Red Tory nostalgia

December 20th, 2011
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Some readers may recall one of the strangest political occurrences of 2011. It came during Prime Minister Harper’s first press conference after the May election, less than 12 hours after realizing a stunning majority victory. One of the journalists – and I hope to find out who – started kind of mumbling a very round-about question.

He began with a couple of qualifiers like “I realize it’s very early to be asking this” and “I know you’ve just won a majority mandate, but people are asking…” Finally after a couple more false starts like this, Tonda McCharles of the Toronto Star blurted out “Just ask him when he’s resigning!” And the room burst out in laughter.

I had a flashback to this when I read the National Post yesterday. No less an authority than Michael den Tandt stated that, with an election in view in 2015, the Red Tories were due to take over the Conservative Party. The well-reasoned argument started from the premise that the “unwritten rule in Canadian political life, in modern times at least, is a decade and out.” Consequently, before the next election, “a couple of years from now perhaps” Conservatives will “begin to speculate openly about who will lead them after Harper.” Wow.

So Conservatives won’t start speculating for a couple of years, but he’ll start right now. Might as well lead the pack. Mr. den Tandt’s “unwritten” law might better be called an “unknown” law, given that it conveniently ignores many facts, like Mr. Trudeau reigning for 16 years, and the Paul Martin Liberals “speculating” Jean Chrétien right out of office. That really didn’t work out too well for them, did it? Nonetheless, that never stopped a wishful columnist scratching around for something to write about.

No. Clearly, just when small-C conservatives in Canada could plausibly say they’ve found a winning combination, that they might actually be shifting Canadian politics in a congenial direction – guess what? –  they are in fact sadly deluded. In reality, now is the time to shift to the Left, to forestall a resurgent Liberal Party.

Obviously dimwits like me are simply too thick to understand this incisive analysis. Unfortunately, I’m also old enough to remember the “Canadian consensus” that prevailed in politics and society in general for a long time, one that Mr. den Tandt might be nostalgic for. This consensus is perhaps best be described by two political panels of the day: Pamela Wallin’s Canada AM crew of Michael Kirby, Hugh Segal and Gerald Caplan; and Peter Gzowski’s Morningside side – Stephen Lewis, Eric Kierens and Dalton Camp. These both epitomized a kind of comfortable salon Leftism where everyone agreed on the expansive role of the state and fashionably “progressive” social mores, the chummy back-slapping interrupted only by a bit of good-natured partisan sniping.

This era was of course exploded in the election of 1993 with the destruction of the old federal PCs. At the time, Senator Wallin was famously unwilling to add a Reformer to her panel, saying it wasn’t really a “political” panel, just a weekly chat with her friends. Fair enough.

But that was then, this is now. Ms. Wallin is now a Conservative senator and the Conservative Party is forging a new identity, removed from both its “legacy” parties. This clearly doesn’t prevent Mr. den Tandt from envisaging some kind of eighties-ish, Back to the Future scenario where the Conservative Party is absent of “Reformers” and “hardline” Mike Harrisites. Good grief.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll skip speculating on just what kind of “progressive social views” den Tandt thinks today’s Conservatives need to adopt in order to “hold the centre”. Seems to me they’d likely be very similar to the ones championed by all those old panellists I mentioned earlier. Maybe we could ask Stephen Lewis for a list?

Remarkably, conservatives have made considerable progress pushing responsible fiscal policy, so much so that even the NDP now has to occasionally tip its orange hat at balanced budgets and flaunt what good economic managers its provincial wings are. This is a huge change from the “consensus” of 25 or 30 years ago. And today, at least small-C conservatives are welcome in the federal Conservatives.

So, despite the nostalgic sentiment of Mr. den Tandt and the base impulses of all the Left parties, Conservatives must politely decline the offer to turn back. Like the journalist at the Harper press conference they may all want to wish away the current government and “restore” the “progressive” vision. Today, more than ever, it is up to Conservatives to oppose them.

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By John Weissenberger