Thursday, December 31, 2020

Today's CPC Is Nothing Like Yesterday's PC Party

Today’s conservatives do not represent what used to be understood as conservative. Especially not anyone who grew up in the 60s and 70s, when the political movement was considerably left of where it is today. Leaders like Diefenbaker and Clark were considerably left of today’s party. In this essay, I will explore how that shift took place, and some of its implications for voters today.


For those interested in a little background on conservatism from a more academic perspective: 

I should point out that although today's conservatives are broadly described by these attributes, what the Britannica article fails to bring forward is the tendency towards authoritarian leadership that has emerged since the 1990s. I'll explore this more later. 

Canada’s conservative tradition started out aligned with the form it took in Britain in the 19th Century, in particular with the adoption of nationalist elements which ultimately led to the geo-political circumstances that started WWI and (arguably) WWII. 


The NeoConservatives

Now that I’ve chased off half of you because history is so damned dull, let’s skip ahead to the late 1970s, when we get the rise of the so-called “Neo-Conservatives” like Thatcher and Reagan. These two represent a turning point in conservative politics, and it's an important one that would start to take hold in Canada in the mid-1980s. 

"They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. ...(

This quote is hugely important for several reasons.  First, it is an articulation of Thatcher's rejection of the post-WWII "welfare state", but it is equally important for cracking open the door to the introduction of a much more strident form of individualism to the politics that eventually would come to be the "libertarian" wing of the movement.

Also important to note here is the creation of the International Democrat Union (IDU) in 1983, which includes the US GOP, UK Conservatives, and Canadian Progressive Conservatives as founding members. The importance of the IDU in coordinating conservative politics globally should not be overlooked, and in fact becomes very important to this discussion. 

Changes In Canada

Although the 1980s saw the PC Party in Canada under the leadership of Brian Mulroney governing, not all was well among conservatives in Canada.  Mulroney's second term would be rocked by the Airbus Affair corruption scandal which embroiled the Prime Minister himself, and would see the PC party reduced to two seats after the 1993 election

In Canada, while the Neo-Conservatives were rising in both the UK and US, the PCs were struggling federally.  They won a brief victory in the 1979 election with Joe Clark winning a minority government and defeating long-time Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. It would be the mid-1980s before a conservative Prime Minister would be elected - Brian Mulroney

I'm not going to characterize Mulroney as a "Neo-Conservative" here - that's a fairly complex discussion in its own right. However, his tenure as Prime Minister also marks the beginning of major changes in Canadian conservatism. First, Mulroney was very well aligned with Reagan (their friendship was well known, even celebrated on both sides of the border), and in some ways marks a major rapprochement between Canadian and American conservative politicians. 

Then there was the rise of the Reform movement in Alberta.  Led by Preston Manning,  the Reform movement capitalized on a combination of long-held frustrations with Ottawa over Alberta's apparent position in Canada's politics and resentments over the 1980 National Energy Program (NEP).  Initially, the Reform party was basically a protest movement with a generous dollop of "Prairie Populism" aimed at the Federal government in Ottawa thrown in for good measure.

Populist politicians have long held a winning position in Alberta politics starting with William Aberhart and including Premiers like Ernest Manning, Ralph Klein, and most recently Jason Kenney.  Alberta is also one of the "most American" of the provinces, due in large part to the relatively porous border between Montana and what was "The Northwest Territory" pre-confederation. There are a lot of family ties that cross the Canada-US border in Alberta. It is important to understand that with respect to the current CPC and the form it takes today.

The Rise of Reform

The rise of Reform in Canadian politics marks major changes in how conservatism is expressed in Canada.  Much of what I will discuss here is explored in considerable depth in Marci McDonald's excellent book "The Armageddon Factor" (if you haven't read this book yet, I encourage you to do so - it is far more thorough than I can be here). 

Although Reform started as a protest movement complaining very vocally about Alberta's seeming lack of influence in Ottawa, something else crept in quite quickly - Evangelical religious politics. Again, this is unsurprising if you know anything about Alberta.  Rural Alberta is very religious, and there is a significant amount of connection to the American Evangelical movement. Although early Reform MPs like Deborah Grey were clearly religious, they generally didn't spend a lot of time talking about it when discussing matters of policy.  

That would change after the 1993 election where the Reform Party jumped from 1 MP to 51. Opposition to gay rights was a particular burr for them, with several Alberta MPs making public statements that I can only politely call homophobic. (Myron Thompson among them). Other Social Conservative hobby horse issues like abortion quickly became important parts of party policy - officially or not. 

There’s a more concerning, and shadowy connection that emerges between Canada’s Reformers and US Conservatives: Morton Blackwell’s Leadership Institute (LI). Leadership Institute exists as a training ground for conservative political activists, and its primary role is to teach its participants a set of tools to forward the political objectives of a particular style of conservatism. Unsurprisingly, many of the rising stars of the Reform movement ended up attending training at LI (and they continue to do so).

The role of Blackwell's Leadership Institute cannot be underestimated.  It explains the increasingly "American" approach to politics we saw being imported into Canada starting with the 1993 election.  Most notoriously the infamous Chretien attack ad that the PCs attempted - which backfired entirely.  The use of these tactics continued to expand among conservative politicians over the next several elections, culminating in the Harper-led CPC managing to successfully "character-assassinate" two successive Liberal leaders - Stephane Dion, and Michael Ignatieff. 

The role of the Reform Movement in adopting more of the American style approaches to politics and campaigning is huge, and it marks the emergence of a significant degree of collaboration between conservatives in both countries. 

Merger and the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC)

Through the 1990s, the Reform party struggled to gain support beyond the Prairies. They made modest gains in BC, but couldn't seem to gain traction in Ontario.  Concurrently, the post-Mulroney era PCs sputtered along, gaining a handful of seats, but sitting firmly in last place in the house.  This gave rise to two major events:

1.  The Reform Party rebranding itself as "Canadian Alliance", an attempt to make itself more appealing to voters in central Canada by shedding some of the more overtly "pro-west" aspects of the party and shifting somewhat to the left of where Reform sat policy-wise. 
2.  The emergence of a "Unite The Right" campaign.

The first act garnered some modest gains for the new Canadian Alliance party - its first seats in Ontario.

The second part set the stage for both the return of Stephen Harper to elected politics, and the formation of what is now the CPC through a merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties. 

Stephen Harper's Role

It is Harper's time between leaving office as an MP in 1997 and becoming leader of the Canadian Alliance that I wish to draw your attention to:
In 1997, Harper delivered a controversial speech on Canadian identity to the Council for National Policy, a conservative American think tank. He made comments such as "Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it", "if you're like all Americans, you know almost nothing except for your own country. Which makes you probably knowledgeable about one more country than most Canadians", and "the NDP [New Democratic Party] is kind of proof that the Devil lives and interferes in the affairs of men."[57]

I'm no fan of Stephen Harper, so you can guess my personal reaction to these comments.  They reflect many of the things I have come to dislike about Harper's politics, and the rising Americanization of Canada's conservatives.

The first point here is Harper speaking to the Council for National Policy. You don't get "noticed" by these people very easily.  Harper becoming visible to them speaks to a great deal of interconnectedness between Canada's Reformers and American conservatives. The second point I wish to raise is how those very statements reflect attitudes that I believe are strongly influenced by Margaret Thatcher.  They also reflect strongly the disdain that Harper always exhibited towards Canadians in general. 

Whether Harper himself is a Social Conservative (SoCon) is a matter of some debate. I don't think he is myself (even though he does attend an evangelical church). My impression based on his overall background is that he comes more from the "American Libertarian" side of things. However, he was very conscious of the SoCon wing of the party and its importance.  Hence while in office he allowed a significant amount of SoCon legislation to be tabled as "private member's bills", and they would progress until Harper decided the political price of letting them go further was too high.

This brings me to one of the most interesting and puzzling things about the CPC - the seeming alignment between the libertarians and the SoCons.  Consider that a libertarian generally wants less government interference in people's lives, and the SoCon so often wants to impose all sorts of very expensive laws to regulate people's behaviours.  How is it that they can co-exist?  The short answer is this:  the Social Conservatives have learned to wrap libertarians around their own positions by arguing that "it's just a different opinion, right?", and in doing so appealing to the libertarian's instincts regarding "freedom".  After all, shouldn't the "free market of ideas" prevail?  

The second role that Harper played was to run out of the CPC most of the moderate "PC" elements. If you weren't closely affiliated with the Reformers out of Alberta, or with Mike Harris' Ontario PCs, you found yourself largely isolated politically. It is particularly notable that after the merger of the two parties, Joe Clark refused to sit as a member of the CPC caucus.  


It is notable that for the most part, the CPC policy platform is largely unchanged from the CA and Reform platforms. There's been some polishing of language, but it is largely the same basic platform.  It was a big deal in 2015 when the party finally dropped its opposition to gay marriage - and at that really just replaced it with "we don't talk about it at the dinner table".  

However, that policy platform is markedly shifted quite a bit right of where the PCs ever sat, and is substantially aligned with the US GOP these days:  Taxes are too high, more for the corporations, harsher punishments for crime, etc.  

How did it become so closely aligned? It's not difficult to see why.  If the strategy, tactics and training are being shared by both US and Canadian conservatives, it stands to reason that the much larger body of US conservatives is going to strongly influence the Canadians exposed to their ideas. New conservative activists end up travelling in the states helping campaigns.  In the past, Rob Anders was a paid heckler for GOP campaigns; more recently Alberta MLA Devin Dreeshen spent quite a bit of time helping the Trump campaign. Also, we should note that when Preston Manning set up the Manning Centre, he modelled it on Blackwell's Leadership Institute - even engaging Blackwell in the process of setting it up. 


Where are we today?  Harper has left the CPC as leader, and the party is on its second leader since 2015. Yet, little seems to have changed. Usually a new leader attempts to put their "stamp" on the party by introducing new policies, or trying to change direction.  Yet, neither Andrew Scheer nor Erin O'Toole have done so to any extent. 

Why is that?  In large part because with Harper at the helm of the IDU (remember them?), conservative parties around the globe have begun moving much more in lock-step with each other.  Consider the following in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The US went with a "herd immunity strategy" (which failed miserably); the UK Conservatives were going to do likewise until public pressure forced Johnson to change direction; Canada's CPC was similarly "skeptical" about how bad the pandemic would be.  Politicians in all 3 countries used almost identical talking points.  

This is not a coincidence.  It is easy to think of Harper as "an aberration" in Canadian politics.  Except he isn't - his tenure was the culmination of over 20 years of organizing. Today, he remains hugely influential in the party (some accuse him of controlling it from behind the scenes).  Provincially, several Premiers are clearly following in Harper's footsteps (Kenney, Moe, Ford, and to a lesser degree Palliser) both in terms of policy and style.  

In a manner similar to Thatcher's rejection of the long-standing "accommodation" of the Welfare State, Harper and his allies also reject any kind of collaboration outside the conservative bubble. Although Trump may not have been "inside the bubble" at the outset, he pleased many conservatives with his willingness to dismantle everything that Obama had done since 2008.  Similarly, in Alberta, when Kenney took power, the first thing he moved to do was dismantle everything that the previous NDP government had done, regardless of its merits.  

The role of the IDU has moved out of the shadows and into the forefront.  It's quite clear now that the IDU plays a huge role in communicating "conservative ideals" to its member parties.  Today's CPC isn't even measurably similar party to the PC party it absorbed in 2003.  

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