Monday, January 30, 2006

Conservative Future

What does a Conservative government mean for Canada? Well, if you ask just about anybody, they will say "no much." Stephen Harper has gone out of his way in the last two election campaigns to tell Canadians that a Conservative vote is not a vote for ideological change but a vote for good government. In fact, he stated this point bluntly during the 2004 election when he said something like "this election is not about ideology." The news media does not seem to feel that conservativism in power will bring any fundamental changes either or, if they do, they have not bothered to tell Canadians. I can find stories in the news speculating on who will be a cabinet minister, for example, but nothing about what various trajectories of goverance under the Conservatives. Nor, does the NDP seem to feel that conservatism is anything to be too concerned about. Jack Layton periodically says he thinks that Conservatives are out of step with mainstream Canada but he is also signalling his willingness to work with the Conservatives on a range of issues as he did with the Liberals. Finally, Canadians don't seem to think that electing Conservatives is any big whop. Recent polling numbers suggest that over half of Conservative voters were not motivated by ideology but by the simple desire to throw the Liberal bums out. The votes of over half those who voted Conservative, then, should not be taken as an endorsement of conservativism but as a deisre to change the governing party. So ... no one thinks that electing conservatives signifies a big change. I wonder if they are right.

First, conservatives are conservatives for a reason. No one becomes a C/conservative simply because they dislike the Liberals or the NDP or Green or Bloc (no more than anyone becomes a L/liberal because they dislike the Conservatives, etc.). Conservativism is a political and philosophical position. One can think what one will of that position but its adherents are its adherents for reasons. Some self-defined Christians joined because they have a particular opposition to equality for gay people. Some people join because they have a pro-business agenda. Some people join because they support a free market in medical care and child care (instead of universal access programmes). Some people join because they feel that the Liberals have promoted a fiscal imbalance with the provinces. Should we believe that these feelings amounts to nothing? Should we believe, for example, that someone who runs for the Conservative party in opposition to same-sex marriage will now decide to do nothing about this? Or, that the Conservative commitment to channel billions into the military (billions that can't be spent on education, roads, healthcare, the environment) is ... well ... a lie? This seems bit of a stretch. To suggest that the election of a Conservative government will mean nothing is to suggest that what conservatives say means nothing. I don't believe this. I take them at their word.

Years ago, I lived in Ontario under Mike Harris when the provincial government started closing hospitals and instroducing the series of reforms that eventually lead to horrific events such as Walkerton because they felt there was no need to fund or supervise public health. People in the community in which I lived complained saying "but I didn't vote for this." "Did you vote Conservative?" I asked. "Yes." "Well, you did vote for this. Your vote is one of the reasons this is happening." I wonder if the people of Canada will start to feel the same way in a few years. I wonder if someone, upon discovering that they don't have a place for their child in a certified day care with a properly trained staff will wonder about the merits of their conservative vote. Perhaps they will. Perhaps they will just exclaim that they voted for daycare when, of course, they voted in precisely the opposite direction (the conservative promise to give poeple money for each child evaporates for children over 6, you know).

None of this is a reason not to vote conservative. If you support the corporate agenda, Conservatism is likely more for you than Liberalism and certainly much more for you than voting NDP. If you don't like state supervised day cares with guananteed spots for children but believe people should just fend for themselves in child care, well, then, conservatism is likely for you. Etc. None of these are philosophically indefensible positions. I don't like them but that doesn't make them wrong. What it does suggest to me, however, is that we need to think about the ideology of the government we have much more closely. We need to see that it does matter. It might not matter too too much at first. In fact, I think no one will notice an ideological shift in the Canadian government because: (1) journalists generally don't understand the importance of ideology (and may not understand the complexiites of political philosophy and so don't report on it) and (2) the government will be cautious in its approach t o a minoritiy Parliament and the fact that we have not seen a Conservative government in a long time. Brian Mulroney was very cautious in 1984, you will recall before unleashing the GST, free trade, a (very good) revised Multiculturalism, constitutional reform projects, etc. IOW, Mulroney's conservatism mattered. His government brought in a series of policies re Quebec, taxes, trade, and culture that were fundamentally different from the Liberalism that had preceeded them. Some were good -- I personally like the multiculturalism act they developeed -- and some were devisive (constitutional reform proved to be a minefield of discontent) and some were hated (the GST). In 1984, ideology made a difference to public policy. I wonder if it will again.
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