Quitting the Conservatives: A personal and political journey

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There was a point when I got tired of feeling angry. Not the kind of anger that wells up when you witness a single act of injustice. Or the fleeting ire associated with assembling a baby's crib. Or the flaring tempers that accompany a heated exchange. More of a perpetual annoyance.

Maybe it was when my daughter was born. I stood in the delivery room, overwhelmed by this tiny blue creature, and as she took in those first breaths, turned pink and sought her mother's breast, I was overcome. When I went home later in the day to pick up a few things to bring back to the hospital and to have a shower, I cried. I wept tears of joy to see my baby girl and I wept tears thinking about the future she would inherit.

From 1995 until 2004, I was a Conservative. I joined the Ontario Progressive Conservatives shortly after the Harris sweep in 1995. At the time, I was caught up in the fervor surrounding change and in the referendum in Quebec.

In my third year at the University of Toronto, I was asked if I wanted to go to Montreal to wave flags and howl "non" to the referendum. For a modest fee of $30, which covered the bus ride and the hotel, I was more interested in a weekend in Montreal than being "political".

The people I went with all belonged to the UofT Progressive Conservative campus association.  Before long, I was a member. I acted as a Conservative Minister and as the deputy leader of the opposition in Model Parliament. I became Vice-President of the UofT Tories. I had a found a group of friends who shared similar interests and were associated with Ontario's new governing party.

Working for the Ontario Harris regime

I spent a summer working for the Ontario PC party, was a summer intern to Finance Minister Ernie Eves, and then became an aide to Health Minister Jim Wilson. It was not a glamorous job. I drove the Minister to events and eventually, when he became more comfortable with me, I worked on issues for his constituency and provided the odd piece of political advice.

As some in the Ontario public grew more vocally opposed to the Harris regime, standing in front of Queen's Park, waving placards, shouting epithets at passing MPPs, we in government started to circle the wagons. When feeling besieged, you end up finding comfort in those with similar ideals and values. You shut out your detractors or demean them. And demeaning opponents was something at which the Harris government was very good.

Divide and conquer. Instill fear. Demoralize. Simple, savvy yet unsavoury  political tools. Going after the poor was easy. Canadians, for all of their fanciful notions about a just society, still quite often see the poor as authors of their own predicament. While we're not the rugged individualists like our southern brethren, we still maintain a Victorian attitude toward the poor. Pull yourself up, get a job, never mind all of those things that have worked against you like abuse, addiction, depression, illiteracy, lost opportunities. Suck it up and get to work.

The poor have no power and little by way of a voice. Sure, there are coalitions and action groups and concerned citizens and the New Democrats. But look what they’re up against. Values and mores and people who simply do not identify with those living in poverty.

And when you portray those living in poverty as impediments to an efficient economy, who hoover up tax dollars that should go to stuff the rest of us need like health care and education (create divisions between social programs! Brilliant), who can find jobs if they really try, even if they're minimum wage, working-poor McJobs, then you mobilize people. Just to get those who are a little leery of your 22 per cent cut to welfare, who have a suspicion that this may be a bit mean-spirited, you start a few rumours. You know, that one about that person on welfare who had a big-screen TV and a nice car. Or you find one or two cases of welfare abuse and then hold these up as normal examples of a system gone bloated and rotten.

For me, the breaking point started with Bill 160, the Education Quality Improvement Act, which is an action-oriented name for a bill that does none of these things.  I remember walking up the steps to the east lobby of Queen's Park and meeting with some annoyed teachers. They hated this legislation and Harris with a passion I had never seen displayed toward any government. And I used to watch my grandmother throw her slippers at the TV whenever Lyin' Brian Mulroney's chin invaded the living room.

They met me with such venom and vitriol. I was a lowly staffer. A nobody. Hell, they didn’t even know that I worked for "the bad guys." I was just some dork in a suit, wearing a security pass, waltzing past the Queen's Park guards.

I didn't feel like circling the wagons anymore. I like, no, I love, teachers. It is one of the most noble professions. We entrust our kids to them, they help shape our society, they help us plan for the future. And we made them really angry by decimating their profession and demoralizing them.

Around this time, my brother had moved to Vancouver to live with our dad. After spending two weeks vacationing on the west coast, I returned to Toronto, resigned from my job, packed up my stuff, and left for British Columbia. I figured I was through with politics.

But once bitten by the political bug, it's tough to walk away. This is why we see perennially losing politicians keep trying to win a seat, or seek office in another level of government with the faint hope of one day returning to their old jobs.

The BC Liberal years

I read the newspaper daily and was disgusted with the reported mess of Glen Clark's NDP government. I had to get back in. Do something. I applied for and got a job as a researcher with the BC Liberals.

Each day I'd work on Question Period questions, hoping that I'd uncover some foul scandal. I'd write the question that left the NDP Minister sputtering, the media scrambling, the government in shambles. Anything I could do to push these socialist cretins over the edge and lift the iron veil that shadowed BC and let prosperity and milk and honey once again flow in Lotus Land.

How the media and the BC Liberals worked so beautifully in concert together. Each NDP misstep was conflated into some outrageous scandal, heads would be demanded, admonishing voices would bellow, and British Columbians wondered if the governing NDP were full of evil, bent on destroying the province.

When former BC Attorney General, now Liberal MP, Ujjal Dosanjh, appeared in front of cameras to declare that his boss, Premier Glen Clark, was being investigated by the RCMP for  accepting favours in return for granting a casino license, and when the RCMP brought along a TV crew to film the raid on Clark's private residence, it was over for the NDP (Clark was acquitted of all charges in 2002). Dan Miller became the caretaker Premier while the NDP held a convention for a new leader. The winner was Dosanjh. When he finally called an election in 2001, the NDP was a wreck. My job was easy, in fact I felt a bit cruel poking at this lame creature, kicking its already buckling legs out from under it.

The BC Liberals won almost every seat, save two. I was appointed to work in Premier Gordon Campbell's inner sanctum and finished my days with the BC Liberals as the Ministerial Assistant assigned to fix the troubled Ministry of Health Planning.

The BC Liberals were nothing like the Harris crowd. I worked with hard right Conservatives, Red Tories, Chretien Liberals and Martin Liberals and a few MLAs who probably should have joined the NDP. But some of the policies were the same as those heralded by the Ontario PCs: too much emphasis on the economy and efficiency, and reducing people and human behaviour to mere measures of productivity and profitability.

Loathing for unions was present -- a disgust that I think was more historically-based than borne in the moment the BC Liberals won power.

I didn't have much of a social justice and certainly not a socialist awakening while working for the BC Liberals. They did a few things I disagreed with, but that's not extraordinary unless you are a mindless robot who bows to whatever the party pronounces. Indeed, I met some wonderful people in that caucus who were certain that what they were doing would make BC a better place to live. For example, the current Finance Minister, Colin Hansen, is one of the nicest human beings I've ever met in politics. In fact, I wondered how he could stomach the polemical, and at times nasty, world of politics. Linda Reid was another Liberal MLA; a woman who genuinely cared about kids and children with special needs. Gordon Hogg, a Liberal Cabinet Minister, was quick with a laugh, honest and filled his office with toys and stuffed animals. A child at heart who gave his heart to caring for foster kids.

These three people were nothing like the furrowed-browed, angry Harris Conservatives. The first time I saw Deb Hutton, the wife of current PC leader Tim Hudak and a former top level advisor to Harris and Eves, she was screaming a stream of "fucks" into a phone at some poor sod who probably made a minor error. When I turned to a colleague and asked who the Fury was, he shushed me and warned that she was the mighty Deb Hutton.

When I quit the BC Liberals in 2003 and returned home to Toronto (a city that is the centre of my universe), I had started my odyssey toward the left of the political spectrum. As I said, I didn't have an awakening, but ideas were starting to percolate.

Disgusted with the Bush administration

My voyage started, as it often does for me, with writers. I started with Naomi Klein's "No Logo". By the end of it, I was waving the tome around, raving about the book. Discussion with some of my colleagues was immediately aborted when they dismissed any debate with a wave of the hand and declared Klein a "socialist."

Then I started paying more attention to the W. administration in the U.S. I was disgusted with everything most thinking people were disgusted with, but I was particularly bothered by the blurring of the line between church and state. The evangelical revivalism seemed so dissonant with the 21st century, a bizarre Biblical literalism that made, and continues to make, no sense to me. An administration obsessed with crusades and the supremacy of Christianity that made W. and his cronies barely distinguishable from some of the fundamentalists they were fighting.

I got into books and films by Michael Moore and Al Franken and Bill Maher. The right-wing in the south was so utterly confounding to me that I needed humourists to keep me from sinking into profound malaise and sorrow.

But I still wasn't ready to leave the Conservatives. However, I considered myself fiscally conservative and socially liberal. I was always opposed to capital punishment, I always supported a woman's right to choose, I always supported gay rights and later, gay marriage, and I fretted about the impact of rampant consumption.

But these Red Tory positions were becoming more unwelcome amongst the federal Conservative ranks; a party that had since merged with the Canadian Alliance and was, for all intents and purposes, a prettied-up, slightly toned down, Reform Party. Even many in the Harris government couldn't be bothered with heavy-handed social conservatism.

The Green Party, with its socially progressive yet fiscally conservative platform, appealed to me. I could keep some of the values I held. But the party was going nowhere. Stalled and stagnant and not ready to be more than the sum of a few positions and the odd disillusioned New Democrat.

At the end of 2006, my daughter was born

Is this the world I want for her? One where the gap between rich and poor is widening; where limitless growth is lauded even when all of the evidence tells us to slow down; where so many groups and communities continue to be treated with disrespect, with old colonial, patriarchal attitudes, and where war and invasion sometimes trump dialogue.

The fact that health care and education and care for our children is equally accessible to all Canadians, regardless of station in life or resources, is what makes this a better place to live, but we risk it all when we chip away at these programs, outsourcing them to unaccountable private corporations whose mandate is the bottom line and not the human being.

Harper: Pandering to the lowest common denominator

I started to read more surveys and peer-reviewed journal articles that used evidence to support social justice policies, environmental initiatives, improving health care outcomes. I grew tired of seeing corrupt CEOs -- who don’t make anything except money using other people's money -- being lionized. I saw the Harper Conservatives, who mirror so much of what we Canadians loathed about George W. Bush: the anti-arts, the anti-science and anti-intellectual attitudes. Pandering to the lowest common denominator by using the dark arts of fear and demoralization, wrapping it all in the Canadian flag and cynical cup of Tim Horton's coffee. As if a maple leaf and shitty java are all this country is about.

We loved to mock W. and his merry gang of right-wing religious rubes. And then we voted his sinister, less charismatic doppelganger into office. And as support for Harper goes up, we've lost all moral authority to say anything about Americans being stone-age ignoramuses.

Is this it? Why would I support, toil, fight, for a political ideology that doesn’t need my help? Why would I labour on behalf of moneyed elites? They have loud voices, wield tremendous power. Hell, they own much of the mainstream media (except the CBC, which is owned by us. Which is why the Conservatives and their ilk hate the Ceeb). They don't need me.

I want, no, I need this to be a world where we spend more time caring for each other than fighting over scraps. Where if you are sick, you get the care you need and you don't lose your house in the process. That we stop growing and just appreciate what we have. And I want this to be a country where I can look at my little girl and say, there are no more glass ceilings sweetheart. We are all feminists. We are equal.

I don’t want to be ruled by this adolescent, solipsistic attitude that seems endemic to conservatism. No more rage. I want serenity. Knowing that I'm doing right.

And that's what it all came down to for me. Equality. No more disparities, or chasms, or rifts, or lonely individuals set out on an ice floe to suffer in solitude. Come together as a community. Right now.

I found these things in the New Democrats. As often as they are chided and ridiculed by the media and Liberals and Conservatives, in hindsight they are usually on the right side of history.

I want to be on the right side of history. I want to look my daughter in the eyes and say: "We did this for you."


Eric Mang served as a political aide in the Harris government in Ontario and the Campbell government in British Columbia. His politics have since shifted left. He works full-time in health policy, part-time on a graduate degree, and writes whenever he can. You can read more at www.ericmang.com.

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