It is a year this week since the last federal election. Active members and supporters of the New Democratic Party (NDP) celebrate this event, for their party passed the Liberals to finally become Her Majesty's Official Opposition in the House of Commons. However, others, like myself, remember that day for the fact that Stephen Harper and his Canadian Alliance/Reform Party colleagues were able to squeeze out a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. For us, it was a day of mourning.
For those who live on the prairies, it was worrisome, as we knew the Reformers better than people in the rest of Canada. For years we heard them attacking gay rights, denouncing feminists, opposing abortion and any form of gun control, opposing state-supported child care, denouncing economic support for Aboriginal communities, supporting two-tier medicare, denouncing environmentalists and insisting that climate change was bad science by communists. A great many were Christian fundamentalists, demanding public support for their own separate school systems where they wouldn’t have to teach evolution. They were strong supporters of free market capitalism and opposed collective democratic institutions like the Canadian Wheat Board. They wanted Canada to go into Iraq with the Americans.
Stephen Harper's relationship with Jack Layton's NDP
Jack Layton came from a well-known Quebec political family. His grandfather had been a cabinet member in Maurice Duplessis’ Union Nationale government. His father had been an active member of the Quebec Liberal Party and then served as a Member of Parliament and a cabinet member in Brian Mulroney’s Conservative government.
After a move to Toronto, Layton became a well-known activist in municipal politics. He was elected leader of the NDP in 2003 and won a seat in the House of Commons in the 2004 federal election. His goal was to have the NDP replace the Liberals as the major party of the progressive centre-left. Under his leadership the party became more professional and made a considerable move to the political right. His long term goal was the same as that of Stephen Harper: Canada would move to a two party system similar to that in the other Anglo-American countries.
Bringing down the Liberals
Paul Martin's minority Liberal government, elected in 2004, was deeply hurt by the Sponsorship scandal. Layton and Harper saw their chance. A non-confidence vote was introduced by Stephen Harper and seconded by Jack Layton. The Liberals were defeated, and an election was held in January 2006. In the campaign Layton and the NDP concentrated their political attack almost exclusively on the Liberals. This strategy gave Canadians their first Stephen Harper government, although it was a minority government.
Two years later opinion polls indicated increased support for Harper and his government. He convinced the Governor General to prorogue the Parliament and call an election for October 2008. But the Conservatives failed to win a majority of the seats. In December, in a poorly planned and feeble attempt, the three opposition parties asked the Governor General to allow them to form a coalition government. Harper went on the attack and demonstrated that he was a cunning and skilful political leader. He also had the Governor General in his back pocket.
In what was a coup by the party's right wing, the Liberal Caucus dumped Stephane Dion and replaced him with Michael Ignatieff. No leadership convention was held. Ignatieff had spent most of his productive adult years in Great Britain and the United States and was unknown to Canadians. The majority of Canadians were opposed to the policies and politics of Stephen Harper’s minority government. But how were they to translate that into an alternative government?
With the Liberals greatly weakened, Harper was keen on a holding a new election, one which promised to give him a majority government. Again, he was aided by Jack Layton and the NDP caucus. In March 2011 Layton and the NDP insisted on voting non-confidence in Harper’s budget and brought down the government. They had a clear option, to denounce the budget but to abstain from casting their votes. But Layton saw an opportunity to move ahead of the Liberals in the House of Commons, and he chose to put the interests of his party first. Harper was elated. On May 2, 2011 with only 38% of the votes, the new Conservatives narrowly won the majority of seats in the House of Commons. Only 59% of Canadians bothered to vote. We are now all paying for that decision.
Harper's broad agenda
It was always wrong to believe that Stephen Harper had a "hidden agenda" that he was going to impose on Canada. His political and social views were well known. He was first an active member of the Conservative Party. Then in 1987 he joined the Reform Party where he was their Chief Policy Officer and main author of their election platform. In 1993 he was elected a Reform Party MP from Calgary. He resigned his seat in 1997 to assume the presidency of the right-wing National Citizens Coalition. In that year he made his famous speech to the U.S. Council for National Policy at their meeting in Montreal where he described Canada as a "northern European welfare state in the worst sense of the term."
The Reform Party morphed into the Canadian Alliance Party, headed by Stockwell Day. They were disappointed with the results of the 2000 election, a leadership convention was called, and Stephen Harper was chosen the new leader. In May 2002 Harper entered the House of Commons after a bye-election in Calgary and became the Leader of the Opposition.
Harper’s political views and strategy were clearly revealed in an address he made to a meeting of Civitas in Toronto on April 25, 2003. He published the text on Christian Coalition International’s web site and in Report Magazine. He spent little time on his commitment to the basic principles of free trade and the free market, which he correctly identified as "classical liberalism." Instead he focused on what he called traditional conservative social views, which he identified with Christianity, theological conservatism or "theo-con."
Harper argued that these two political traditions, originally in political conflict, merged to provide resistance to a common enemy, which he called "the rise of radical socialism in its various forms." But we know that these two political formations merged to try to resist the spread of democracy and the expansion of human rights.
The "born again" Prime Minister
At this point we should recognize that not very many Canadians are aware of Stephen Harper's personal religious convictions. While originally a member of the Presbyterian Church, after moving to Calgary he became an evangelical Protestant. Much of this was due to the influence of Preston Manning. He became an active member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church, both in Calgary and Ottawa.
Harper's Church believes that the Bible is without error, that the coming of Jesus is "imminent", strongly opposes homosexuality, abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia and does not allow women to become ordained ministers. It is opposed to divorce. Like almost all organized religions it holds the traditional patriarchal view that the man is the head of the family. The family should have complete control over raising children. This helps explain Harper"s opposition to universal child care services and his support for private education. Harper has stressed the "damage the welfare state" is having on the institution of the family.
In the Civitas speech Harper set forth his strategy for the transformation of Canada away from the democratic welfare state. This requires a slow but incremental agenda, building new political alliances, and packing the courts with judges who share a "theo-con" perspective. The majority commitment of Canadians to women's abortion rights, rights for gays and lesbians, and opposition to capital punishment must be accepted at this time. The move to the right to entrench theo-con ideals will come in time. Stockwell Day's error was trying to tackle these issue right now.
The strategy that Harper outlined in 2003 has been clearly followed. The historic commitment of Canadian Jews to the Liberal Party has been undermined by strong support for Israel along with alliances with Canada’s Christian Zionists. New immigrant communities would be brought over to the Conservatives by stressing the common commitment to traditional patriarchal values (like opposition to homosexuality) and support for the "headship" family. This has been the focus of the ties made with conservative Roman Catholics and Anglicans, the Sikhs, the Chinese community, Muslims and other Asian immigrant communities. These groups were specifically targeted in the 2011 federal election. Traditional support of these immigrant groups for the Liberal Party fell significantly.
What are the options?
So where do we go from here? Thomas Mulcair and NDP activists argue that the only way to get rid of the Harper government is by supporting their party in the next election. But even after all the publicity of the leadership race and convention, polls show support for the NDP at only 30%. The party’s high standing in Quebec is tenuous, and it could well fade with the revival of the Bloc Quebecois.
Of course, the bubble in the housing market in Canada may well burst, and as in other countries, this would most likely lead to a recession. That would reduce support for the Harper government. But they would still have their majority in the House of Commons.
My own view is that the NDP will not become a major threat to form government unless it sets forth a clear progressive alternative to the Conservatives. Is this likely to happen? Remember that just before the 2011 election the federal NDP called key business voices in the mass media and informed them that if Jack Layton won the election he would govern in the manner of Roy Romanow's NDP government in Saskatchewan. In my view, to become a majority government in Ottawa, the NDP will have to inspire and organize the 40% of adults who no longer even vote. They show no interest in that project.
At this time we do not know what is going to happen to the Liberal Party. Most likely, Bob Rae will be the next chosen leader. They are not going to completely fade away, and they will continue to win seats in their traditional strongholds. It is likely that the Quebec nationalist movement will revive, given the policies of the Harper government, and this will benefit the Bloc Quebecois The Green Party shows no sign of going anywhere.
It seems to me that the only way we are going to get rid of the Harper government in the next federal election is if there is a mass popular movement across Canada to organize strategic voting in key ridings won by the Conservatives in 2011 where the combined vote of the NDP and the Liberals was greater. The NDP and the Liberals do not seem able to put the interests of the country over the interests of their own political parties. This can be done.
John W. Warnock is a Regina political economist and long time political activist.