Abandon hope, all ye who enter the political fray: this is now Stephen Harper’s Canada.
Well, at least for the rest of the decade. Then he’ll give the keys back. Or be dead. One of the two.
Anyway, this premise is birthed from the minds of Ipsos Reid pollster Darrell Bricker and long-time Hill journalist-cum-columnist John Ibbitson in their new book: the Big Shift.
While the musical stylings of Bricker & Ibbitson might strike a chord with those of you at home sharpening your protest signs, audibly counting down the days until Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition takes down that brutal tyrant in the next election, (“SEVEN-HUNDRED AND NINETY EIGHT.”) there’s little doubt that the majority of “progressive” Canadians are fearful that their “progressive” view of Canada will be further under attack once Harper and his “neo-conservative” government wins another term.
It’s a load of hooey.
I’ll put a little disclaimer here that I’m going largely off second-hand info about the book, filled with a composite of what many pundits have been saying months. While I look forward to reading the book, I haven’t quite got to it yet.
THE END OF THE WHO-IN-THE-WHAT-NOW.
Let me begin with a theory. Put down that coffee cup, lest you break your computer screen:
The Liberal (or, liberal, lIBERAL, or any other capitalization scheme) golden age never ended.
The massive logical step that most advancing this Canada-is-more-conservative-than-ever theory step over is that Harper isn’t really that conservative. His government is, sure, more ideological than its predecessors. It has placed more of an importance on crime fighting, military might and government efficiency, sure, but those views were eschewed, often, by Chretien’s right-leaning Liberal government for most of the 90s. The only difference, oddly, is that Chretien often abandoned many of his big projects in the face of a big, hairy, deficit. Harper forges on, unabashed.
While the Liberals ran a style more managerial and political, Harper’s government is ideological and legacy-driven — politics, often, doesn’t enter the policy arena. But, in practise, the two governments aren’t doing anything tremendously different. Certainly the trappings of Harper’s government are a little worrying — an unapologetic disdain for the press, and the workings of parliament — but that could perhaps be chalked up to more the hyperpartisan and scandal-obsessed reality we live in moreso than Harper himself.
None of the ‘hidden agenda’ baloney has ever materialized. The scandals are hardly on par with the breathtaking manilla-envelope backdoor antics of the Liberal Party. Harper’s government, in effect, is just a Progressive Conservative regime with a little more backbone.
So the natural assumption that his continued governance is somehow emblematic of an Ayn Rand Typhoid Fever sweeping the nation is simply absurd. Surely the only ones who think Harper is a arch-conservative zealot are those not voting for him.
HARPER’S INVISIBLE FORTRESS
Now, the caramel center of the Bosom Buddies argument, the one wrapped in delicious milk chocolate, is that Harper maintains a sort of impregnable fortress that ensures his next victory. A Postmedia review of the book phrases it as thus:
“A coalition of influence and power has shifted to the West and Ontario suburbs, where the Tories are strong. Waves of immigration, much of it from Asia, have brought conservative values.”
Consider the following:
The NDP, Liberals, and Greens, as a bloc, received 800,000 more votes in 2011, over 2008. The Conservatives, only 600,000. The Conservatives had, by far, the best vote efficiency (number of their votes that were cast in ridings they won, over votes cast in ridings they lost) at 75%, vs the NDP’s 52%, the Liberals abysmal 21% and the Green’s 6%. Of the 43 seats the Liberals lost, nearly two-thirds were lost in Ontario and more than a third were lost to the NDP. The logic that the free-falling Liberal vote was the catalyst both for the NDP rise and the Conservative majority isn’t entirely correct — the most significant NDP bumps outside of Quebec, (+8% BC, +6% SK, +8% ON, +8% NB) cannot have come entirely from the Liberals, and is probably due in large part to siphoning off Conservative support.
Okay, so what does that hodgepodge of numbers mean?
This shit is: Really. Fucking. Complicated.
Trying to pass the buck on suburb-dwelling minivan-connoisseurs in Alberta and Ontario, or conservative Chinese people is a tad absurd.
First off, the notion that establishing a Western bloc was the stepping stone to Harper’s majority government is cuckoo banana pants. Since 2004, the Conservatives have picked up only four more seats in the West. They’ve lost one in BC, gained one in Alberta, and gained four in Manitoba. Given the NDP’s strong position in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, gaining nutrients from the rotting corpse of the Liberal Party that used to exist there, it seems entirely plausible that in 2015 — or even by way of some by-elections that may pop up — the NDP could erode the edges of this so-called Western base.
Of those 69 Conservative seats in the West, about 12 were seriously ‘in play’ for the NDP and Liberals in 2011 (within about 5,000 votes.)
And Mulcair is not a stupid man. While Layton position himself as a bon Quebecois in a years-long gambit to win over francophones, Mulcair is playing a similar game without our resource-rich provinces.
And the four seats that the Tories picked up on the other Coast, with all those damned unemployed fisherman, seems like but a flash in the pan. Polls show that East Coasters are simultaneously burying the hatchet with the Liberals and realizing that there’s some sort of NEW Democratic Party (“When’d that get thar, b’y?”) Eric Grenier over at ThreeHundredEight reckons the Tories could lose seven seats in the Atlantic if an election were held today. With the government still getting hammered on EI changes, that number could easily rise.
So that brings us to Ontario.
No doubt Ontario is the key to Harper’s success. While before he managed to cobble together a minority thanks to a tanking Liberal Party, a fractured opposition and some West coast support, Ontario pulled through just in time to stave off a difficult situation in the face of that pimply-faced NDP.
So this is where those suburbanites and New Canadians delivered the Conservative majority, right?
Only 15 of the Tory pick-ups in Ontario were in heavily immigrant or suburban areas, all from the Liberals. Those ridings were won, on average, by about 3,000 votes (range of 26 to 10,000.)
So this magical coalition of Westerners and immigrants (riffing on “Money and the ethnic vote,” I guess) simply does not exist.
OKAY, SO WHO RIGGED THE ELECTION
I posit a theory even more radical than everything stated here thus far:
People like the Conservative government.
Canadians, by and large, vote for four reasons: ideology, competence, tradition, ignorance.
The latter two, I believe, are virtually constant, and are — to an extent — synonymous. Paradoxically, both party members and I-vote-[X]-because-as-a-[Y]-I-have-to voters are almost the same, at least in terms of deciding election outcomes.
Now, Bricker and Ibbitson, as well as most Canadian pundits, would have you believe that ideology is the deciding factor in the Conservative rise to power. I believe that is categorically, demonstrably, and entirely wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong and wrong.
Competence, or the belief that a party or party leader is the best to govern the economy/healthcare/justice system, is the deciding factor in every election since at least 2006.
I would certainly argue that tradition, or complacency, tends to take over and that entropy erodes the need to think about a decision — i.e. how Chretien stayed in power for so long — Harper has stayed in power because he has consistency shown that, at the very least, he’s better than the other leaders at managing the economy and, at best, he’s simply the right guy for the job.
But competency is, by far, the most fickle of the four variables. Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, Gordon Campbell, Dalton McGuinty, Brian Mulroney, and a host of others were seen as leaders who would never die — until they did.
The assertion by believers like Bricker and Ibbitson is that Harper will weather any scandal, incompetence or challenge from a more competent leader because his electoral fortress is so strong. That, I think, is vastly over-simplified, in that they are painting many Canadians as mindless automatons who are mere conduits for a vote to a pre-ordained party decided by Ideological Robot Jesus. I, myself, don’t believe that theory.
Harper has won these elections because he is simultaneously seen as the best candidate to weather the economic storm, and because everyone else looks like a barely functional vegetable compared to him. Or some nuance thereof.
What betrays this ‘Harper’s decade’ school of thought is actually a crucial tenet of the belief — the idea that it will only last a decade. Surely our resource economy is only beginning to expand, and meanwhile our e-Harmony chat session with Asia is only the beginning foreplay in what will end up being a long-term relationship where they give us a lot of citizens (not a perfect metaphor, granted.)
So why not the Harper century?
No, Harper’s reign is as precarious as just about any in Canadian history. Certainly much more so than Chretien’s. As I’ve written many times, Harper’s grasp on the economy will slip like a hot dog through buttery hands as the economy turns around and Canadians look for competency in other areas. This is, perhaps, the NDP’s long-game on the road to 2015.
But if Harper does win again, it is not a symbol of the intense factorization of Canadians politics. It’s just Canadians sitting on a table, with three resumes in front of them, and deciding to renew Harper’s contract.