Why is everyone so surprised? The budget the Conservatives produced last week may have been startling in some respects—the biggest spending budget ever, fuelled by the largest one-year increase in spending ever outside of wartime—but it was hardly out of character. It was the logical terminus to a decade of climbdowns, reversals, and broken promises, dating back to the first efforts to merge the old Reform and Progressive Conservative parties. What began in fear and deception has ended in confusion and incoherence. Predictably enough.
So let us have none of these astonished little essays on how difficult this must have been for Stephen Harper, how the Reformer who had entered politics to fight deficits had come to embrace them. Once, this would have been hard for him, but by now it is second nature. And spare us, please, the cries of betrayal from stalwarts of the right, who never imagined that a Conservative party could produce a budget like this. Where were these people the last 10 years? I’ll tell you where they were: right by the party’s side, urging it on. There is no betrayal here. They were all in this together. In all the frantic backpedalling of the last decade, as each long-held policy was overturned and each conviction of a lifetime was abandoned, the party never made a peep.
Everyone—from cabinet ministers to the lowliest envelope stuffer—bought in. Everyone signed on. They were “showing discipline.” They were “moderate and middle-of-the-road.” They had grown up, they understood that politics is the art of the possible, they were all incrementalists now. Above all, they were loyal to the leader, and to the leader’s abiding goal of a majority government. And so whatever doubts they harboured, whatever principles they recalled, they were placed in a blind trust for the duration.
It can’t have been all that hard for them, any more than it was for him. Compromise is not, as a rule, terribly unpleasant, or not past the first or second time. After that, it becomes positively intoxicating. There are always crowds of fine fellows about to clap you on the back, to pour you a drink and congratulate you on your new-found “maturity.” And each little compromise, each partial concession, makes the next that much easier, and the next, until at last you are giving up great gobs of yourself without even noticing.
In retrospect, indeed, the appointments of David Emerson and Michael Fortier that first day in office, which seemed so shocking at the time, was not the start of the process. It was already well advanced. Think back to the late 1990s, and what the Reform party then stood for. Not just balanced budgets, but balanced budget laws. Referendums—on tax increases, on constitutional amendments, on citizens’ initiatives. Tight controls on spending. A flat tax. Abolition of corporate subsidies, and of their “regional development” dispensaries. Reform of employment insurance, of the Canada Pension Plan, of the CBC. A federation of equal provinces and citizens. An elected Senate. Free votes in Parliament. More power for ordinary MPs. Open nomination races at the riding level, free of interference by the leader’s office. Fixed election dates.
By the time Stockwell Day was running for prime minister in 2000—the Canadian Alliance having replaced the Reform party, and Day having replaced Preston Manning—a third or more of these were already gone. But the pace only quickened from there. By the time of the 2004 election, the newly formed Conservative party was still vaguely interested in abolishing corporate welfare, and still mentioned tax cuts. But mostly it was interested in telling you what it wouldn’t do: it wouldn’t cut spending, for instance, or much else that might upset someone, somewhere.
The party’s founding policy convention in 2005 took things still further: gone was any mention of referendums, for example. Spending cuts were out; subsidies were in. The courting of Quebec nationalists, which Harper had once warned against, had begun in earnest. Probably the delegates thought they were making a prudent set of concessions to reality, in a bid to establish themselves, once and for all, as a centrist party, ready to form a government. But in fact they were only softening things up for the next round. The accession to power, after so many years, did not mark the end of the party’s concessions. It merely provided it with the means to make still more, each more jaw-dropping than the last: on Quebec, on Afghanistan, on confidence votes, on foreign takeovers, on fixed election dates, on appointing senators, on corporate bailouts, until at last we arrived at last week’s establishment of a regional development agency for southern Ontario.
So they’ve given up everything they ever stood for, and what have they got in return? Pretty close to nada. They’re stalled in the polls, again. The fabled majority remains firmly out of reach. Those disposed to mistrust them are as suspicious as ever, while their own followers are now thoroughly demoralized. They have not moved to the centre; they have only succeeded in shifting the entire political spectrum to the left. The Quebec experiment, likewise, is in tatters, Quebec more nationalist than ever. The destruction is total. The failure is absolute.
Once, long ago, there was an answer: a new party. But you can only do that once: no one’s got the energy to climb that hill again. The harsh fact is that there is no longer anything resembling a conservative party in this country, nor any prospect of forming one. And conservatives have only themselves to blame.