Inside Harper’s big blue tent

Canada’s conservatives are more united than ever
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford leave a campaign rally together in Brampton,Ontario on Friday April 29, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Inside harper’s big blue tent
Adrian Wyld/CP

They are incorrigible, these Harper Conservatives. Sooner or later, they’ll wind up right in your own backyard.

Mr. Robert Ford, of the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke, Ont., made that startling discovery on Aug. 2, when 700 federal Conservatives showed up for a garden party on his mother’s property. To Ford’s apparent surprise, one of his guests was Stephen Harper.

Ford recovered quickly, for he is the mayor of Toronto and these folks were, in fact, his invited guests. “My new fishing buddy,” Ford called Harper. They swapped tales about Ford’s prowess in landing a 39-cm smallmouth bass. Harper took the microphone and spoke briefly. He said Ford didn’t live up to his reputation because he refused to kill and eat the fish, although, to be honest, Ford never really struck me as a seafood lover. Harper said Ford did “something very important” by “cleaning up the NDP mess here in Toronto.” Since Harper is, by his account, cleaning up “the left-wing mess federally,” it was up to Ontarians to “complete the hat trick” by electing Conservative Tim Hudak as the province’s new premier this fall.

There was brief speculation to the effect that Harper was hurting Hudak’s chances by conjuring the spectre of monolithic conservative leadership at every level of government for millions of Torontonians. We’ll see. My own hunch is that Harper’s endorsement will weigh little in the balance either way. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s significant enough that the mayor of Canada’s largest city is now an ex officio member of Harper’s team. How did that happen? What does it presage?

Ford, of course, endorsed Harper three days before the May 2 federal election. This was a surprise to the Toronto mayor’s own staff, who have learned to be flexible. Ford had decided he wouldn’t endorse any federal party. His helpers communicated this decision. Then he un-decided. He just liked the cut of Harper’s jib. He trusts his instincts. A fish-friendly fishing friendship was born.

Now here’s the thing: there was a time when a Calgarian prime minister would be a surprising sight in a Toronto mayor’s backyard. Western conservatives have sometimes viewed the rest of the country as hostile territory. Harper once did himself. “Westerners, but especially Albertans, founded the Reform/Alliance to get ‘in’ to Canada,” he wrote after the 2000 election. “The rest of the country has responded by telling us in no uncertain terms that we do not share their ‘Canadian values.’ Fine. Let us build a society on Alberta values.”

But now the Alberta-Toronto cleavage in Canadian conservatism is pretty obviously a lot less salient than it used to be. A lot of my Toronto friends prefer to believe that’s because Rob Ford isn’t really a Torontonian; he’s just some kind of lunatic galoot who sneaked into City Hall through accident or consumer fraud. But I suspect that underestimates his genuine appeal to (a little less than half of) the people of Canada’s largest city.

Most Torontonians are like most people everywhere. They’re just trying to get through their day. To many, Ford doesn’t look like the enemy. Neither does Harper. And Canada’s small-c conservatives, who spent almost 20 years splitting into factions because they came from different regions or had discrete political philosophies, are much less likely to divide along those old lines than they once were.

Some research from across the border may be germane here. In May, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a survey of Americans’ political allegiances, as it does every four years. “The most visible shift in the political landscape since Pew Research’s previous political typology in early 2005 is the emergence of a single bloc of across-the-board conservatives,” the Pew report said. “The long-standing divide between economic, pro-business conservatives and social conservatives has blurred.”

I ran the Pew study past a senior Canadian Conservative strategist, who told me it matches his own hunches about the state of conservatism in Canada. (His conclusion that Canadian conservatives are strong and united is obviously self-serving. Sue me.) “It seems there is less of a divide between Red Tories and Reform-Alliance conservatives than there was previously.” Harper’s careful populism, less Gucci-fuelled, less obsessed with Quebec and the affections of U.S. Republicans than Brian Mulroney’s was, seems to be better so far at keeping everyone in the tent.

Conservative staffers on Parliament Hill can, on close inspection, be divided into factions. I know gay libertarians, pip-pip high Anglicans nostalgic for the British Empire, new Canadians who learned their social conservatism in the old country, daily visitors to Mass and Red Tories whose only reason for not being Liberals is that Dad was a Tory and the Liberals don’t smell like success these days. But the distinctions are not obvious, because on most days every faction can find something this government has done that they can feel good about.

Harper and his former strategist Tom Flanagan used to write a lot about uniting the “three sisters” of Canadian conservatism: prairie populism, Upper Canadian Tory traditionalism and Quebec nationalism. In the early going, the rebuilt Conservative coalition looked like a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster. But compare with the last attempt, Mulroney’s. Five and a half years after Mulroney became prime minister, his coalition was collapsing as Reform and the Bloc Québécois rose. Five and a half years in, Harper’s coalition is still coming together.