A short synopsis of a long article by Stephen Clarkson in the October issue of the Literary Review of Canada.
On May 2, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives received a majority in the House of Commons, bringing the Liberal Party down to its novel and ignominious status as the country’s third party, with a mere 34 members. The NDP became the Official Opposition with 103 seats and the Bloc Québécois was wiped out, retaining only 4 of its 49 seats.
On previous occasions when one of the two major parties won an election, it retained many basic features of the government it defeated. After 1896, Sir Wilfred Laurier built on his eminent predecessor Sir John A. Macdonald’s heritage. When in 1957 Diefenbaker overturned Mackenzie King’s chosen successor, Louis St. Laurent, Diefenbaker did not overturn the Liberals’ legacy. When in 1984 Brian Mulroney wiped out John Turner, Mulroney retained the Liberals’ much contested bilingualism and continued federal support for Medicare. After his victory in 1993, Jean Chrétien entrenched the Conservatives’ shift to continentalism by signing the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Stephen Harper has polarized Canadian politics. He has rejected consensual centrism in favour of a program carefully conceived to overturn the social market legacy he had inherited.
Some of the evidence:
• Harper’s deep hostility to the previous centrist consensus was revealed by his denying funding to KAIROS, and other moves to tear down the government’s contract with civil society.
• An almost pathological fear of transparency with respect to public policies shows that Harperism has little in common with previous Conservative re-orientations such as those brought in by Diefenbaker’s prairie radicalism or Mulroney’s continentalism.
• Withholding basic information from Parliament has shown Harper’s contempt for representative democracy’s civic culture.
• Degrading the decennial census confirms his extreme ideological approach to knowledge. Objective data are no longer needed when government policy is determined by hostility to the inherited order.
• He has deprived his opponents of campaign financing.
Stephen Harper has moved Canadian politics into an extreme mode. He threatens the country’s constitutional heritage.
The question is whether the representatives of the previous consensus could become the vehicle for the more globally connected democratic liberalism that is required to confront the 21st century’s already almost insuperable crises.