Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/11/2011 (2034 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A new cottage industry in Canada has sprung up from the May 2 election giving Prime Minister Stephen Harper his "strong, stable, majority Conservative government."
It's a lively debate over which political ideology will wither and die as a result of the seismic political shift. Will it be the left? The centre? The new right as embodied by Harper's Conservatives? Will the centre-left coalesce? If it does, can it win?
Each perspective has its champion.
Veteran political journalist and author Peter Newman devotes his 16th book, When the Gods Changed - The Death of Liberal Canada, released earlier this fall, to the thesis that the Liberals, Canada's erstwhile "natural governing party" once considered the most successful political formation in the western world, is finished. He reiterates its death sentence in every interview.
Newman's analysis received some backing from University of Toronto political scientist Stephen Clarkson. Writing in the October issue of the Literary Review of Canada, Clarkson questions whether Canada itself, let alone the Liberal party, can withstand the political polarization occasioned by the death of the Progressive Conservative party. In sharp contrast to its replacement, the hyper-partisan, hard-right Harper Conservatives, the PCs embraced the Canadian consensus of activist government.
The Liberals may have straddled the partisan centre in the late 20th century, he writes, "but more important for... their future prospects and those of Canada's centrist politics is the way that they -- as well as the Progressive Conservatives -- typically worked within the evolving consensus by accepting the main positions they inherited from their just-defeated opponents."
Not so the Harper Conservatives, he says. Harper, "has rejected consensual centrism in favour of a program carefully conceived to overturn the social-market legacy he has inherited."
He describes Harper as "a dangerous figure" who "threatens the country's constitutional heritage," and warns of his "deep hostility to the previous centrist consensus" and "his lack of respect for the institution of Parliament." And he calls for what he describes as "the former centre" to come together to provide "the left alternative to Harper's extremism."
Clarkson's call to arms prompted a sarcastic letter from University of Calgary political scientist and longtime Harper strategist and confidant Tom Flanagan, published in the November issue of the LRC. In it, Flanagan mocks Clarkson and argues that instead, it's the right that has disappeared.
"I can feel Clarkson's pain," Flanagan writes. "He sees Stephen Harper as a dangerous reactionary, bent on dismantling all the wonderful achievements of the old Liberal consensus; but others see that Harper bought into the Liberal consensus as the price of achieving power.
"Henry of Navarre famously said 'Paris is worth a Mass,' as he converted to Catholicism to become King Henry IV of France," continues Flanagan. "Harper has not only gone to mass; he has said rosaries and novenas on his way to majority government."
Flanagan then lists the many ways in which Harper has watered his right-wing wine to accommodate Canada's centre-left zeitgeist. The prime minister has "adopted the Liberal shibboleths of bilingualism and multiculturalism," Flanagan notes. "He has no plans to introduce capital punishment, criminalize abortion, repeal gay marriage or repeal the Charter (of Rights and Freedoms). He swears allegiance to the Canada Health Act. He has enriched equalization for the provinces and pogey for individuals... Yes, he has terminated a few Liberal programs, but government programs are not immortal... The Liberal consensus lives on. It's just under new management."
Another prominent Canadian political journalist, Anthony Westell, former Ottawa bureau chief of The Globe and Mail, national affairs columnist for the Toronto Star and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York, among other honours, also challenges Clarkson's thesis in a letter published alongside Flanagan's.
"Stephen Clarkson suggests the centre in Canadian politics has disappeared," Westell writes. "May I suggest another interpretation: it is the left that has disappeared."
Even before Jack Layton, the NDP had been edging into the centre, competing with the Liberals, Westell argues. "In the recent election in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper ran one of the most dishonest campaigns in history, (Layton) focused and succeeded in destroying the inept and inexperienced leader, Michael Ignatieff," Westell continues. "No ideologue, Layton seized the opportunity to occupy the centre. It remains to be seen if the Liberals will join the NDP at the centre, or, as Harper no doubt hopes, reopen the battle with the NDP and so split the centre vote."
Academics and authors will continue their debate. But unless the parties do their ideological sorting-out themselves, they may find the electorate does it for them in 2015.
Frances Russell is a Winnipeg
author and political commentator.