The election of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government on January23, 2006 has significantly shifted the terms of the social policydebate in Canada. While in some respects the Harper governmentrepresents a continuation of the market-based neo-liberal trajectorythat has been set over the last 20 some years, in other respects itrepresents a turn of a kind that we haven’t seen before at thefederal level in Canada.

Many aspects of the Conservative agenda arelikely to alter both the framework and nature of social policydiscussions. This ranges from specific program proposals in areassuch as child care and health care, to the federal-provincialdecentralization agenda; from proposals to enshrine property rightsin the constitution, to changes in the process of Supreme Court judgeselection that could have long-term implications for court challengesand equality-based claims.

Of particular concern, however, andpermeating through specific policy proposals, is a reformulation ofwhat the “social” itself means, both in terms of how we understandthe role and nature of “social” policy, and more fundamentally, howwe do or should constitute ourselves as social beings.

The Conservative election platform

In the Conservative party election platform issues to do with healthcare, child care, “security” for seniors, post-secondary education,as well as same-sex marriage, all fell under the rubric “Stand up forfamilies.” Significant in the Conservative platform was the absence ofany notion of “the social” in a broad, communitarian sense; in thesense of building “social foundations,” as the Liberals have recentlytended to call it, and certainly in the sense of encouraging acollective or social solidarity.

Indeed, what was striking was theapparent erasure of the very notion of “social policy” itself. Whatis left is simply a policy for (traditionally defined) families andindividuals; an emphasis on increased familial and self-reliancerather than reliance on the state for issues that fall in thecategory of the “social.”

The Conservative election platform reflected both a neo-liberal,market-based approach and, despite efforts to keep a moderate tone,strong elements of a social conservative agenda. This is likely tomean a continued shift both from the state to the market and from thestate to the family; a reconfiguration of what are public goods andwhat are private goods and responsibilities in both these ways. Thisdouble tendency can be seen in two of the major pronouncements insocial policy areas.

Child care

Child care became a major issue during the election. The Conservativespromised to rescind the bilateral agreements that the Liberalgovernment had signed with the 10 provinces and to withdraw from whatappeared, at last, to be some form of publicly-funded child care atthe federal level.

The Conservatives argued that whereas the Liberalsand NDP would “build a massive child-care bureaucracy,” their approachhas to do with choice: that “the best role for government is to letparents choose what’s best for their children whether that meansformal child care, informal care through neighbours or relatives, ora parent staying at home.”

The Conservative alternative, the Choicein Child-care Allowance, is to provide all families with a taxable$1,200 allowance per year for each child under six. In addition, theConservatives have promised to allocate $250 million a year in taxcredits to employers to help create child-care spaces.

Thesemeasures, however, in no sense constitute a child-care plan. Theformer is essentially a form of family allowance that has littledirectly to do with child care; the latter provides a limited amountof funds to cover capital costs, but not the ongoing expensesinvolved in operating a child-care centre. Most importantly for thesocial conservatives, it provides the option of increased statefunding to support the stay-at-home parent.

Health care

With respect to health care, the Conservatives have emphasizedreducing wait-times and have promised to work with the provinces todevelop a Patient Wait Times Guarantee to “ensure that all Canadiansreceive essential medical treatment within clinically acceptablewaiting times.” At the same time, they have signaled that they wouldallow for a mix of public and private health-care delivery. This, itseems, is the real issue. Highlighting the need to reduce “waittimes” has become a rational for allowing private health-caredelivery.

A new social order

Governments over the last 15 to 20 years have already moved wellalong the path of downloading responsibility for “the social” awayfrom the state and towards markets and families. The qualitativelynew dimension that the Harper government brings, however, is a newprominence given to a social conservative ideology.

The apparenterasure of “the social” in Conservative party documents is, ofcourse, something of an illusion. It is not simply a vacuum that isbeing left in terms of the role of the state in encouraging aparticular social framework, or in shaping social relations, and theway we interact with each other.

Rather, there is a particular typeof morality and social order that is being promoted; one thatincorporates notions of the “right” type of family, a particular typeof religious value, a law-and-order agenda and the removal of rightswith respect to same-sex marriage and reproductive choice.

Some commentators have suggested that Harper is not himself a socialconservative and that the party as a whole, in part through the needto appeal to a broader electorate, has become more moderate. WhileHarper’s political strategy may require proceeding cautiously with asocial conservative agenda, the ties to and pressures from thiscontingent need to be taken seriously. There can be no doubt that theelection of the Harper government is giving social conservativeelements a presence that they haven’t had before.

Harper’s roots inthe Reform/Alliance Party, his time spent at the head of the NationalCitizen’s Coalition and his close relationship to Tom Flanagan are allreminders of Harper’s own personal history. His past pronouncementssimilarly suggest, at the very least, a close engagement with socialconservative elements of the party.

In a telling article in 2003, forexample, he argued that since the economic agenda is now taken careof, what really needs to be addressed is the “social agenda of themodern Left,” particularly the welfare state and the damage that ishaving on institutions such as the family.

Beyond Harper’s personal views and history, pressure to move forwardon a social conservative agenda also results from the alliances andforces that form key elements within the Conservative party as awhole. The increased presence of the religious right and itsinfluence on and ties to various Conservative party members is ofparticular concern.

While traditionally the religious right has hadless of a presence in Canada then in the U.S., its influence hereappears to be growing. A number of Conservative candidates werenominated with the help of Christian leaders and a growing number ofevangelicals ran in the election.

The organization Egale identified34 first-time Conservative candidates as closely identified with theChristian right. Ten of these were elected. Some ten cabinet membershave been identified as social conservatives, including Vic Toews(Attorney General and Minister of Justice), Stockwell Day (PublicSafety) and Jim Flaherty (Finance). Other Conservatives with ties tothe Christian right include David Sweet (former head of PromiseKeepers Canada) and Maurice Vellacott, (with ties to Focus on theFamily Canada).

An increasing number of evangelical lobby groups,grassroots organizations and educational institutions have alsoestablished a presence in Ottawa. Many of these have links to groupsin the U.S. and have considerable influence with Conservative partymembers.

Implementing the social conservative agenda

The social conservative influence can already be seen in a number ofpolicy areas. As noted above, Conservative child-care proposals areformulated in a way that accommodates those who favour a traditionalfamily and stay-at-home solutions. In addition, the socialconservative agenda calls into question what were thought to beacquired rights with respect to individual choice in the area ofhousehold formation, sexuality and reproduction.

The Conservativeshave promised to hold a free vote on the definition of marriage, andif it passes, to introduce legislation “to restore the traditionaldefinition of marriage while respecting existing same-sex marriages.”A Globe and Mail survey found that 136 of the incoming MPs indicatedthat they are opposed to same-sex marriage, while 153 support it.There is, therefore, a very solid bloc opposing same-sex marriage anda vote on the issue would be close.

Women’s groups are also concerned about the Conservative agenda withrespect to abortion. During the election, Harper would only say thathis views on the issue are “complex” and that he “was not proceedingwith an abortion agenda.” It has been estimated, however, that thereare at least 90 anti-choice MPs in the new Parliament (including 16Liberals and 74 Conservatives) and a large number whose position isunknown.

Women’s groups are also concerned that a private member’sbill could be introduced on the subject. Conservative Party policyallows for free votes on issues of conscience, so even if Harper hassaid he won’t proceed with an abortion agenda, the issue couldnevertheless be introduced, debated and voted on.

There are alsoother ways in which reproductive rights could be affected, includingthrough the appointment of anti-choice ministers, possible fundingcuts for services and groups that are pro-choice, and throughencouraging delisting abortion as a medically necessary procedure.

Since Election Day the Conservatives have moved quickly to implementtheir agenda. In April it was reported that a coalition of socialconservative lobby groups was being mobilized in support of theConservative child-care plan. These groups include REAL Women, theCanada Family Action Coalition and the Institute for Canadian Values,“a faith-based public policy think tank.”

The May 2 budget furtherindicated the Conservative government’s intent to move decisively inthis area. Their child-care plan will be implemented through what theyare now calling the “Universal Child Care Benefit” (UCCB). Aspromised, this will provide families with $100 month (taxable) foreach child under age six, effective July 1, 2006. The government willcontinue with its plans to cancel the child-care agreements signed bythe previous Liberal government.

Other aspects of the budget includea range of tax cuts, significant increases in military spending, a $2billion cut in federal program spending, a withdrawal of commitmentsmade to Aboriginal people under the Kelowna Accord (which would haveprovided spending on health care, housing and other initiatives), aswell as the withdrawal of funding to implement the Kyoto plan.

Consequences of the new social agenda

Overall, then, in the area of social policy, the Conservative agendainvolves proposals for a new type of social and economic order, onethat involves not only the continuation — and probably a moreaggressive continuation — of a neo-liberal agenda of privatizationand market-based solutions, but also the promotion of certain ways offorming the social fabric.

This variant of neo-liberalism isn’t justabout increasing reliance on the market; it is also about intrusioninto private areas of family and household life, foreclosingpossibilities and (at least for a sizeable number in the Conservativebloc) imposing a narrow, religious-based morality.

The consequences ofthis range of possible changes for the provision of social services,the downloading onto unpaid labour in the home, for notions ofcommunity and solidarity, for the deepening of inequalities andincreased vulnerability of individuals and communities, for theability for people to lead independent and engaged lives, and to maketheir own choices in critical areas of their lives, are profound.

The Conservatives have advanced a discourse of “choice,” mostprominently in the area of child care. Yet many of their policies actin precisely the opposite way — to limit choice and foreclosepossibilities.

Looking at economic, labour market and social securityprovisions taken as a whole, it is difficult to see how anything otherthan more of the low wage, precarious type of work will flourish undera Harper government and that this will be accompanied by the continuederosion of the public and broader public sector (hospitals, schoolsetc.) that both provided more stable jobs and the type of servicesneeded for families, households and individuals to continue tofunction.

The result is likely to be an acceleration of the trend toa social and economic framework defined by a combination of moreprecarious work, and a reduction in state-provided income security,and where the choices and survival strategies available to peoplewill be very narrow indeed.

For the Left, this points to the need to understand the consequencesof a market-driven agenda, but also to take seriously the increasedpresence of social conservatives and their ability to tap into andconstruct responses to the insecurities of the current era. What theConservative platform indicates is the importance of taking intoaccount the social, as well as the economic aspects of neo-liberalismas a whole, and the importance of better understanding themulti-faceted ways in which the “relations of ruling” are currentlybeing reconstituted.

Ties to social conservative groups in the U.S.serve to remind us that imperialism does not just involve economicand political relations of power, but also the reformulation ofsocial relations at multiple levels. Currently Canadians do not as awhole give a lot of credibility to the tenets of social conservatism.However, the presence of such a strong current within the governmentdoes mean that issues that were thought settled five, 10, 20 or moreyears ago are once again open for debate.

For the Left, it willrequire not only a re-assertion of the importance of rights, forexample, in the area of reproductive choice, as well as collectiverights in the areas of social and economic policy, but, in addition,further debate on the type of alternative arrangements between theeconomic and the social that might be possible.