Conservatives are perfectly attuned to Canadians’ values either: Three-quarters of us believe politicians don’t share our views, up from 62% just six years ago, and we generally handed them low marks for focusing on important issues, and the work we expect from them. Stephen Harper, meanwhile, has hardly distinguished himself as a crusader for reining in government growth. But in an era when Canadians would rather rely on themselves and community to solve problems before government, it would seem that more staid, boring and workaday management -as exemplified by the yawner that was Monday’s budget -at least bothers Canadians far less than the prospect of yet more visionary ventures that the hard lessons of experience have taught us are destined only to disappoint.

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