Monday, January 24, 2011

Progressive Talking Point: The Game-Changer

There's been a fair amount of talk lately about the 'game-changer', a big event that could alter the Canadian political scene, shake it out of its statis: presumably to the benefit of the non-Conservative parties in Canada.

A lot has revolved in one way or another about co-operation or co-option between the Liberals and the NDP or other non-Conservative parties. Stephen Harper is so acutely aware of this that he takes every opportunity he's presented to sound off on the evils of parties working together.

He knows more than a little about this. If anyone in Canada knows what a threat to the staus quo inter-party co-operation can truly be, it's Stephen Harper (or maybe Paul Martin). It's strange to see Harper, perhaps the most mercurial and divisive politician in Canadian history, as in any way a 'force of unity', but to the political right in Canada, he has been exactly that, both in his involvement in the initial creation of the Conservative Party and, more importantly, in the subsequent years as its leader.

There was a time, not too long ago politically, when the animosity between the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives was palpably strong. When initial 'unite the right' debate occurred in the aftermath of the 1993 election, polls showed perhaps unsurprisingly that more PCs would vote for the Liberals than would vote for a united PC/Reform party. yet more surprisingly, polls showed that a majority of Reform supporters said the same thing (perhaps, in their case, ironically).

The nineties tempered that opinion, and the last decade has encouraged Conservatives to sweep that opinion entirely under the carpet. For better or for worse, political power has turned the Conservatives into a party with an amazingly impressive image of solidarity. It's to Stephen Harper's credit that he's managed to keep these disparate threads together.

But Stephen Harper's not going to be around forever. One wonders when Harper will step down as leader of the CPC. It's an unknown: it's not something the party seems to want, and it's not something Harper seems to want. But it's got to happen sooner or later. And just as Mulroney's unstable coalition of disparate interests fell apart so spectacularly... well, I don't think that'll happen, but I do think we'll see a schism reappearing in the party.

I don't want to say west vs. east. I don't want to say Blue Tory vs. Red Tory. I don't want to say Reform vs. PC. But these three really do overlap, in a way it's foolish to deny. I think that to a certain extent both sides feel they've compromised, for the good of the party. Objectively, it feels from the outside as if most of that compromise has been from the Red Tory side, but that's really just appearances: in certain key areas, harper has driven his party far away from the Reform ideals which he once touted.

I think it's a fair bet that any post-Harper leadership convention would see at least one candidate from either camp, and would most probably end up a showdown between the two main forces. One reason Maxime Bernier is so frequently mentioned as a possible successor, apart of course from the fact that he's from Québec, is the fact that he represents in many ways an alternative to this dynamic: he's tough to pin down on the Red-Blue Conservative spectrum and in some ways is a successor to the Créditiste tradition that at one point in time made unlikely allies of Albertans and Québécois. He was a member of neither pre-merger party.

But that may not happen. And if it does happen, one wonders how far the dyed-in-the-wool Reformers that still make up the main organisational body of the party in Western Canada will go in supporting a Québécois.

Atlantic Canada will be interesting to watch. At the moment, Atlantic Canada is the only region in the country where the Liberals are leading. They were also the only region in Canada in 1997 where the PCs led in the election. Both of these stats say the same thing: Blue Toryism does not go far in the Maritimes. It's been a long time since the Atlantic Provinces have mattered at all in Canadian politics, and one doesn't get the feeling Stephen Harper loses too much sleep at night wondering what they think of him in Halifax, but they are important enough to shake up a leadership convention, especially if Peter MacKay chose to run.

If MacKay did run, and if he faced a Reform-minded candidate from the West (ideally someone complaining that Harper had moved the party too far away from its core values), one really wonders what would happen to the party. Ontario and Québec would be crucial - and particularly in Ontario, Conservatives might be reminded of the fact that they support a party built around two poles one of which they don't support very much (in Ontario, pre-merger, Reform-minded people were distrustful of PCs and vice-versa). The fight in Ontario would be largely urban vs. rural, as it might also be in Québec.

I really don't know who would win. It might be an avowed peacemaker seeking to carry on Harper's successful tightrope-walking act. But if it isn't, and even perhaps if it is, it'll leave suddenly a good number of traditional conservative people newly alienated by 'their party'.

The fray would really shake up the Conservative Party. To a certain extent, this ought to mean nothing to progressives, as a good working definition for 'progressive' could perhaps be 'someone who would never under any circumstances vote Conservative'. But it would certainly make Canadian politics interesting again. The Liberals, as is their nature, would redefine themselves accordingly, shifting to a more Ignatieff-right to sweep up disaffected Red Tories should a Blue Tory win (I can picture Ignatieff on a podium praising Robert Stanfield) or shifting to a more Dion-left should a Red Tory win. Everyone to the left of the Liberals ought to spend a while just sitting back and enjoying the chaos.

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