Cynicism is Not a Centrist Principle


(I wish)

I was going to put up my review of Battlestar Galactica’s Rapture today, but this issue has been gathering steam in the Canadian political blogosphere, and I feel that I must comment. There has been some misrepresentation here about the Conservative Party’s activities that I simply cannot let stand.

There’s been some dissatisfaction in conservative circles of late over decisions made by the Conservative party. Greg Staples links to Andrew Coyne’s column lambasting the party for its decision to intervene in the procurement process purchasing new equipment for our military.

The Conservatives, you will recall, were elected in the wake of wake of AdScam — the name given to a series of Liberal programs designed to increase the Canadian government’s presence in Quebec, thwarting the advantage the sovereigntists had been building for the past couple of decades. The belief was that a number of the Liberal programs had been established without sufficient oversight, allowing abuses to occur. The Conservative’s response was its Accountability Act, which took a number of the political processes outside of cabinet and the prime minister’s office. Government spending was to have new oversight and, more importantly, the assigning of political appointments was to be overseen by a new appointments committee.

The Conservatives were justly rewarded for this agenda, just as the Liberals were justly punished. But despite their stated intentions, the Conservatives have thwarted some of that goodwill. The Accountability Act was something most of us agree on — the New Democrats came to work with the Conservatives to pass this bill because of this — but even though the bill has passed, some of its provisions do not take effect right away, and there has been a disturbing surge of political appointments being made by the Conservative government. It’s not hard to wonder if this is a sign of the Conservative party getting their hacks into plum positions, while they still can.

Then there is the decision by the Minister of Public Works and Government Services, Michel Fortier to intervene in the procurement process for key defence contracts, bypassing the tendering process and robbing taxpayers of key competition for contracts that could give them a better deal on multi-billion dollar purchases. The argument being made is that Canada’s military has been so underfunded for so long that there is a need to speed up the process to get needed equipment to the troops as possible — an argument that would have merit, if there weren’t reports of backroom squabbling over how much of the economic benefits of the deal will be channelled to Quebec, where the Conservatives are looking for the additional seats required to win their majority.

This development has particular symbolism for western Canadian Conservatives and former Reform Party members, since it was the Mulroney Conservatives’ decision in the late 1980s to award a contract for CF-18 fighter jets to Quebec over a better offer from a company based in western Canada that launched a wave of dissatisfaction in the western provinces and contributed to the growth of the Reform Party and the eventual collapse of the Progressive Conservative party. Couple this with an earlier decision to remove Liberal provisions banning the distribution of government contracts solely on a regional basis (a practise that has been too often connected with regional vote-buying and pork barrel politics), and you have the disturbing sense of deja vu all over again.

Andrew Coyne is not amused:

It was one thing for their political opponents to denounce conservative ideas. At least they got a hearing, and as often as not the Liberals would steal them. But when Conservatives themselves hasten to renounce them, they have no outlet. And after two decades invested in the Reform experiment, there is nowhere else to go.

Indeed, in his blog, he pronounces that following:

After a year of Conservative rule, it is now clear, conservatism isn’t just dying — it’s dead. And it’s the Conservatives who killed it.”

“The more the party has chased the middle, however, the faster it has seemed to recede; with each abandonment of its principles, the opposition and the media, those arbiters of the status quo, simply yawn and move the goalposts a little further down the field.”

“Quebec, missile defence, China, health care, regional development: it’s very hard to tell what the Conservative position is any more, or how it differs from the Liberals, or what it will be a week from now. And the result? 31% in the last poll. Sell your soul, you’d think you’d at least get paid.”


This sentiment is shared in the comments of this post by Greg Staples, but while I sympathize with those frustrations, I believe the commentators are inadvertently misrepresenting what’s happening here. It’s true that the Harper Conservatives have traditionally been seen as having values and advocating policies that aren’t shared by a majority of Canadians, and it is true that to claw their way to their minority government status, they’ve had to moderate those policies and values. And it is true that they still have to work hard to appeal to centrist voters in order to capture that elusive majority. Still, the commentators are wrong to say that the Conservatives’ current actions represent “chasing the middle”.

First of all, the Conservative’s decision to intervene in the procurement process at the Ministry of Defence and then argue over how much of those contracts should go to Quebec is not an example of centrist policy. It is not a centrist principle to short-circuit accountability for political gain, or to claim that you are fast-tracking overdue purchases and then cast that sentiment in doubt with the impression you are divvying up regional pork. Accountability and honesty is not a left, right or centre issue, it belongs to us all.

The problem with the Conservative government is not that it’s too conservative, or not conservative enough. The bulk of the criticism against it would apply if the Liberals were in power and made the same mistakes, or the NDP. It’s one thing to stick by your principles, it’s another to take a pragmatic approach, but it’s a third matter entirely if, regardless of your stated principles, or your pragmatic approach, you taint both by governing cynically, or if you appear to have a hidden agenda. It’s about honesty, and that seems unfortunately to be in short supply throughout the political spectrum.

This is the frustration behind the Conservatives’ decision to apparently base their defence purchases more on their ability to buy Quebec votes than on their benefit to the Canadian armed forces, or their decision to interfere with Ottawa’s light rail project after contracts were signed, or the decision of one of their ministers to spend $4000 in 11 days on limousine expenses (rather than, oh I don’t know, drive your own car?!), or their decision to try and get as many political appointments into place before their much vaunted Accountability Act comes into force. These are not examples of a pragmatic, centrist approach to governing, but a cynical opportunistic grab at power for power’s sake. Centrists find this equally odius, and to say that we’d welcome these moves is to not understand us at all.

It should be fairly simple math for the Conservatives: if they appear to govern with the courage of their convictions, or in service to the wishes of the majority of Canadian voters — and, more importantly, if they govern openly and honestly as they do either of these, they will receive the respect of the electorate. The reason why they’re mired in the low thirties in all the opinion polls is not because they’ve chased the middle, but they’re driving people of all stripes away because of their cynical political moves. If their math is aligned more towards sneaking agendas through in order to protect their base while buying new votes, then they’ve ceased to be any different from the corrupt Liberal administration they replaced.

Canadians are, by and large, smart voters, and they can see when their governments aren’t dealing honestly with them. If this goes on too long, they will respond accordingly. Indeed, they may be responding already.

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