Sunday, March 21, 2010

Walkom: We are all Red Tories

Maybe Canadians are all Red Tories or a majority of us but there seem to be a lot less Red Tories in the Conservative Party. Who are they? No doubt there is some truth in what Walkom has to say but the Conservatives no longer even bother to put Progressive in front of Conservative and they are still able to survive. Contrast the recent NDP governments in Saskatchewan actually selling off government assets while warning the voters that the Saskatchewan party would do that! Consider the same government adopting a royalty system that was more generous to the oil companies than that of Alberta Tories! The Manning poll may be wrong about whether individual Canadians have moved to the right in their ideas but certainly Canadian political parties have long done so. The NDP new slogan might be summed up as Long Live the Third Way. This is from the TorontoStar.


Walkom: Why we're all Red Tories



By Thomas Walkom
National Affairs Columnist
Are Canadians becoming more conservative? Those around Prime Minister Stephen Harper believe so. I'm not so sure. I think they are confusing how Canadians view the world with the Conservative government's success in rearticulating that view.

While close, the two concepts are analytically separate. And that's important.

But first the evidence. The notion that Canada is undergoing an ideological shift has been around for a while. It got a boost last week when the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, a conservative think tank, released a poll that concludes the political centre is indeed moving rightward.

"The colour of the centre has shifted from red to blue," think-tank head and former Reform Party chief Preston Manning declared.

His poll appears to jibe with the continued success of Harper's Conservatives who, although twice unable to capture a majority of Commons seats, have at least won the country's grudging acceptance.

And its implicit lesson for both the Liberals and the New Democrats seems to be that if they are to succeed, they must move even further to the right.

I say "seems" because the Manning Centre poll, once examined more carefully, doesn't indicate much that is new about the Canadian electorate.

If anything, it reveals how divorced mainstream Canadians are from the politics of both the Manning Centre itself (which, among other things, wants to gut medicare) and the hard core around Harper.

For instance: Fewer than half those polled firmly believe that a strong military is essential to Canada. Four out of five support Canada withdrawing its troops from the Afghan war. More than 80 per cent think government should have a major role in managing the economy.

Only a minority (26 per cent) strongly believe that private enterprise is the best way to solve economic problems. About the same number (31 per cent) say that such problems could best be solved through government action.

A striking 82 per cent want government to play some role in alleviating income inequality between the rich and the poor. And 84 per cent of those who define themselves as centrist are adamantly opposed to private hospitals.

None of this is hard core conservative doctrine. Quite the opposite. So why the confusion?

Part of the answer is that this interpretation suits the aims of those who paid for the poll. The Manning Centre, according to its website, was set up to build a coherent conservative movement in Canada. And it's been doing its best – running a campaign school for conservatives, a program to link political and religious rightists and a how-to course for conservatives who think they might win power.

But most of this confusion, I think, stems from a fundamental misunderstanding about where Canadians situate themselves ideologically.

The first truth about mainstream Canadian ideology is that it is invisible. Canadians insist they have no ideology. That's why the vast majority always identify themselves as centrist.

But, like everyone else, Canadians have views about what the world is and should be – which is what ideology is. Ideologically, Canada is, in many ways, small-c conservative. It always has been.

So when the Manning Centre pollsters find that the majority of Canadians value family above all else, prefer incremental to radical change and think that the best way to solve problems is by learning from past experience, no one should be surprised.

Liberals value their families no less than Conservatives. Successful New Democrats, such as former Manitoba premier Gary Doer or Saskatchewan's Roy Romanow, prospered through their mastery of incremental change. Tommy Douglas, the iconic social democrat viewed as the father of Canadian medicare, was eminently practical.

The Manning poll found that 60 per cent of those polled strongly believe that abortion is morally wrong. But it also found that most believe government should not try to regulate morality.

Again, what's new? This was the position of former Liberal prime minister Jean Chr├ętien as well as his successor Paul Martin, both of whom opposed abortion privately but supported the right of others to make their own choices.

When Pierre Trudeau famously declared that the state had no business in the bedrooms of the nation, he was tapping into a heartfelt and ultimately conservative Canadian notion that governments should keep their noses out of private affairs.

But the other half of Canadian ideology is its tendency toward communalism. The original reasons for this lie deep in our history and are well-known: We are a small population in a large land faced with a not-always-friendly neighbour to the south and dominated economically by large interests – from the Hudson's Bay Co. to the Canadian Pacific Railroad to the nickel mining giant Vale Inco.

All of this has produced, in Canada, an ideological willingness to use government and other kinds of communal organizations –such as co-ops, trade unions or agricultural marketing boards – as countervailing forces.

In the United States, conservatism and communalism (described there as liberalism) are constantly at war with one another. In Canada, they have quietly merged into what political scientist Gad Horowitz famously labelled the ideology of the Red Tory.

In fact, most successful Canadian political movements are variations on the Red Tory theme – from the Progressive Conservatives, who governed Ontario for four decades, to the federal Liberals, who operate under the slogan of combining fiscal conservatism with social liberalism.

Even the New Democrats are inherently conservative, struggling not to revolutionize society but to buttress it against the excesses of an inherently unstable, global, free-market world. Harper's skill so far has lain in his ability to tap into those elements of Canada's dominant Red Tory view of the world and redefine it in a language that supports his own, more robust, American-style brand of conservatism.

He killed a national child care scheme that he viewed as ideologically repugnant by replacing it with the classic Liberal baby bonus system – one that married Canadians' love of family (let parents decide what's best for their children) with their equal penchant for government grants (in this case, $100 per young child per month).

Then he defined it as a victory of choice over the nanny state.

He sold his decision to increase military spending by focusing on Arctic sovereignty, which in turn appealed to the country's mythic view of itself as an imperilled northern nation in need of strong state support.

But in spite of his efforts, he was never able to persuade the country that this newly beefed up military should be used to indefinitely support the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Harper has done much to make his version of conservatism palatable to Canadians. But my guess is that in the end, he too will be constrained by the country's ideological contradictions.

As the Manning poll found, we may not think that the federal government is terribly relevant to our lives.

But we believe – again as the Manning poll found – that it should be.

Thomas Walkom's regular column appears Wednesday and Saturday