Chretien: The original modern Conservative?
This morning, the Manning Centre unveiled its second annual poll about how Canada is increasingly turning Conservative blue. It's called the Manning Centre Barometer and you can find it by clicking here.
Present for the (remarkably long, nearly 90-minute) press conference was Reform Party founder Preston Manning (it's his centre, after all), as well as Allan Gregg from Harris-Decima and Andre Turcotte from Carleton University. Readers of the Star blogs will remember that Turcotte was one of our political-marketing bloggers during the election campaign.
Though I have immense respect for all the presenters this morning, I found myself a little puzzled by their description of what they describe as conservatism. In fact, as they were rhyming off "generally ascribed" Conservative values, it seemed to me they could be describing Jean Chretien's philosophy to governing as much as Stephen Harper's. Question: Is this conservativism or pragmatism?
"Equality of opportunity," for instance, is billed as a Conservative value, (as opposed to the supposedly lefty emphasis on equality of results) even though Chretien put "equality of opportunity" in all kinds of Throne speeches throughout his rule. Smaller government too -- last time I checked, it was Chretien who slashed government spending hugely in the 1990s, while Harper has increased it over the past five years. Have a look for yourself at the presentation (available at the link mentioned above) and see whether you'd accept the premise of the poll's description of Conservatism. For anyone who followed Chretien's government, as I did, almost everything here sounds very similar to his governing style.
That said, there are some "values" I'd definitely associate more with Conservativism, especially Harper's brand. One of those is a greater emphasis on patriotism and the military, where Harper has definitely veered in a much more pro-military direction than Chretien did. Another would be a belief that the private sector has better ideas than government. But in those uniquely Harper-ish terms, Canadians' support for those values is actually waning, the poll shows.So how is it possible to say that conservatism is on the rise?
I asked about all this at the press conference, and here is the rather substantial reply I received from all three. If I'm not mistaken, I think they may agree with me. It picks up with Turcotte, first of all.
Turcotte: I don't think this (conservatism) can be traced to the last three, four, five years. I think that this is something, as Allan mentioned, you could probably go back to 1988 or the 1990s and we don't ascribe, we don't actually say who's responsible, because everybody who was in power, everybody who was involved in the political discourse over that 12-15 years has played a role. Without a doubt, the style of government that Chretien adopted -- he won three majorities -- and there is some similarity between the two (he's referring to Harper here.) This is not .... We try to go beyond the day-to-day fluctuation. We want to take a longer view. And we are suggesting that this change has been going on and Harper is trying to capture this.... He's concentrated on the most prominent (views) among the electorate...
Gregg: The difference, I think, is that he (Harper) has tried to make a virtue out of doing nothing. (Laughter from the room.) No, I'm serious, you see this again and again.
Manning: Which is what Chretien did too.
Gregg: Chretien didn't try to make a virtue out of it, he just did nothing.But no, if you talk to him personally, he says government's role is not to generate change, it's to deal with it once it arrives. To the larger question about the role of government, I challenge anyone to tell me one major initiative that's emanated out of government for the last 20 years. Tell me.
[At this point, there was a small discussion among reporters and the panel about whether maternal leave counted as a major initiative from the federal government.]
Resuming the discussion, on the point of decline in support for patriotism and the military.
Manning: I think this is predictable, Susan, when countries actually get engaged in warfare, there's a declining... people get weary of it and worried, rightfully so. And I think that since the Afghanistan thing, and the longness, that's the main explanation we can see for that decline.
Me: But isn't this the whole Don Cherry thing, standing up for the soldiers, and you say Canadians are getting tired of that?
Gregg: Oh, I think there's no question on Afghanistan, there's been a huge fatigue. I mean, Stephen Harper's tired of it. That's why.
Turcotte: Your point about the Conservative government making a stand on that. I think it was probably more true four or five years ago than now. I think that's one indication.
Gregg: And when we talk about the country becoming more Conservative... it's becoming more uniquely Canadian Conservative. Not American Conservative. In fact, the faith in the private sector has declined the last year as well. There's an argument that the country has become less Conservative in traditional, big C, or small-C, or American-C conservative values over the last year. But it's this emphasis on moderation, tradition, incrementalism, facilitation that I think is so dominant that it's become an orthodoxy in the country. (
[** And here I'm thinking to myself -- so we're not turning Conservative at all, we're just redefining Conservativism, and it happens to resemble Chretien's Liberalism? *** ]
Turcotte: Yeah, we make the point, that this is not Republican-style, Tea-Party-style rejection of government. This is not what we're saying. It's Canadian!