The political tectonic plates which underlie our nation have always been moving, albeit often quite slowly, as tectonic plates are wont to do. Every now and then, though, there comes a bit of an upheaval, often regional in scale; the equivalent of a political earthquake strikes. Sometimes, the political earthquake sparks a tsunami, which ends up deluging other parts of the country. Like earthquakes, though, there needs to be a certain degree of political friction at play before the actual event occurs. I believe we are in the midst of a pressure-building situation right now, and that the quake and resulting tsunami it will unleash may mark another turning point in Canadian politics.
The Last Turning Point
The last great cataclysm occurred nationally back when Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was in power. I remember precisely where I was when I first heard about it, although at the time, I obviously didn't identify the trigger event as significant. At 17 years of age, I was in Ottawa on my March Break, attending the Terry Fox Youth Centre for the “Encounters with Canada” program, which brought together about 150 students from all across Canada for a week's worth of study and fun.
On the bunk next to mine was a teenage guy from Alberta, who seemed to be intently following an obscure by-election taking place in Alberta. I remember him sitting on that lower bunk, with his radio plugged into his ears one night, and shouting enough to wake most of the male dormitory when it was announced that Deborah Grey had taken the seat for something called “the Reform Party”. That day in 1989 was the day that writing was put on the wall for the national Progressive Conservative Party.
As more western conservatives began parking their votes with Reform, and as the PC Party and Mulroney in particular began to appear as walking wounded, after the collapse of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords, their collapse led to the rise of the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec. Losing MP's in the west to reform and in Quebec to the Bloc, Mulroney's PC Party went on to lose all but 2 seats in the next general election. They never recovered.
Later, the rump of what was left under the PC's was eventually absorbed by the Canadian Alliance, which was essentially the Reform Party in nationalist clothing. This absorption, which some have called a “merger”, was the final nail in the coffin of national progressive conservatism. With this loss of this great national party, there remains to this day a bit of a vacuum in the national political scene, which some of the other parties, notably the Liberals, Conservatives and Greens are trying to fill. Even the NDP has appeared to move a little more to the right in hopes of attracting a group of voters who are now without a Party.
You might not agree with my interpretation of recent history here, and you almost certainly won't agree if you are informed by the mainstream media, who for some reason are fixated on the notion that the current Conservative Party is the direct descendent of the former Progressive Conservative Party. You're entitled to your opinion, and I have to admit, with the way in which the Conservatives have been behaving, it's certainly not at all clear that they instead emerged from a Reform heritage. But when the Conservative Party was put together, it was clearly done so with the notion of primarily advancing the Reform agenda.
The Success and Failure of Reform
The new Conservative Party, however, despite being labelled “Tory” by the media, was not always a good fit for many in the old Progressive Conservative Party. As a result, many who belonged to the old Party turned elsewhere; in some cases, to the Liberals, and in many other cases, to the Green Party. Many, of course, stayed on to join the Conservative Party, whether or not they bought completely into the Reformist Agenda.
Under Stephen Harper, however, it's been a little difficult for the Conservatives to implement completely the agenda of the Reform Party. Minority governments have, so far, kept this agenda somewhat in check. But Harper has been playing a masterful game, using all of the tools available to him, to break out of the minority situation. He realizes that to obtain a majority government, he must first break the Opposition. And the Opposition's weakest link has been the Liberal Party.
So, the Reform Agenda has gone on hold. Instead of reforming the senate, Harper has seized it, with patronage appointment after patronage appointment. He has used the Senate to kick-start a number of difficult bills which otherwise might have died in the lower chamber had they first been introduced there, due to the minority situation.
Instead of unbridled tax cuts for citizens, and the contingent cuts to programs leading to smaller government, we've seen an orgy of spending over the past couple of years. Since stimulus spending seemed to be the thing to do, the perception is that Harper hasn't even really lost his base support on this issue. Those who would otherwise be up in arms about all of the government spending have, for the most part, bought into the notion that Harper's hand was forced (clearly, the government, upon resuming office in 2008, had no intention of spending this money, and it was only the “coalition crisis” of December, 2008, which changed their minds), and that the tap will be turned off in early 2011. Of course, Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, also provided significant (and in my opinion, completely misguded) tax cuts as part of their “stimulus” package, which certainly appealed to Reform supporters.
Nationally, Reformers understand that their Conservative government appears largely to be heading in the right direction, and that they're just trying to play with the hand they've been dealt right now. In their hearts, Reformers know that Harper and the Conservatives aren't really happy with the actions they've had to take hold on to, and hopefully increase, their power. They're going to give Stephen Harper one more chance now to come clean as a Reformer before they begin to get too agitated.
This Reform base, however, has started to get more than a little agitated on other fronts, and that's why I suspect that Stephen Harper has been making as much noise as possible to shore up what is perceived to be his own base support. Again, the media would have us believe that Harper is not under threat from the members of his own Party, or the right-wing of Canadian political supporters. They see his stand on the long gun registry and the census as ideological measures, and not as political statements. Yet the Conservative Party's stance on both of these issues really does need to be understood in a wider context.
Law & Order and the Long Gun Registry
With regards to the gun registry, it was always very unlikely that the Conservatives would have ever changed their position that the registry, quite simply, has to go. This position is informed by their Reform roots; not so much by their Progressive Conservative roots. But Harper went about trying to kill the registry in a very interesting way, one which attempted to alienate neither side of his formerly divided party. The Bill to kill the registry was introduced by a backbencher, and not the government. And although Harper was a significant supporter of this bill, it could be said that the bill itself did not represent the government's will, because the government was not its sponsor. Interestingly, by introducing it as a private members bill, debate on the bill also caused some significant damage for both the Liberals and NDP, where many MP's from those parties in rural areas initially, and ultimately, voted to scrap the registry. This was a win-win for Harper.
However, anyone who takes a close look at the long gun registry must realize that it's a very good fit for the Conservatives “law and order” agenda which they keep seem to be going on about. Certainly, the majority of police chiefs across Canada came out in support of the registry. What kind of sense would it make for the Conservatives to go against the wishes of so many police chiefs, and others who support gun restrictions in the name of crime prevention?
The arguments offered by the Conservatives here were telling, as they were based on emotion only, rather than factual information. Police chiefs were derided for getting involved in political matters, and were told to keep their noses out of the government's business, even though they, like all Canadians, would be impacted by those same decisions. Canadians were told that while crime rates are increasing, due to unreported crime, and new prisons are necessary to presumably house those unreported criminals, that the Chiefs were out to lunch on thinking that the registry had any practical use as a crime fighting tool.
We'll never know what position the Progressive Conservative Party might have taken on the long gun registry debate, but what we can surmise is that their position likely would have been informed by their own law and order agenda, something which that Party used to hold front and centre during every election. What happened with the long gun registry debate was, in part, the emergence of the Reformist agenda which emphasizes the rights of individuals over those of the state to curtail those rights, in preference to a true law and order agenda.
The law and order agenda was, however, very much on display during the Vancouver Olympics, and at the G20 summit in Toronto. While Reformers no doubt don't like to see rioters looting in the streets (well, maybe in Toronto), I have to think that some Reformers felt less than comfortable with the notion of citizens being detained and imprisoned by the police for what appeared to be little or no reason. While Reformers tend to respect our law enforcement agencies, for the most part, they'd like to have the opportunity to respect them from a distance. People being rounded up and thrown into make-shift pens without reasons for arrest might have made some Reformers a little nervous about losing their “right” to keep unregistered guns.
The elimination of the long-form census was an easy bone for Harper and Tony Clement to throw to their Reformist supporters. Not only will it keep the state out of the homes of our nations by eliminating the mandatory requirement of completion, it will ultimately assist in reducing government spending, as it creates a situation in the future where government programs will be much more difficult to justify due to a lack of reliable data. Again, a win-win for Harper.
Although the Conservatives have come under a lot of fire over their decision to scrap the long form, they've stuck to their, er, guns on this one too. Is it because they really believe that the state shouldn't be putting its nose into Canadian homes, or is it because they've needed to throw a few sops to their core base of (Reform) supporters, in order to keep them on the good side of unruly?
The Rise of Conservative Populist Alternatives
Surly Stephen Harper is aware that the tectonic shift which started with the election of Deb Grey back in 1989 isn't quite over yet, even if it did directly lead to his becoming Prime Minister. The populism of the Reform Party has never truly gone away, and although much of its energy has been invested in his Party, there are an increasing number of conservative Reformers who are looking elsewhere for a brand of politics which isn't going to betray core beliefs.
In Alberta, we've seen the rise of the ultra-conservative Wildrose Party, with its populist small-government message. This party hopes to put an end to the decades-long rule of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party in Alberta, and might just end up doing it. The kind of conservatism on offer from the Premier Ed Stelmach and the PC's just doesn't mesh with the direction Wildrose wants to take the Province.
In British Columbia, the emerging BC First Party is also hoping to capitalize on this sort of populism, and if it can get its act together in time for the next election, it might pose a threat to all parties in B.C. The Saskatchewan Party has done a good job of corralling some of this populism in its own province, too, although I don't want to suggest that the SP remains today a party of popular dissent.
Even here in Northern Ontario, we have the newly founded Northern Ontario Heritage Party, which appears to be setting itself up in popular opposition to any of the other parties as, in their minds, they haven't done enough for the North when given the chance. It's quite possible that all parties might lose vote share to this newly resurrected party in next year's provincial election.
Should we be surprised at the rise of these primarily right-wing, populist, Reform-style parties on the provincial political landscape, especially given the popularity of the Tea Party movement south of the border? The answer is, no, not really, especially given the behaviour that we've been seeing on provincial stages from ruling parties who have participated in bail-outs and stimulus spending, driving up deficits and, frankly, offering no real solutions to voters regarding how we might end up getting ourselves out of this mess.
With the established parties devoid of new ideas, and content to play politics to conserve or grow their power, it's no wonder that people are beginning to turn away from these parties. And they are doing so in increasing numbers, and boy, are they angry.
The Green Party certainly appears to be one of the recipients of increased growth due to the mis-steps and lack of ideas offered by the established parties, but our Party is never going to be a home to discontented Reformers as long as we continue to espouse socially-progressive values. While Reformers might like our economic policies, if they acknowledge that climate change needs to be addressed (which many don't believe), our Party just doesn't make sense for the ultra-right wing. So new vehicles are needed for them to deliver their own dissent.
Stephen Harper knows this, and many of his decisions are made to show the Reformers, currently his supporters, that they don't need to look elsewhere for political comfort. As Harper tries to present himself as electable to those in the centre of Canadian politics, he risks alienating his core base, and so must focus at least some of his efforts on retaining those voters. So far, he appears to be doing a pretty good job of walking this fine line.
Threat and Opportunity for the Green Party
What we as Greens need to be concerned about over the next few years is how this continually rising populist tide threatens to undermine much of the good work which we know needs doing. As more and more people turn away from the mainstream parties, the more these mainstream parties are going to want to attract them back. Harper, already doing a good job of keeping these supporters all to himself, actually stands to gain additional adherents as voters become increasingly informed by right-wing media and by what they see as a small-government revolution taking place in the U.S.
With an antiquated electoral process in place which favours monied parties and rural voters, the Green Party will have a more difficult time breaking into the debate. As more and more people begin to question (re-question?) the science of climate change, and turn off to paying any sort of tax, our policies will resonate with fewer voters. Sure, we are doing well with the younger age demographic, and that's great, but power is much more concentrated in the hands of older, rural, wealthy voters who cast their ballots at a higher percentage than other age groups.
With the parties of the left divided (and here I am referring to the NDP, the Bloc, and I'll include the Greens too, somewhat reluctantly; but not the Liberals, because they are a Party whose primary interests lie with big business) by insurmountable differences, it's going to be very difficult to have much of an impact on the future direction of this nation. Greens need a strategy to force our way into this debate. Greens have done so successfully recently in the United Kingdom and in Australia by focusing their scarce resources in areas which could anticipate higher returns. I'm not suggesting that Greens write off whole segments of our nation, but I am strongly suggesting that we get serious about focusing our efforts on a few specific ridings in the next election. And that must be more than just our Leader's Saanich-Gulf Island riding, a place where many Greens simply can't help out. Guelph and Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound, and metropolitan ridings in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal must also be targeted.
Frankly, we need our own form of Green populism to begin opposing the right-wing Reform/Tea Party brand, before the Conservatives are handed a majority government. For that to happen, though, an increasing number of Liberals and NDP voters must begin to lose more faith in their parties, particularly when it comes to climate change and the economy. That may yet happen. Let's begin to position ourselves to capitalize on that growing discontent by getting ourselves better organized on the ground locally in areas where it matters most.
To do so, though, we're going to need to have a few more experienced people on the ground, willing to interact with and whip local organizations into shape. We can not continue with our default strategy of having voters come to us, largely through what they've heard in the media. If we are going to be a true alternative party, much more work must be done on the ground, and resources allocated by the Central Party to do so. Local Green associations must do more to reach out to the green-minded in their communities, and figure out some way to bring them on board. The threat of a populist, Reform-minded Conservative government has only led to limited success in the past. Maybe a Stephen Harper majority with a handful of elected Green MP's staring at them from across the House will change the game in our favour. It may mean 4 years of hell, and potentially irreversible damage done to our society, the economy and the environment, but since things aren't so hot in that respect anyway, maybe it's going to take Stephen Harper doing his best Mike Harris interpretation to wake people up.