Brian Mulroney’s success in leading the Progressive Conservative Party to a second majority victory in the general election of 1988 was the last hurrah of the old Conservative Party, the party whose lineage extended back to the great days of the Liberal Conservatives of the 19th century, under the leadership of Sir John A. Macdonald. It is ironic that the party’s final electoral victory was in aid of the implementation of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement that had been negotiated between the Mulroney government and the Reagan Administration.
The last great fight of Macdonald’s life had been to sustain the National Policy and to block the Liberal Party’s drive for a renewal of reciprocity or commercial union with the United States. The 1988 federal election campaign pitted multinational and Canadian business on one side against trade unions, social movements and much of Canadian civil society on the other.
The Liberals and the NDP declared that, if elected, they would tear up the FTA; the Conservatives committed themselves to implementing the free trade deal if they were returned to office. In the election, between them, the Liberals and the NDP won 53 per cent of the votes cast by Canadians, while the Conservatives won 43 per cent of the popular vote. Under the nation’s “first-past-the-post” electoral system, however, the Conservatives won a majority of seats in the House of Commons and the Canada-U.S. FTA came into effect on January 1, 1989.
By the time the Mulroney Conservatives had won their second majority, the political and social forces that would tear the party apart and open the way for the reconstruction of the Canadian right, were already making themselves felt. Mulroney’s party consisted of an uneasy coalition among three groupings, conservatives — themselves divided between free-market, pro-American right-wingers, and a shrinking number of traditional Tories — Alberta right-wingers, coalescing around Preston Manning, who had more in common with the Social Credit tradition than Macdonald conservatism, and soft Quebec nationalists, whose pre-eminent figure was Mulroney’s Minister of the Environment, Lucien Bouchard. In the 1988 election, Preston Manning, the son of Alberta’s longest serving premier, the Social Credit’s Ernest Manning, entered candidates for his newly founded Reform Party, but failed to win a single seat.
The previous year, Manning had led fiscally and socially conservative westerners who resented special deals for Quebec, and opposed bilingualism and large-scale immigration, to form the Reform Party at a founding meeting in Winnipeg. Stephen Harper became an early policy adviser. Although the party was shut out in the 1988 general election, Deborah Grey was successful in winning the Reform Party’s first seat in a 1989 by-election for an Alberta seat.
As the Reform Party got underway, so too did the other major challenge to Mulroney’s party, this one from Quebec. One of Brian Mulroney’s major initiatives was to try to complete the unfinished constitutional changes that had been launched by Pierre Trudeau. Mulroney sought constitutional reform, satisfactory to all provincial premiers that would recognize Quebec as a “distinct society.” Known as the Meech Lake Accord, the amendment would also limit the power of the federal government to initiate shared-cost programs in areas of provincial jurisdiction without allowing provinces to opt out while receiving full financial compensation. Mulroney was able to attract Lucien Bouchard, a long-time friend and Quebec nationalist, to join his government in support of his decentralist agenda. Bouchard had joined the Parti Quebecois in 1971 and had supported the “Yes” side in the Quebec constitutional referendum in 1980. Bouchard served in Mulroney’s government as Minister of the Environment as the Meech Lake struggle reached its climax. Time ran out on the Accord when Manitoba and Newfoundland failed to ratify it before the deadline of June 30, 1990. As Meech Lake was going down in flames, Bouchard left the Progressive Conservative Party and the Mulroney government to found a new sovereignist party in federal politics, the Bloc Quebecois.
When the highly unpopular Brian Mulroney stepped down as PC leader and PM in 1993, he was replaced by Kim Campbell, a politician from B.C. who was chosen leader by a PC Party convention. She was Canada’s first female prime minister. Campbell called an election for October1993. The result was a transformation of Canadian politics. Jean Chretien led the Liberals to a substantial majority victory, winning 177 of the 301 seats in the House of Commons. In second place came the Bloc Quebecois with 54 seats and in the third place the Reform Party with 54. Running fourth was the NDP under the leadership of Audrey McLaughlin with 9 seats and fifth with only 2 seats were Kim Campbell’s PCs.
The great political party of Confederation had disintegrated. Underway was the struggle to rebuild the political right in Canada. Macdonald’s party had been the great nation-building political instrument that fashioned Confederation and elaborated the National Policy, the economic doctrine that created a transcontinental Canadian economy. The Canadian Tory tradition, inseparably linked to the culture, ideas and policies of John A. Macdonald, shaped Canada in its formative decades. Macdonald’s deepest commitment was to the creation of a Canadian nation that would be able to sustain itself separate from the United States. While pragmatic and capitalist, Macdonald’s political philosophy contained an element of paternalism and the belief in the large state that was strange on a continent where individualism and the market were the true deities.
The state Macdonald constructed was imbued with these Tory notions. To build a railway across the country and to have institutions in place to receive hundreds of thousands of new settlers would require strong government intervention. The Tory idea proved highly useful to Canadians for generations in their efforts to compete with the powerful nation to the south. In the first decade of the 20th century, under the leadership of Adam Beck, a manufacturer from London, Ontario, the province of Ontario drew on the Tory creed when it created a publicly owned hydro-electric system. The inspiration behind Ontario Hydro, at the time the largest public utility on the continent, was that a public corporation could provide electricity at cost to consumers and businesses alike. Later, Tories established the Canadian National Railway, the Bank of Canada and the CBC.
To free-market purists, the idea of the state acting to improve Canadian productivity and the promotion of Canadian culture is incomprehensible. They cannot help but see this as a statist heresy, or even as a diabolical leftist scheme. In truth, the idea had everything to do with the Tory view of the proper relationship between the state and society. The Reform Party, after 1993 the dominant force on the right, shifted the politics of conservatism out of what little remained of the Macdonald heritage to a more sharply right-wing American-style ideology, much influenced by the Social Credit tradition in Alberta. Before returning to the remaking of Canadian conservatism in the 1990s and beyond, we will turn briefly to a discussion of the evolution of Alberta politics and the role played in the province by the Social Credit.
In southern Alberta, the social landscape is as unique as the physical. In the last years of the 19th century, southern Alberta was the “last best west,” the frontier that was still open to settlers after the American frontier was officially designated as closed. A much higher proportion of those who settled in this region of Alberta came from the United States than had been the case in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. After Confederation, Manitoba’s first settlers had come from Ontario. To these were added Ukrainians, Icelanders, Finns and Jews from Eastern Europe. In Saskatchewan, the influence of Ontario was not as great as in Manitoba although it was not inconsiderable. Settlers came from the British Isles, as well as from Western and Eastern Europe. Many of the Americans who settled in southern Alberta brought with them an evangelical Protestant outlook. That outlook served as the cultural foundation for the development of important political movements that had an impact on Alberta and national politics. Both on the left and the right, Alberta had its own brand of populist politics, heavily spiced with the views of American immigrants. One of the first to put his stamp on Alberta farmer politics was Henry Wise Wood who hailed originally from Missouri. He arrived in Alberta in 1905, the year Alberta became a province.
More than any other person, Wise Wood helped shape the philosophy of the Alberta farmers’ movement. His critique of Canadian politics was that the party system naturally favoured the wealthy and the powerful at the expense of other segments of society and the domination of the country by central Canada. Dismissing the Liberals and Conservatives as unprincipled parties seeking power for the sake of power, he called for the creation of a party to represent farmers alone. While his ideas had little impact on the country as a whole, they were ideally suited to appeal to the particular conditions of Alberta at a time when the largest single occupational group was farmers who owned their own farms. He was the guiding force behind the United Farmers of Alberta, a movement that became a highly successful political force when it won power in the province and governed Alberta from 1921 to 1935.
The movement that succeeded the UFA in power and then held it for three and a half decades also had important roots in southern Alberta. The charismatic leader of the Alberta Social Credit was William Aberhart, a native of Ontario. Aberhart moved to Calgary where he taught mathematics in a major high school and then became its principal. What he shared with many southern Albertans was Protestant fundamentalism. With his “Back to the Bible” broadcasts, Aberhart became Canada’s most successful radio evangelist in the mid 1920s. In 1932, when Alberta suffered as a consequence of the collapse of grain prices during the Great Depression, Aberhart became a convert to the ideas of a Scottish engineer by the name of Major C.H. Douglas. Armed with the idea that Alberta needed an injection of “social credit,” in the form of a dividend to be paid by the government to Albertans, Aberhart built a movement that propelled him into the premier’s office in the 1935 election. The former UFA government lost every seat it held in the legislature. Alberta’s populism had shifted from the left to the right where it has remained every since.
With Alberta’s major oil discoveries, beginning in the late 1940s, the province shifted from being Saskatchewan’s economic twin, to becoming a mighty petroleum power. A new populism, tailored to Alberta’s metropolitan stature as Canada’s petroleum power, emerged in the 1970s with the election of Conservative Peter Lougheed as premier in 1971. From Lougheed, with his wars with Pierre Trudeau over oil revenues, to Ralph Klein’s struggles against Jean Chretien over health care and the Kyoto Accord, Calgary and rural southern Alberta have been the locus of power in the province.
And out of the culture of southern Alberta emerged the newest power in Canadian federal politics, the Reform Party, en route to the Canadian Alliance and the present-day Conservative Party of Canada. Here the link goes straight back to the populism of William Aberhart and the Social Credit. Ernest Manning, a young man from a rural family in Saskatchewan, walked into Aberhart’s Prophetic Bible Institute in 1927 and enrolled in the Institute’s one-year course in bible studies, becoming its first graduate. It was the most fortuitous choice of a course ever undertaken by a student in Canada. When Aberhart died in 1943, Manning succeeded him as premier and held that post until 1968. His son Preston, a skilled and original political thinker, was the mastermind behind a new political vision of Canada and the place of the West in Confederation. His brainchild, the Reform Party, pushed aside the Progressive Conservatives, to become the leading vehicle of the Canadian right. It is no accident, given its origins and its history in the “last best west” that the Reform Party was the political party with the most natural affinity for American values and was the most pro-American party in Canada. Preston Manning’s Reform Party merged a number of political streams.
It featured the Alberta regionalism of the old Social Credit with its suspicion of Central Canada, its rejection of Quebec nationalism and bilingualism, and its promotion of provincial rights. In addition, the party adopted a strongly neo-conservative view of the economy, and had no sympathy for the historic Tory backing for state intervention and crown corporations. The third stream in the mix was social conservatism, closely aligned to the views of evangelical Christians, who were opposed to abortion, were negative to rights for gays and lesbians, and later to same sex marriage. As well, social conservatives opposed multiculturalism and favoured a reduction in the level of immigration to Canada. The Reform Party’s problem was that it won only one seat in Ontario, its only seat east of the Manitoba-Ontario border in 1993, a seat it subsequently lost in the 1997 election. In the meantime, the PC Party was struggling to recover from its 1993 electoral disaster. Jean Charest who held one of the party’s two seats in the House of Commons was chosen interim leader in the autumn of 1993 and then the party’s leader in April 1995. In the 1997 federal election, Charest led the PCs back to 20 seats in the House of Commons. The following year, he stepped down as party leader to accept a draft to become the leader of the Quebec Liberal Party (a party which had no organizational link to the federal Liberals.)
At a convention in 1998, the PCs turned to former leader Joe Clark, the voice of the Canadian right’s dwindling force of Red Tories, to once again take up the reins of leadership. Clark’s party won only 12 seats in the 2000 election, the minimum number needed to form an official party in the House of Commons. Clark held onto his own seat of Calgary Centre, but in 2002 he announced that he would step down as party leader. By this time, the larger side of the divided right had gone through a further process of evolution. Anxious that Preston Manning’s Reform Party, which won 60 seats and the official opposition in 1997, was too narrowly based and would never achieve a breakthrough east of Manitoba, right-wing thinkers and activists sought a way forward, creating the United Alternative as their vehicle. This initiative resulted ultimately in the formation of a new party, the Canadian Alliance into which the Reform Party folded itself.
At a founding convention in 2000, the CA chose former Alberta Provincial Treasurer Stockwell Day, in preference to Preston Manning, to lead it. Stockwell Day, an evangelical Christian garnered scant support east of Manitoba in the 2000 election — the party did win two seats in Ontario — and managed to win 66 seats in the House of Commons, a gain of six over the Reform effort three years earlier. Discontent with Day’s leadership boiled up in the ranks of CA. Splits in the party’s parliamentary caucus led Day to step down as leader. At a leadership convention in 2002, the party chose Stephen Harper, ahead of Stockwell Day, as its new leader. Born in Toronto in 1959, Harper moved to Alberta as a young man and became one of the founding members of the Reform Party. In 1993, he won the seat of Calgary West as a Reform candidate. Harper, who found himself increasingly at odds with Preston Manning, resigned his seat in January 1997, leaving parliament to join and soon to head the National Citizens Coalition, from 1998 to 2002. A Canadian conservative lobby group, founded in 1967 by Colin M. Brown, to promote right-wing political ideas and policies, the NCC was originally established to oppose the creation of a national health-care system.
Among the positions of the NCC are: privatization of government-owned entities, tax cuts, government spending cuts, and opposition to laws limiting spending by non-party organizations during election campaigns.
Over the course of its existence, the NCC has campaigned against: the Canada Health Act, the Canadian Wheat Board, the admission to Canada of Vietnamese refugees in 1979-80, closed shop unions, the mandatory long-form census. Prior to re-entering federal politics and assuming the leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2002, Harper adopted a highly decentralist view of Canada that was harshly critical of Canadian social policy. In 1997, Harper delivered a speech to a U.S. conservative think-tank in which he said that, “Canada is a Northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term, and very proud of it.” He further stated that “the NDP is kind of proof that the Devil lives and interferes in the affairs of men.” When the comments were quoted during the 2006 election campaign, Harper explained that they were intended as humour.
Following the federal election of 2000, along with other conservatives, Harper co-authored a document called the “Alberta Agenda.” It called for Alberta to: reform publicly funded health care, replace the Canada Pension Plan with a provincial plan, and replace the RCMP with a provincial police force. It concluded by calling on the provincial government to “build firewalls around Alberta” to stop the federal government from redistributing the province’s wealth to less affluent regions.
That year Harper also wrote that Canada “appears content to become a second-tier socialistic country…led by a second-world strongman [Jean Chretien] appropriately suited for the task.” He advocated a “stronger and much more autonomous Alberta.” In his maiden speech in the House of Commons as Leader of the Opposition on May 28, 2002, Harper made the case for an Alliance motion that charged the Liberal government with failure in its management of relations with the U.S. Harper’s thesis was that the Chretien government had been insufficiently staunch in its support for the positions adopted by the U.S. administration.
Harper accused Chretien of “open meddling in U.S. domestic politics prior to the 2000 presidential election when the Prime Minister stated his preference with regard to the outcome of that election.” He quoted the comments of the former political counsellor at the U.S. embassy, David Jones, who said in January 2001 that Chretien exhibits “a tin ear for foreign affairs, especially those involving the United States.” Harper’s conclusion: “It is no secret that this poisoned the relationship between the government and the new American administration.” Quoting an unnamed source in the National Post to the effect that the Prime Minister is not a player with the Bush administration, Harper cited this anonymous authority as saying that “the Americans could not care less about the views of the current Prime Minister. This is particularly evident in President Bush’s passivity in dealing with the softwood lumber dispute.” Harper directed no criticism at Washington for its failure to seek a solution on the softwood lumber issue. All the blame was laid at the door of the Prime Minister. Apparently it did not occur to Harper that taking the side of the government in its tough negotiations with Washington on the issue could make it clear to the Bush administration that Canadians were united on the question. Instead, Harper made it appear that Canadians were hopelessly divided and that the Official Opposition was delighted with the anti-Canadian position of the U.S. on softwood lumber. Harper then broadened his attack on the Chretien government, beyond trade issues, to attack it for its entire foreign policy stance vis a vis the United States.
“Downright hostility to the United States, anti-Americanism, has come to characterize other dimensions of Canadian policy,” he declared. “In 1996-97 Canada aggressively pushed forward with the treaty to ban landmines without giving due consideration to U.S. concerns about the potential implications for its security forces in South Korea. What did we end up with? We ended up with a ban on landmines that few major landmine producers or users have signed,” Harper charged. Having dismissed an anti-landmines treaty signed by most of the nations of the world in Ottawa, Harper went on to toe the Bush administration’s line on the development of an anti-ballistic missile defence system. “Most recently we have been inclined to offer knee-jerk resistance to the United States on national missile defence despite the fact that Canada is confronted by the same threats from rogue nations equipped with ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction as is the United States.”
Harper’s litany of complaints against the Chretien government ended with this nod to those who allege that Canada’s refugee system makes it vulnerable to terrorists: “The government has not adequately addressed the matter of security in the context of continental security. Because of the unreformed nature of our refugee determination system, we continue to be subject to unique internal security and continental security dangers.” Having dismissed Jean Chretien as a leader who was always anti-free trade, Harper commended Brian Mulroney for having “understood a fundamental truth. He understood that mature and intelligent Canadian leaders must share the following perspective: the United States is our closest neighbour, our best ally, our biggest customer and our most consistent friend.” Harper concluded with his own peroration, his set of principles for dealing with the United States. “Not only does the United States have this special relationship to us, if the United States prospers, we prosper. If the United States hurts or is angry, we will be hurt. If it is ever broadly attacked, we will surely be destroyed.” In 2003, Harper condemned the Chretien government’s decision not to participate in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. During 2003, the long-sought unity of the political right was finally achieved. To choose a successor to Joe Clark, the PCs held a leadership convention in May 2003.
To secure the leadership, Peter MacKay signed a written agreement with Red Tory candidate David Orchard, pledging that as leader he would not seek a merger of the PCs with the CA and that in the next election the Tories would field a full slate of 301 candidates. Orchard then swung his delegates to MacKay thus assuring his victory. With the convention barely behind him, MacKay began negotiating a merger between his party and the CA. Later, with the negotiations well underway, a plebiscite held among PC members resulted in a 90 per cent vote in favour of the proposed merger. A plebiscite among CA members yielded a 96 per cent vote in support. In December 2003, the two parties held a joint convention and founded the new Conservative Party of Canada. The following month, Stephen Harper resigned the leadership of the CA and in March 2004, he won the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. By the time Harper became leader of the united right, Paul Martin had replaced Jean Chretien as Liberal leader and prime minister of Canada. In the winter of 2004, Canada’s Auditor General, Sheila Fraser, issued a report that exposed to public view a series of revelations that consumed the Liberal government in what came to be called the sponsorship scandal.
Fraser’s report revealed that: Senior government officials who were in charge of the federal government’s advertising and sponsorship contracts in Quebec, as well as five Crown Corporations, the RCMP, Via Rail, Canada Post, the Business Development Bank of Canada and the Old Port of Montreal, had wasted money, violated rules, and mishandled millions of taxpayer dollars since 1995. More than $100 million was paid to communications companies in the form of fees and commissions. While some elements of the scandal had been bubbling to the surface for a couple of years, it was Fraser’s report that made it a major political issue. The sponsorship program had been designed to highlight the role of the federal government in Quebec through support for community events and programs in the aftermath of the Quebec referendum of 1995, in which the “Yes” pro-sovereignty side fell less than one per cent short of winning. As the details of the scandal were unearthed over the course of the next couple of years, it became crystal clear that the communications companies receiving the contracts had close ties to the federal Liberal Party and that in return for the contracts, they paid kickbacks to the party in the form of cash offered up in restaurants in Montreal in brown paper bags. To cope with the immense political fallout from the scandal, Prime Minister Paul Martin appointed retired justice John Gomery to head up a federal Royal Commission inquiry into the sponsorship scandal. Long favoured to win another majority electoral victory for the Liberal Party, Paul Martin’s political prospects were blighted by the scandal. It took two elections for Stephen Harper’s new party to push the wounded Liberals from office.
In the first election, which took place on June 28, 2004, the Liberals won 135 of the 308 seats, putting them in minority territory. The Conservatives won 99 seats, the Bloc 54 seats, the NDP 19 seats and one independent was elected. While the Conservatives made major advances over the results for the CA four years earlier, winning 24 seats in Ontario, pollsters concluded that many voters who had been leaning Conservative on the eve of the election, changed their minds and switched to the Liberals. From the start of his new ministry, Paul Martin was under constant pressure from the continuing fallout from the sponsorship scandal and faced the prospect of the opposition parties uniting to vote him out of office.
The way the numbers totalled up, a combined vote of the Conservatives and the members of the Bloc would put these two parties just two votes short of being able to topple the Martin government. This meant that to stay in office, Martin would have find common ground with the NDP and even with Chuck Cadman, the B.C. independent who had previously been a Conservative MP.
During one of the dramatic parliamentary crises, in May 2005, Belinda Stronach, a Conservative MP from Ontario who had run for the party leadership, crossed the floor to join the Liberals. She was rewarded with the portfolio of Minister of Human Resources. The Martin government survived that showdown, only to be brought down in a vote in the House of Commons on November 28, 2005, when the Conservatives teamed up with the Bloc and the NDP to vote No Confidence. In the aftermath of the first report of Justice Gomery on the sponsorship scandal on November 1, the three opposition parties argued that the Liberals no longer had the moral authority to govern. New elections were called for January 23, 2006. The campaign featured repeated attacks on the Liberals from all three opposition parties. The Liberal position was further damaged by reports of an RCMP investigation into allegations of insider trading within the Finance Department, a unique occurrence during a Canadian election campaign. (The RCMP investigation later exonerated the Liberal Party and the Liberal Finance Minister of the day, Ralph Goodale, but by then the political damage had been done.)
On election day, the Conservatives, with 36 per cent of the vote, won 124 seats and went on to form the most narrowly based minority government since Confederation in its share of seats and votes. The Liberals won 103 seats, with 30 per cent of the vote, and Paul Martin announced that he would step down as party leader. The Bloc won 51 seats with just over 12 per cent of the vote, and the NDP won 29 seats with 17.5 per cent of the vote.
In office, the Harper government emphasized corporate tax cuts and cuts to the GST as measures to stimulate the economy. Government ministers spoke of Canada as an “energy superpower” and placed a strong emphasis on the role of the development of the Alberta oil sands as a key to Canadian economic development. (For detailed discussions of Canadian economic policy, see lectures: 1, 2, 7, 8, and 9.) The Harper government abandoned Canada’s commitment to the Kyoto environmental accord, and instead pursued a policy of hewing closely to the U.S. in taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On matters of foreign and military policy, the Harper government strongly supported Canada’s engagement in the war in Afghanistan, ultimately agreeing to end the country’s combat role there on July 1, 2011, but deciding, with the support of the Liberals, to continue a major non-combat, training role there after that date. The Harper government tied itself closely to the United States and the United Kingdom in matters of foreign policy. It shifted Canada’s Middle East policy to one of stronger support for Israel.
During its first ministry, the Harper government introduced an amendment to the Canada Elections Act (Bill C-16) to establish fixed election dates so that federal elections would be held on the third Monday of October, four years after the previous election. The amendment passed the House of Commons and Senate and received Royal Assent on May 3, 2007. That would have put the next election on October 19, 2009. (The bill did not restrict the authority of parliament to vote No Confidence in a government and to trigger an election on another date. But it was intended to restrict the right of the sitting prime minister to choose the election date.) Despite the fixed election law, Stephen Harper asked the Governor General to dissolve parliament on September 7, 2008 and to hold new elections on October 14, 2008. Harper calculated that Stephane Dion, the new Liberal leader, did not command strong support from Canadians and that the opportunity had arrived for the Conservatives to win a majority of seats in the House of Commons.
The Conservatives did make gains in the October 2008 election, but fell short of a majority. Harper’s Conservatives won 143 of the 308 seats, taking just over 37.5 per cent of the vote. The Liberals won 77 seats, with 26.25 per cent of the vote, the Bloc won 49 seats and just under 10 per cent of the vote, and the NDP took 37 seats and just over 18 per cent of the vote.
The newly re-elected Conservative government soon faced a major political-constitutional crisis. On November 26, 2008 Finance Minister Jim Flaherty released an economic statement, which among other things announced a significant reduction of public funding for political parties. This measure, along with what the opposition parties called the failure of the government to launch an economic stimulus package to deal with the onset of the global economic crisis, pushed the discontent of the opposition parties to a head. The Liberals and the NDP with the support of the Bloc agreed that following a successful vote of No Confidence in the Harper government, they would go to Governor General Michaelle Jean to indicate to her that they were in a position to form a coalition government that would enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons. According to the plan, three-quarters of the ministers in the new government would be Liberals and the other quarter, not to include the ministers of finance or national defence, would be NDPers. The Bloc would agree not to vote No Confidence in the new government for at least 18 months. Stephane Dion would initially serve as prime minister, to be replaced by the new Liberal leader when he or she was selected at a party convention. In aid of this, the 162 opposition members — Michael Ignatieff the last and most reluctant among them — signed a letter to the Governor General, pledging their support for the coalition to follow the defeat of the government.
In this political emergency, to prevent the House of Commons from voting No Confidence in his government, Harper went to the Governor General and demanded that she immediately prorogue the House of Commons. Prorogation is normally used as way to punctuate work in parliament during the life of a government. It halts the work of one session of parliament to open the way for another session, begun with a new Speech from the Throne. In the next few paragraphs, I will summarize my views on the prorogation crisis of December 2008.
During the crisis, the members of the Harper government and their supporters promulgated the idea that since the Conservatives had “won” the election in October 2008, they had a right to govern. In fact, in the election, the Conservatives won a minority of seats in the House of Commons, 143 out of 308. Our system of government, known as “responsible government,” holds that for a ministry to hold office it must enjoy the confidence of the House of Commons, i.e. the support of the majority of the members of the House. In Canada, we do not directly elect our prime minister. The prime minister is an elected member of the House of Commons (in theory, he or she could be a Senator, but this has happened only twice, the last time under Mackenzie Bowell from 1894 to 1896.) The Governor General asks the leader of the political party that commands the support of the majority in the House to form a government. In the case of a minority government, the critical issue is which party or combination of parties can command the support of the majority in the House.
When the leaders of the Liberals, NDP and the Bloc, whose parties held the majority of seats in the House announced their intention to defeat the Harper government and replace it with a Liberal-NDP coalition government with the support of the Bloc, they were playing out their roles within the system of responsible government. And since this move came early in the new parliament and held out the promise of stable government for at least 18 months, it would have been almost certain that the Governor General would have called on the coalition to form a government if the Conservatives had been defeated. (The Governor General does have some discretion here, under the rubric of royal prerogative, but considering how recent the election had been, it is highly unlikely that she would have acceded to a request by Stephen Harper to dissolve parliament to call another election.) The Conservatives appeared on news shows, talk shows and organized rallies putting out the word that what was happening in Ottawa was an attempted “coup.” At the centre of this claim was the proposition that Canadians had just re-elected Stephen Harper as prime minister and that he had a mandate to govern.
It is true that the Americans directly elect their president and therein lies much of the public confusion. The American Constitution (in my view grounded on a poor understanding of Montesquieu and the British Constitution following the Glorious Revolution of 1688) rests on the notion of “separation of powers.” The Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch (Congress) and the Judicial Branch each occupy their own hermetically sealed space and are protected from undue interference with each other much the way Vestal Virgins were protected in Ancient Rome. To their credit, the Americans have managed to make this ungainly system work with only one Civil War marring its record to date. The Canadian prime minister is not a quasi-king in the manner of the American president. He or she rises or falls depending on the votes of the majority in the House of Commons. Stephen Harper was successful in convincing the Governor General to prorogue parliament on December 3, 2008. The period of prorogation continued until late January 2009, when the House resumed, its first order of business the consideration of the budget presented by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on January 27.
By that time, Dion had been replaced as Liberal leader in a vote of the party’s parliamentarians, and replaced by Michael Ignatieff as the party’s interim leader. (He was endorsed as leader by a subsequent Liberal Party convention.) Never keen on the idea of the coalition, Ignatieff led his party to support the Conservative budget, in return for an amendment requiring the government to present occasional reports on the progress and costs of the budget. The Conservatives were happy to agree to the amendment. Flaherty’s budget declared that the federal government deficit would total $64 billion over the next two years. Much of that projected deficit was accounted for by the impact of the tax cuts the Harper government made before the economic crisis took hold with a vengeance. Some of the rest was as a consequence of proposed new tax cuts. The budget included across-the-board income tax cuts, which not only benefited lower-income earners but all income earners. Although the finance minister presented the tax cuts as measures to stimulate the economy, they were unlikely to have much effect in lifting the economy. A sizable portion of the cuts would go to paying down existing debts or replenishing lost savings. A further and very large chunk would be spent on imported goods. Canadians import over $400 billion worth of goods a year, close to 30 per cent of our GDP. By way of contrast, Americans import goods equivalent to about 15 per cent of their GDP. A huge portion of the tax cuts announced by Flaherty were bound to leak out of Canada in the purchase of additional imports. They might stimulate the Chinese, Japanese and American economies, but they would do precious little to stimulate the Canadian economy.
Depending on how you interpret the budget, the government committed itself to direct new spending of about $10 billion to $12 billion, on infrastructure and housing, over a two-year period. By the time, the G8 and the G20 held their meetings in Canada in June 2010, the Harper government had come to the view that the time had come to shift away from stimulus to cuts to government spending to reduce the government deficit and return to a balanced budget within a few years. By the winter of 2011, the opposition Liberals had concluded that it was time to vote No Confidence in the government, which would mean provoking an election if they were joined by the NDP and the Bloc. In addition to the Liberal position that Canada should forego a planned further cut to corporate taxes, on the grounds that this would swell the deficit, Ignatieff wanted to take on the Harper government on a range of ethical issues. Taken as a whole, the Ignatieff accusation was that Stephen Harper presided over a government that was highly centralized, secretive, had little respect for parliament and was undermining Canadian democracy. Following the passage of a motion of non-confidence in the Harper government in March 2011, Parliament was dissolved and a federal election was called for May 2, 2011.
In the historic election, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) won a majority of seats, 166 out of 308, for the first time in the party’s history. With 39.6 per cent of the popular vote, Stephen Harper led his party to its third win, but this time with a majority, the prime minister and his party would be in a position to reshape Canadian society and the Canadian economy. The campaign, begun by the Reform Party, and carried forward by the Canadian Alliance and brought to fruition by the Conservative Party of Canada, had successfully reconstructed the political right in Canada. Dominant in the new party were the right-wing elements that were centred in Alberta. There was no denying the success of the CPC. With its western base secure, the party had stormed the ramparts in Ontario, winning 73 seats in the province that had kept Reform and the Canadian Alliance in opposition. There was also no mistaking the party’s weaknesses. With only 39.6 per cent of the popular vote, in an election in which 61.4 per cent of eligible voters participated, the Harper majority depended on popular support that was at the lower edge of the proportion of votes needed to win a majority of seats in the House of Commons. The other major weakness was that with a mere 5 seats won in Quebec, with only 16.5 per cent of the vote in the province, the CPC had less support in Francophone Canada than had been the case for any majority government since the 1917 victory of the pro-conscription Unionists (mainly Conservatives) in the wartime election of 1917.
Just as the Liberals in the heyday of Jean Chretien had been vulnerable to the potential changes that could reshape and reunite the right, the CPC was vulnerable to political earthquakes that could reconfigure the terrain on which its opponents stood. Indeed, on May 2, 2011, as the CPC won its majority, the results for the opposition parties were dramatically altered with potentially historic consequences for the future. For the first time since Confederation, the Liberals placed neither first nor second in a federal election, and were reduced to third place with 34 seats, down from 77 seats in 2008, winning only 18.9 per cent of the popular vote. Most dramatic among the changes was the success of the NDP under the leadership of Jack Layton in winning 103 seats, 59 of them in Quebec, with 30.6 per cent of the vote. The flip side of the NDP triumph in Quebec was the demise of the Bloc Quebecois which plunged in seats from 47 to 4, losing its standing as an official party in the House of Commons. Of less significance, but nonetheless a change to be noted, was the election of Green Party leader Elizabeth May in a British Columbia riding, the first time the Greens succeeded in winning a seat.
Although it faced a new kind of opposition, Harper’s CPC was in a position to implement its right-wing agenda. The outlines of that agenda were clearly etched in the government’s budget, presented to the House of Commons by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty on March 29, 2012. The budget signalled that the Harper government intended to re-organize Canada as a society in which the federal government would play a reduced role and in which the private sector would be even more important in setting priorities for the economy. In the critical field of health care, the Conservatives opened the way for the provinces increasingly to step outside the Canada Health Act in widening the scope for private health-care delivery. The budget announced that the federal government would cut program spending by $5.2 billion a year, would eliminate 19,200 public sector jobs, and would extend the retirement age of those dependent on the Old Age Security benefit from 65 to 67. The change in the OAS is planned to start in 2023, which means that it is projected to affect Canadians who were 54 and older as of the time of the budget. In the omnibus budget bill that the CPC introduced, rules to streamline the approval of energy sector projects and to sharply reduce environmental oversight for the building of pipelines, were front and centre.
Paring down the size of the deficit and reducing the size of government put the Harper government in line with other right-wing governments, particularly that of the U.K., that adhere to the belief that cutting the government deficit and the size of government will help keep interest rates low and open the way for economic recovery and private sector job creation. Critics of the approach, notably neo-Keynesians, believe that austerity will retard economic growth and place a roadblock in the path of recovery, as happened during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Never have the Harper Conservatives had a greater opportunity to leave their mark on Canada and to alter the Canadian social contract than during this four-year period of majority government.
This article was first posted on James Laxer’s blog.
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