How big business stooges replaced Canada’s old-school Tories

ELECTION FEATURE by Gregory Beatty

Scene: an Oct. 1 Prairie Dog story meeting. Flapping his lips as usual: Prairie Dog editor Stephen Whitworth.

“His supporters just don’t understand that Stephen Harper isn’t even conservative,” our editor squawks, wild-eyed and over-caffeinated. “Harper and his party are an [expletive deleted] pack of [deleted] corporate stooges selling Canada out to their [deleted, deleted]-sucking big business puppet-masters. And no one gets it!

“The average Harper supporter thinks these [deleted-deleteds] are sticking up for him, when in actual fact they’re sticking a [deleted] right up his [censored],” Whitworth continues, wiping spit from his chin.

“Greg! Write a piece about how today’s Conservatives are a bunch of phoney Tories that no real conservative would ever vote for!”

I’ll see what I can do, chief.

Canada’s first elected government following Confederation in 1867 was the Conservative Party under John A. Macdonald. Outside of a five-year stretch from 1873-78, the Conservatives held power until defeated by the Wilfred Laurier-led Liberals in 1896. The Liberals proceeded to reel off three straight victories, sparking a prolonged period of domination that earned them the label Canada’s “natural governing party.”

In 1942, the Conservatives even tweaked their name to Progressive Conservatives to woo more centrist voters. But electoral success still largely eluded them outside of six years in government under John Diefenbaker (1957-63) and nine years under Brian Mulroney (1984-93).

Now, of course, the PCs no longer exist federally. Instead, we have the Stephen Harper-led Conservative Party of Canada. While the name recalls the glory days of Sir John A, this isn’t, as the old adage goes, your great grandparents’ (or even grandparents’/parents’) Conservative Party.

“By a traditional conservative in English Canada, because Quebec’s different, we’re really talking about a Tory,” says University of Regina associate political science professor Jim Farney.

And what’s a Tory? “They looked to the UK, and believed in a fairly hierarchical society with some sort of hereditary privilege, but also obligation; they’re for the monarchy; and once you get past World War 2, they’re often big fans of the welfare state and redistribution.”

For decades, the PCs were sufficiently progressive that they could even attract so-called Red Tories such as Robert Stanfield (of Stanfield underwear fame, who led the party from 1967-76), Joe Clark (who served as prime minster in 1979-80), Flora Macdonald, Barbara McDougall, Hugh Segal and many others.

These days, says Farney, Red Tories are hard to find in federal politics.

“The way federalism has evolved, a lot of Red Tory issues [health, education, social welfare] are provincial now. Under Harper deliberately, and under Chretien and Martin in a de facto way, the feds have backed off that type of leadership. So those voices are more likely to be active at a provincial level.”

While political parties have core values that they promote in their policy platforms, they don’t exist in a political vacuum. And since the late 1970s, there’s been a rightward lurch toward neoliberalism — the economic philosophy that puts business ahead of public interest.

Internationally, U.S. president Ronald Reagan and UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher (with a healthy assist from Chicago economist Milton Friedman and “monetarist” theory) were the standard-bearers.

And in Canada?

“The shift was led by free market conservatives such as Brian Mulroney and Saskatchewan premier Grant Devine,” says Farney. “At the time, we thought they were cutting edge. That seems kind of funny now, but across the board in the English-speaking world we’re much more comfortable with markets now and less comfortable with the state than we once were.”

Former Red Tories have actually spoken out against the Harper Conservatives. Blue Tories, though, feel right at home. But they represent only one branch of the party tree.

The other is the Reform Party, founded in Alberta by Preston Manning in 1987.

Riding a wave of frustration with the Mulroney PCs (and caretaker PM Kim Campbell), the Reformers enjoyed an electoral breakthrough in the 1993 federal election, securing 52 seats while the PCs were reduced to two.

Under then-leader Jean Charest, the PCs rebounded to 20 seats in the 1997 election. The Reform Party increased its seat count as well to 60, but it remained stuck in western Canada and saddled with a reputation for redneck populism (well-deserved in most instances).

In short, prospects for growth in seat-rich Ontario and Quebec were slim.

To broaden its appeal among traditional conservatives, Reform morphed into the Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance in 2000 (the infamous CCRAP party). Finally, a formal merger was made with the Peter MacKay-led PCs in 2004 to unite the right and form the Conservative Party of Canada.

As champions of neoliberalism, says Farney, the Harper Conservatives have embraced globalization and policies like privatization, deregulation, austerity and corporate-friendly trade agreements.

“One reason leaders like Stanfield were comfortable with the nation state and noblesse oblige is they thought they were always going to be manufacturing underwear in Nova Scotia, so they were always going to be part of the ruling class. We’re part of a much more volatile global economy now, so that makes less sense.”

Tariff-protection to build the Canadian manufacturing sector was a key plank in the National Policy instituted by the Macdonald Conservatives in the 1870s. That was done to bolster the central Canadian economy, and was bitterly resented by western Canadians who were focused more on export trade in commodities and resources. With free trade and growing international commodity and resource markets in countries such as China and India, there’s been a shift in wealth, population and power to western Canada.

And that’s helped fuel the new conservative movement.

Throw in some evangelical/fundamentalist Christian elements (versus more mainstream Anglican/protestant beliefs before), some backlash against the struggle for equality by women, LBGTQs, visible minorities and others, a dwindling rural but expanding suburban power base —  and some U.S.-style patriotism that glorifies war and demonizes political opponents of every stripe — and you have the current Conservative Party that is so beloved by Prairie Dog and its readers (sarcasm).

“Across the spectrum on most issues, conservatives have become more individualistic and focused on the market and efficiency,” says Farney. “They have a complicated dance with individual rights because they don’t really trust the courts. But they really like individualism.

“That, to me, is the dominant strand in Canada — this free market or laissez-faire conservatism.”

So Whitworth is sort of right — the CPC aren’t classic Tories. They do, however, have the qualities of modern conservatives.

But does it matter? In a country where the rich keep getting richer and the rest of us keep working harder for less money, it’s not surprising so many people get the sense that Stephen Harper’s party — whatever we call them — cares more about big business than it does about Canada.

Something to think about when you vote.