This morning comes news that Scott Brison, former candidate for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives and a twenty-five year member of that party, has crossed the floor to join the governing Liberals. As a sign that he is dissatisfied with the recent merger of the PCs and the Canadian Alliance, this far exceeds the decision of former PC leader Joe Clark to sit as an independent member of parliament.
For those unfamiliar with Canadian politics, here's a pocket history from my perspective: in 1984, the centre-right Progressive Conservative party under Brian Mulroney takes over from Trudeau's left-leaning Liberals. Mulroney's nine years as prime minister is somewhat tumultuous as he deals with several contentious issues, including free trade with the United States, the Canadian constitution, and the largest deficits in Canadian history. For many Canadians, his right-wing approach is unwelcome. For others, he's not right-wing enough. Mulroney raises taxes (including bringing in the hated GST) to try and defeat the deficit monster and, come 1988, the right wing of the PC party has had enough.
The Progressive Conservatives are not the natural governing party of Canada. The Liberals occupy that position by ruthlessly straddling the centre and adopting the best and more popular ideas of the left and the right. The Conservatives are a natural opposition party, winning the votes of the disaffected. These come from different areas of the political spectrum depending upon the part of the country you are in. In 1984, Mulroney built a solid big-tent coalition between left-leaning sovereigntists in Quebec and right-leaning individuals out west, both of whom were severely ticked off at Trudeau's Liberals for very different reasons. This sort of coalition can work wonders when it works together; it is, after all, how Diefenbaker became prime minister in 1958, and in 1984, Mulroney achieved a similar majority (211 seats out of 295)
But this coalition does not work well together. The sovereigntists broke away in 1990 due to the failure of Mulroney's constitutional accords. They formed their own political party called the Bloc Quebecois. In the west, Mulroney's tax increases and his inability to address longstanding western grievances caused support to bleed to the newly created Reform Party. In 1988, Mulroney returned to parliament with 162 seats. In 1993, the Conservative Party, the party of Sir John A. MacDonald (our first prime minister) was reduced to just two.
Since then, the Mulroney coalition has been badly divided. Core PC support has remained in the 15% range -- not a paltry amount, but with that support spread evenly across Canada, still an amount unlikely to translate into many seats. The Reform Party had the same level of support nationwide, but most of it concentrated in the western provinces -- a good arrangement for gaining a large block of seats, but one that's unlikely to get you into the government benches. The BQ had similar successes in Quebec, but they never intended to form the government, only to distract Ottawa while their province separated. The issue of separation sleeps, now, and they're feeling a little of their irrelevance.
The situation has been ideal for the Liberals, who have sat on the governing side since 1993 facing four opposition parties, none of whom have a reasonable chance of building the coalition needed in order to take over. For the PCs, these have been very tough times. For the Reform Party, they had the luxury of staying true to their principles, but as the Liberals continue to govern, and treat the opposition parties as if they were no threat, frustration grew. Commentators looked to the PCs and the Reform Party to rebuild their Mulroney coalition, to become a serious challenger to the Liberals once again.
And this is what has finally happened. Except it didn't go as the commentators had expected. Since 1993, the Reform Party has driven this debate, changing itself into the Canadian Alliance in order to try and make itself sound more centrist and able to govern, but the attitude towards their former partners has remained "you led us before and we rejected you. If we're to work together now, we're in charge." Throughout the 1990s, the Conservatives' response has been "but you're unelectable. Your principles do not reflect the values of the majority of Canadians. You are self-righteous and unable to compromise." To which the Alliance has replied, "self-righteous? Why you, little--" and then fists fly.
Along comes Paul Martin as leader of the Liberal Party, inordinately popular with many Canadians across the country. Currently, his party boasts the support of 58% of the voters. The Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance are staring into the headlights of an oncoming truck and knowing that annihilation awaits them in the expected spring 2004 election. Rather than take complete and utter defeat and risk one, rather than the other, picking up the pieces in 2008, the two parties agreed to merge, at a monster-at-one's-heels' pace. They have no leader and are unlikely to get one until March. They have no election policy, and are likely to have one foisted upon them by a six man committee. Alliance supporters outnumbered PC supporters 4-1, and leader Stephen Harper is the odds-on favourite to become the leader of the new Conservative Party of Canada. So, basically, the PC Party has given up and accepted the verdict of history: oblivion. The new party won't fly.
The drive to unite the right ignores the fact that there is no "right" to unite. In Canada especially, the right isn't composed of a large, monolithic group of individuals who share the same principles and values to increasing degrees of fanaticism. Enough differences exist within "the right" to set groups at each other's throats.
At its simplest, the right divides two ways: libertarians and social conservatives. Libertarians are all about freedom. The individual, they believe, is the best arbitrator of his own behaviour. The free market is the most effective means of managing scarce resources to meet most people's needs. Government is a necessary evil to maintain a civil society in which an individual can thrive and it should do no more, no less. Consistent values, if somewhat (in my opinion) heartless.
On the other hand, while social conservatives share the libertarians' disdain of government intervention in the economy, they believe that morality should be legislated. They wish to see a government that reflects and enforces a specific set of social values. Conflicts have arisen between these two groups before.
Mike Harris was a libertarian, bearing a great disdain of any government action, especially ones which enforced morality. While he may have angered a lot of people in the centre with his economic policies, he angered the social conservatives as much by his refusal to tackle their issues, from abortion to opposing same sex marriages. When former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day was abandoned by conservatives everywhere for his lacklustre leadership, it was his social conservative base who stuck with him. Finally, the decision of Scott Brison, an ardent libertarian-style conservative (and, incidentally, openly gay), to abandon the new Conservative party and join the Liberals shows his unease with the social conservative faction which he believes now controls the new organization.
And what about the Red Tories, the oldest conservatives of all? Principled, pragmatic centrists, they built much of Canada's social infrastructure, not out of a socialist zeal, but out of a desire to conserve, maintain and strengthen this nation. Both the economic conservatives and the social conservatives hold Red Tories in contempt. Under Mulroney and Harris, the PCs abandoned their Red Tory roots, and Red Tories such as myself and Joe Clark now find themselves without a party.
When social conservatives, economic conservatives and Red Tories paper over their differences and work together, they are a force to behold. In Canada, however, the economic conservatives and the Red Tories have traditionally led in this alliance and spoken to the centre. This collapsed under Brian Mulroney when the social conservatives abandoned the alliance. The social conservatives only returned when they saw that they had a chance to lead. They remain as unelectable as ever; why on earth would social conservatives compromise themselves to speak to the centre when they did not even try to compromise in order to work with their traditional allies?
Proponents of the Unite the Right movement point out that, in twenty seats in Ontario, the combined vote for the Alliance and PC candidates exceeded that of the Liberal winners. This does not mean that, under a united Conservative party, twenty victories are assured. If the PC party is removed as an option, PC supporters are more likely to vote Liberal than Alliance. Not only do polls show Paul Martin with staggering levels of support, polls that ask for an individual's second choice show that economic conservatives aren't interested in working with social conservatives anymore. The Liberals now occupy the same political ground as the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and PC supporters are heading that way. Some Red Tories, who may favour Liberal policies but distrust their opportunistic streak, are heading to the NDP. Polls show the united Conservative Party of Canada tracking at only 13% -- traditional Reform Party/Alliance territory, and the NDP slowly but surely moving up into second place.
The merger of the PCs and the Canadian Alliance does reflect a seismic shift in Canadian politics, but not in the way the merger's proponents hope. The Red Tories, economic libertarians and social conservatives which built the majorities of Mulroney and Diefenbaker have only given up fighting; they have not chosen to work together. The Liberals have capitalized by swallowing the electable portion of the right.
The dichotomy that used to be Liberal-Conservative in this country is now NDP-Liberal. Paul Martin is about to be our next Diefenbaker, and the new Conservatives are about to be our next Social Credit.
Why did Brison choose to side with the Liberals instead of sitting as an independent as his three colleagues have done? A few reasons, I think. There's the obvious: Brison see's Martin's government as being no different from a PC government. Also, his three independent colleagues, including Joe Clark, are at the end of their political careers and he most certainly isn't.
And finally, and this is probably the deciding factor, he's probably been signed onto the Paul Martin cabinet. Brison, you will note, didn't make this decision until after he met with Martin...