Hard right? Hardly

Paul Wells says social conservatism is on the rise; Andrew Coyne disagrees

Just so we’re clear: I don’t really care whether the Harper government conforms to one definition of conservatism or another. Neither do I carry any brief for conservatism, as such, though I might hold conservative views on specific issues. When I say that conservatism is dead in Canada, I am not mourning or despairing. I am merely stating a fact.

The reason that’s worth stating is that there is a party that continues to carry on as if it were conservative, though it conforms to no known definition of the word. And all right, yes, I’d prefer that people should be who they say they are and do what they say they will do, and that things should be called what they are and not what they are not.

So I suppose in that sense I should be delighted to find, via my friend Paul Wells, that I’ve got it all wrong: that the Conservatives are in fact robustly, unabashedly conservative, that indeed conservatism is “on the march across Canada.” Why, it’s the biggest swing to the right in “half a century.” It’s Harper’s hard right turn.

This is contrarian analysis at its finest. Under the Conservatives, spending, which conservatives once promised to cut, has been growing at a rate of 8 per cent a year. The budget, which conservatives once aimed to balance, is now in deficit to the tune of $54-billion, with literally no end in sight. Corporate subsidies, which conservatives once vowed to eliminate, continue to be doled out by the billions every year; much of the auto industry has been nationalized; the number of regional development agencies has increased by one. Conservative MPs now run around the country boasting of the pork they are bringing home to their ridings, complete with novelty-cheque signing ceremonies.

The top marginal rate of income tax remains where it was a generation ago, while the tax system has been further complicated with the addition of a slew of special credits for children’s sports, transit passes and other good causes. Employment Insurance has been larded up with supplementary payments that make a return to insurance principles more remote than ever. The Canada Pension Plan has been allowed to swell to Caisse de Depot-like dimensions. The great statist vehicles of the 20th century — Canada Post, Via Rail, the CBC — likewise continue to stalk the land, subsidies and privileges intact, while private oligopolies in air travel, finance and telecommunications remain largely protected from foreign competition. All were once the objects of conservative reform efforts. No longer.

The political reforms that were the bedrock of democratic conservatism in the age of the Reform party, aimed at giving more power to ordinary MPs and, via referendums, to the citizens at large, are now but a memory, replaced by a PMO whose all-controlling zeal exceeds even previous records. The philosophy that distinguished the conservative approach to constitutional matters — decentralizing power to the provinces, commitment to the equality of provinces and citizens — has been replaced by massive increases in transfers to the provinces generally and a raft of special concessions — powers, money, an ill-defined “national” status — to Quebec.

But that is to look at the matter through the narrow lens of fiscal, economic, democratic and constitutional conservatism. Rather than obsessing on such arcane matters — you know, the whole size and role of government thing — friend Wells encourages us to see the glass as socially full. Because even as it was giving ground on every one of all those other fronts, the government has been delivering for social conservatism. Why, “look at the victories” social conservatives have won, Wells suggests, “in just the past few months.” Yes, let’s.

FOREMOST AMONG them, of course, is that interminable business at Rights and Democracy — a quasi-non-governmental-organization that few people had heard of before it blew apart. Granted, it’s an interesting story, in a car-crash kind of way, and I’m sure the party’s supporters are cheered by the general tenor of the directors the Conservatives have appointed to its board, but really, is it that big a deal? Is there a country on this earth that is one whit more democratic or rights-aware on account of this agency’s activities? Will it make an ounce of difference to the future course of the Middle East that an $11-million organization (that’s a little less than one half of one ten-thousandth of federal spending, if you’re scoring) now tilts in the same pro-Israel direction as the government that pays its freight?

Second, the Conservatives have given a $3.2-million grant to Youth For Christ. Imagine that: a faith-based NGO receiving federal funding. Whatever will they think at, say, KAIROS?

Third, the Conservatives are opposed to providing heroin addicts with a safe place to shoot up, namely at Vancouver’s Insite centre. Probably a Liberal government would have taken a different view, though I don’t notice the party agitating to open more such centres. Indeed, Insite is the only legal safe-injection facility in any jurisdiction in North America. So is it the Conservatives who are to the right, or the Liberals who are to the left?

Oh, but I forgot the crime bills. You know: the whole tough-on-crime thing. But exactly how much tougher-on-crime is Canada, four years after the Conservatives took power? When Rahim Jaffer was let off with a $500 warning for allegedly driving-drunk-while-speeding-with-cocaine-in-the-car, it was pointed out — correctly — that he received no special treatment, that in fact this sort of thing happens all the time in the court system: 50 per cent of all drug charges are stayed, withdrawn, or otherwise plea-bargained away. And while the Conservatives complain that their crime bills have been held up by the Senate, the truth is that the bills would probably have passed by now if they weren’t proroguing Parliament every six weeks. But then, they probably best serve their purpose by remaining unpassed, as a way of keeping the base ginned up.

Which is sort of my point. The Wells argument is that, while each of these anecdotes may not look like much on its own, “taken together” they add up to quite a lot. But do they? Is this, as Wells claims, an incremental but nonetheless sweeping social-conservative agenda, which the Tories’ other concessions and retreats have served to obscure? Or does it amount to a few largely symbolic baubles the government has thrown in the socons’ direction, knowing they’re so starved for affection they’ll take anything?

I’d argue the latter. That socons seem pleased is more a statement of how thin their “agenda” really is than of how far the Conservatives have gone to appease them. It may be that “they have not had so much good news from Ottawa in half a century.” But that’s not saying much. The truth is that even on the socon scale the Conservatives barely register.

LET’S TAKE the single most important issue to social conservatives, the issue that in large part defines the movement: abortion. What has the Harper government done about abortion? Answer: nada. Canada remains the only country in the developed world with no abortion law of any kind — a state of affairs that was never legislated, never decreed from the bench, and has never been supported in polls by more than about a third of the electorate.

Sorry, did I say they haven’t done anything? That’s not quite right. It is the stated policy of the current government, not only that it will not introduce an abortion law, but that it will not allow any of its members to introduce such a bill — that, indeed, it does not want to see the issue even debated. In its militance in defence of the status quo, the Harper government has in fact gone rather further than the Chretien government.

But what am I saying? What is that beside the earth-shattering news — one of Wells’s “victories” — that the government of Canada will not pay to promote abortion in Third World countries. They’re paying to perform abortions here in Canada, you understand, hundreds of thousands of them since they took power, but they are no longer proselytizing for them a half a world away. “Another such victory and…”

The other issue that Conservative apologists like to point to is day care. The official story is that the Conservatives, by defeating the Paul Martin government, saved the country from the horrors of state-run day care, substituting in its place the $100-a-month Universal Child Care Benefit.

Except it isn’t in place of government care. It’s in addition to it. It may have escaped most people’s notice, but the Conservatives have continued to fund provincial day care programs — maybe not on the scale the Martin Liberals would have, but still plenty, and in diametric opposition to their own rhetoric. Budget 2007 boasts of providing “an investment of $250 million per year starting in 2007–08 to provinces and territories for the creation of new child care spaces.” That’s on top of existing funding of $850-million a year “in support of federal-provincial-territorial arrangements established in 2000 and 2003 for early childhood development and early learning and child care.” So that’s $1.1-billion a year for something that social conservatives are supposed to view as an abomination.

Here, as elsewhere, Conservatives are careful to pay lip service to socon concerns. Wells quotes a Conservative strategist: “This is the future of conservatism. This is an absolutely fundamental question: do we take children out of homes so they can be raised by the state, or do we put money into homes so parents can raise them?” To which the Conservative answer is: yes.

In truth, the Conservatives differ little with their opponents, on these as much as other issues, except in their utter devotion to whatever is popular with the public. Wells argues that “social conservatism offers Harper what he has always coveted: a sharply divided electorate where he owns a sizable chunk of the voters and the other parties fight over what’s left.” But he also points out how quick the other parties have been to ape the Conservatives on an issue like crime. But isn’t that the point? That’s where the public is. The Conservatives may be to the right of their opposition. But they’re smack dab in the middle of public opinion.

BUT TAKE heart, small-c conservatives. It’s all part of a Cunning Plan:

“The days of winning on economic conservatism are over,” the Conservative adviser told me. “No real conservative government is going to win without having a significant portion of our agenda on social issues.”

An election run on free trade, deficit reduction, tax cuts and productivity is one where any of the major national parties can appeal to voters who care about those issues—certainly the Liberals, under Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin or Michael Ignatieff, perhaps even one day the NDP. “If we have an election about deficits, it’s going to be, do we get rid of them in three years or four years? It’s not going to be, do we get rid of deficits or not?”

That’s true: any of the major parties could, if they chose, appeal to voters on economic issues. The only problem is, none of them are. The reason we’re not going to have an election about deficits is not because all parties agree on the necessity of getting rid of them. It’s because they’re all agreed not to do anything about them, or certainly not until after the election. Tax cuts? Productivity? Who is talking about any of that?

The one exception is trade, where the Conservatives have been pursuing an aggressively pro-free trade agenda, signing deals with a number of smaller states, launching negotiations with the European Union and preparing to do the same with India. Yet here again this has been largely for lack of any real opposition from the Liberals, or even the NDP. And while the Tories invoke the gospel of free trade out of one side of their mouth, they remain stout defenders of supply management in international talks, just as the Liberals were.

That would be the policy of imposing quotas and tariffs to drive up the price of such essential foods as milk, eggs and poultry to three or four times world levels. But there I go again, obsessing over one of those economic issues. Single mothers trying to feed their kids just need to be reminded: the Conservatives are all about family values.