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What Harper means by ‘Canada becoming more conservative’

September 20, 2008

I finally figured out what Stephen Harper is talking about when he says Canada has been becoming more conservative over the past few decades.  Its always escaped me what he means because I see Canadians only getting more liberal on social justice, equality and other issues.  But I’m starting to piece it together.

Harper talks about debt reduction, balanced budgets, and lowering taxes and that,

We saw the Liberal party in the 1990s flip all of its previous positions on these issues, and adopt small-c conservative positions.

So what he seems to mean is that the fiscally reasonable policies of constraint and planning of the Chretien/Martin governments is actually a co-opting of conservative values.  There are a couple simple reasons it never occurred to me this is what he meant:

  1. The Alliance/Reform Party rose up and killed a party that did define conservatism as just these fiscal issues, the Progressive Conservative party.  If the new Conservative Party of Canada was really just trying to be conservative the way Joe Clark was conservative, or even the way Brian Mulroney was conservative, then why did they have to destroy the PCs in the first place?
  2. I don’t think of Liberals as tax and spenders who don’t have balanced budgets because I’m not old enough to remember any Prime Minister before Mulroney.  And one of the major distinctions I do remember between those two governments was that the Liberals all of a sudden found a way to not have a massive deficit every year and actually have surplus left over.  So for me, and anyone who gives the last 20 years more weight than the previous 20 years, the Liberals are the party of fiscal constraint.  The fact that the current Conservative government has managed to make the surplus almost disappear in just a few years doesn’t help clarify the issue either.

So now that we know what the heck Harper is talking about, what is the implication?  Well, he’s only saying this because he wants to try to point out that Canadians believe in balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility and that the Liberals somehow stole these ideas from conservative ideology in order to win elections. Therefore, ipso facto,  Canadians have been becoming more conservative in the past 20 years.  Of course all it really means is that Canadians have become used to a financially solvent governments and they kinda like it.  But then the next thing they always say is, that they have a plan…

Not only do we want to pull Canadians towards conservatism, also Conservatives have to move towards Canadians if they want to continue to govern the country.

First they say Canadians are becoming more conservative, then they say they want to move Canadians more towards Conservatism.  So which is it?  As always in Canadian politics, it all comes down to capitalization, which doesn’t come across too well in speeches.

The kind of ‘conservative’ Harper says we are all moving towards, is small-c, its the PC party and Chretien Liberal type of conservatism. Its about money and keeping track of it in a reasonable manner.  The kind of Conservatism that Harper wants to move us towards slowly over time must then be something else, it must be social conservatism.  Harper is partaking of a bit of double speak here to associate the fact of balanced budgets with the word conservative and then say he just wants us to be more Conservative when really what he means is more socially conservative.

So there you have it, I find it quite surprising how explicit Harper is about some of this.  He admits his party is not mainstream and that he wants to change the culture of Canada to match his ideology.  Frankly I find the arrogance implicit in this plan offensive.  Am I so malleable ideologically that you can you can convince me, slowly over time, that I really believe in ‘small town values’ and Conservatism?  Does he hope to slowly convince me somehow that gays should not marry by being fantastic at governing reasonably and them pointing out that he, the Prime Minister,  doesn’t think they should marry?  Is this supposed to somehow sway my fundamentally ideology about human rights?

Stephen Harper seems to believe that political leaders can shape the core beliefs of the public by setting an example and slowing moving them.  But he’s actually got it backwards. Politicians state their opinions and beliefs and the public chooses those to lead that they feel most reflect their own and who they trust. That is why although Canada has more and more come to accept fiscal responsibility as a mandatory requirement for all parties they have at the same time diversified their support across liberal leaning parties like the Greens and the NDP.

The Conservatives aren’t winning this culture war that they are trying to start, they’ve already lost it. Recent studies show that Canadians are changing their political allegiance but its not from Liberal to Conservative, its from whatever they were to ‘None of the Above’. Voters are refusing to be loyal to parties of the past on idealogical grounds when they all behave the same in government anyways.   But the Conservatives are trying to snatch victory from this defeat by convincing us that one of our basic requirements for governing is actually ‘conservative’ rather than just plain old reasonable.  Harper needs to be careful about this and the other parties need to pick up on it.  Because Canadians may not know exactly what they believe but they don’t want to move towards ideologically charged type of politics we see in the US and they most definetly don’t like being told what to think by their leaders.

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