Stephen Harper: Killing off Canadian conservatism

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A new book by former Progressive Conservative prime minister and foreign minister Joe Clark takes dead aim at Stephen Harper. The current prime minister has proven unable to build relationships with other governments. Adopting an "almost adolescent" tone internationally, Harper has preferred making bold statements that lead nowhere, to taking concrete action in support of peace-making, international development and human rights. 

Clark sees Harper with his obsessive controlling attitude to politics forcing his partisanship agenda into foreign policy decision-making. Traditional Canadian goals and concerns get lost, and diplomatic advice from foreign policy professionals counts for nothing.

Like everything else about the Harper regime, matters of government, including foreign policy, are secondary to party fundraising. The permanent election campaign being waged by the party office demands all issues be framed to appeal to the party base.

The creation of the Conservative Party of Canada was very much the work of Stephen Harper. It has become increasingly apparent that a main outcome has been to bury the doctrine that animated Conservative party leaders before Harper: Canadian conservatism.

There is no doubt the prime minister identifies with American Republicans who call themselves conservatives. His policy ideas would be familiar to any reader of the American conservative organ The Weekly Standard for instance.

Harper embraces Conservative with a capital C because it is his party label. What he has succeeded in burying is Canadian small-c conservative thought, as exemplified by Canadian leaders of the Conservative party since Sir John A. Macdonald and Georges Étienne Cartier at the time of Confederation in 1867, and brought forth by other Conservative party leaders, at least until Brian Mulroney (more of a big-business liberal than a conservative) forced Joe Clark out of the party leadership. 

Sources of Canadian conservative thought are to be found principally in Britain, not the United States. Canadian conservatives resembled the British Tory party in their attachment to country, institutions and history. For conservatives, abstractions such as democracy and reason were better left to liberals.

Conservatives knew that the human race was weak, and that individuals needed support from society if they were to make something of themselves. The church, the army, the judiciary, universities, and parliamentary government were what moulded character.

While liberals looked to individual success through the "free" market economy, conservatives built government infrastructure, and being no great believers in "competition" tolerated business monopolies.

Ontario is the homeland of Canadian conservatism. Its conservatives championed commercial capital, insurance, real estate, agriculture and banking. Protectionist tariffs invited foreign owners to take major positions in manufacturing industries.

The "national policy" enacted by Macdonald produced its greatest success under the Liberal Laurier, whose term in office (1896-1911) coincided with the end of the world economic depression, and the beginning of the Canadian wheat boom. When Laurier championed "free trade" with the U.S., Ontario threw him out of office.

Canadian Tory times were tough times: R.B. Bennett governed during the Depression; but his institutional creations, the CBC, Canadian National Railways, and the Bank of Canada, served Canada well for decades after.

As Gordon Laxer and Trevor Harrison showed in their 1995 book The Trojan Horse the misuse of the Conservative party label began in Alberta when Ralph Klein introduced a false populist rhetoric, using a bombastic appeal to the people, to trash so-called elites (people who disagreed with him) and push a smaller, lesser government agenda.

In Ontario, Mike Harris claimed to be the tax fighter. His small government workout included public boxing matches with teachers and other public sector workers.

Like socialists, traditionally conservatives have understood that societies are made of social classes. Whereas socialists wanted to overthrow or reform the social order, conservatives have worked to maintain and enhance it.

Conservatives see Canadian society as layered by income, education and social status. A conservative answer to the question of who should govern is a noble one: the best qualified, the most capable individuals should take up public service in the interest of the country as a whole.

This conservative ideal of service provides a sharp contrast to the false populist rants against elites heard from Klein, Harris or Harper.

The traditional conservative message for citizens to heed authority, the rule of law, and do pretty much as they were told to do, suffered when compared to liberal ideas about freedom and individual choice.

Attempts to portray conservatives as "progressive" opened a new conflict with so-called "social" conservatives, and "theo-cons" with strong religious convictions, people like Stephen Harper, conservatives who simultaneously embraced market liberalism.

Once an aide to Progressive Conservative MP James Hawkes, Harper  joined the Reform Party of Preston Manning (later the Canadian Alliance), and took up its fight against Mulroney Conservatives for right-wing hegemony in Western Canada. By the time Harper became leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2002, he was ready to make peace with the Conservatives, and in 2003 became leader of the new CPC.

A modern Conservative party would be a leader on the environment, not leading a fight against the environmental movement. A true conservative would want to protect water resources, not trash environmental protection for lakes and other sources of fresh water. A true conservative would strengthen environmental regulations and promote scientific research, not promote resource exploitation, and attack knowledge-based institutions.

Duncan Cameron is the president of rabble.ca and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Dave Cournoyer/flickr

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