We get mail. And a regular reader asked me to post Andrew Steele's Article from Tuesday's Globe and Mail. So, here it is.
...To permanently replace the Liberals as the strongest national party, Stephen Harper may have to borrow their approach to the Quebec question
Article ANDREW STEELE
Globe and Mail Update
October 28, 2008 at 10:27 PM EDT
After less than three years as Prime Minister, Stephen Harper can point to a laundry list of accomplishments.
Mr. Harper took a discredited, broken and bitterly divided Canadian Alliance Party, merged it with the Progressive Conservatives, won the subsequent leadership contest, fought the Liberals to a minority government, forged a new platform and displayed admirable discipline in opposition. He won a minority government of his own, changed the course of the nation on assistance to children, the military and taxes and, this month, earned re-election.
But Mr. Harper's long-term goal is to end the hegemony of the Liberals in the Canadian electoral system and replace it with a dominant Conservative Party. That requires him to overcome the fundamental reality of the party system, and the bedevilment of every Conservative leader since John A. Macdonald allowed the execution of Louis Riel. And that will require boldness that will make Mr. Harper's many accomplishments to date seem like a warm-up act.
How bold? In his presidential address to the Canadian Political Science Association earlier this year, Richard Johnston gave some idea.
The Liberals' dominance, Prof. Johnston argued, has resulted from their ability to dominate the centre. In most jurisdictions, two or more parties bracket the middle as they compete for independent voters. But in Canada, one major party commands the centre, forcing the opposition to be bilateral - "coming from both ends of an ideological or policy spectrum," as Prof. Johnston put it. The centre itself is lost to the opposition parties.
For as long as that's the case, the remaining option for the Conservatives if they wish to hold majority government is an "ends-against-the-middle" play, building a team out of opposites against the behemoth in the centre. A coalition with the NDP, their ideological mirror, is impossible because local activists would quickly discover they had nothing in common. But Conservatives can join opposites from different regions, emphasizing that which unites and nuancing that which divides.
The Conservative record shows the modest success of this strategy. From Bennett to Diefenbaker to Mulroney, Conservative majority governments have been built on shaky coalitions between right-of-centre English Canadians and Quebec nationalists.
However, as Prof. Johnston noted, "the resulting incoherence accounts for the short life and commonly dire fate of Conservative majority governments. The fall of Conservative government is often the midwife of anti-system parties, with the Bloc and Reform as only the most recent examples. Conservative bust and boom is the source of the episodic volatility in Canadian elections, and is in fact the complement of Liberal longevity."
But what is the key to the Liberals' survival, even dominance, in the face of no comparable centrist success in any other jurisdiction? Prof. Johnston points to the National Question.
"It is commonplace to observe that the Liberals have been historically better than others at managing that question," he said. "But their survival as a dominant player requires that they control a pole on at least one major dimension of choice."
The Liberals are centrists on economic and social policy questions, and control neither end of the debate there. But they do have a strong position on the question of Quebec's place in the federation.
Liberals in fact control opposite ends of the question in different regions: pro-Quebec outside Quebec; pro-Canada inside Quebec. On questions of national character — the Constitution, the Charter, bilingualism — this gives the Liberal coalition coherence by arguing for a strong national government, minority rights and a central place for Quebec in Confederation. Meanwhile, it leaves the Conservatives competing for marginal space in Quebec, and with a shaky coalition built around decentralization, provincial jurisdiction and hedging on the place of Quebec in Confederation.
To prove out his case, Prof. Johnston employed some data exploring the dimensions of support for each party in Quebec and outside it. It comes from the 2004 and 2006 Canadian Election Study. (This is the attitudes of voters for the parties; it's safe to say that the partisans in each party would likely be further toward the margins in most cases.)
This graph shows the policy space and where the average vote for each party would be found. The left-right ideological axis is conveniently located on the left-right axis. The top-bottom axis is attitudes toward Quebec, with plus-one being Jacques Parizeau and minus-one being Western Canadian separatist Doug Christie.
First, each party organizes itself coherently inside and outside Quebec on the left versus right questions. The NDP is left of the Liberals and the Conservatives to the right of the Liberals in both venues. The spectrum is much more narrow in Quebec, and the Bloc gobbles up the NDP's normal social democratic territory, but there is coherence.
However, when you line up the parties' supporters on the issue of Quebec, they lose coherence.
Obviously, the Bloc's supporters are the most pro-Quebec. Any other finding would simply prove the data was wrong. But each party finds a significant gap between the position of its supporters in English Canada and in Quebec.
The Liberal position comes the closest to coherence, with their Quebec supporters the least attached to Quebec and their supporters outside Quebec being most open to that province. The distance between the two wings is the shortest, and that results in the ability to take strong stands on the National Question that do not typically alienate supporters in either Quebec or the rest of Canada. They can tie the two poles together with minority rights.
The NDP in Quebec is trying to wedge into non-existent space between the Bloc and Liberals on left-right, and between the Conservatives and the Bloc on unity. It helps to explain why, in the recent election, the NDP yet again proved unable to break through in Quebec. But that lack of Quebec MPs is in some ways a blessing in disguise. The NDP's attempted coalition would force it into a pure pro-Quebec position, which would be deeply unpopular in the rest of Canada.
Conservatives have the largest problem. The gap between its supporters in Quebec and in the rest of the country is the widest of any party.
"The Conservative marriage is of outright opposites: francophones and Francophobes," Prof. Johnston assessed. "When Conservatives seek Quebec votes, however, the only ones available to them are located toward the nationalist end of the spectrum, as the Liberals already control the ground closer to the pro-Canada pole."
What Prof. Johnston's framework makes vividly clear is that, if they hope for long-term electoral dominance, the Conservatives need a major realignment.
One country, one message
This discordance within the Conservative coalition led to its splintering in the 1993election and to its lack of success in the 1970s, and it hobbles them still.
The recent election provided obvious examples. The culture cuts and youth crime proposals were the two most high-profile examples of issues that cut across the Conservative coalition: unpopular with Quebeckers, popular elsewhere. Afghanistan divided the Conservative coalition the same way, even if this angle did not get as much media coverage in English Canada.
But these issues were relative chickenfeed. Only the culture cuts issue touched on the National Question itself, and then only symbolically. Were the Conservatives forced to engage nationally on Quebec's place in Confederation, the centre would not hold.
Part of why Mr. Harper has resisted holding First Ministers conferences is that he needs to avoid situations in which he must visibly choose between Quebec and the rest of Canada. Flush with cash, and in one-off meetings, he can dance between the two. But this forum places him too squarely in the cross-hairs.
The course Mr. Harper has selected so far is to avoid confrontation on these questions, emphasize provincial rights and delegate responsibilities to the provinces while avoiding creating any new national standards or programs. But in the long-run, the gap between his voters will provide a potential wedge for any opposition to exploit.
If they are to build a durable coalition, they must adjust their position on the National Question either in Quebec or outside it. Theoretically, Mr. Harper could attempt to mimic the Liberal coalition by moving both sets of supporters closer to the middle ground. But the Tories' base in English Canada is large, powerful and unlikely to moderate on this fundamental question.
The surer course is to capture the federalist pole from the Liberals in Quebec. This might mean fewer seats in Quebec in the short-term, but it would form a solid intellectual foundation that could be maintained for generations. This position would have coherence - pro-Canada in both Quebec and the rest of the country - as opposed to being contradictory, like the existing coalition of "francophones and Francophobes."
To undertake this strategic shift would require increasing the support of Quebec allophones for the Conservatives, a similar strategy to their methodical micro-targeting of East Asian Canadians in Ontario and B.C. It would mean targeting the Anglophones of Montreal and displacing the Liberals as their choice.
It would also require one development Mr. Harper cannot control: the Liberals selecting a leader and a strategy to sacrifice the federalist pole in Quebec for a play to the soft nationalist vote. Mr. Harper cannot seize the federalist pole alone; it must be willingly surrendered.
The result would be the complete reorientation of the Canadian party system. No longer would the dominant force be a Liberal Party built around a strong national government to protect minority rights, with a weaker Conservative Party that can only win a majority of seats by forging an ends-against-the-middle compromise with Quebec nationalists.
Instead, a strongly pro-Canada nationalist Conservative Party would be the dominant party. The Liberals would likely fade away in time after losing their primary anchor in the party system. The chief opposition party would be a pro-Quebec, social democratic NDP/Bloc hybrid, strong in those hotbeds of the anti-establishment: downtown Vancouver, downtown Toronto and francophone Quebec.
Politics would be much more similar to the 19th century. There would be a traditionalist Blue party intent on building a unique pan-Canadian identity, and a radical anti-authoritarian Red party dedicated to a cosmopolitan and differentiated Canada. The two parties would bracket the centre, fighting over the middle vacated by the once dominant centrist behemoth.
This strategy would bring the Conservatives back to where Diefenbaker left off: The project of building a strongly nationalist, British North American alternative to the United States. It would attempt to build a unified "Canada" of more than just laws and flags, but of one culture and one people, if two languages. Perhaps George Grant even wrote the future Conservative slogan in Lament for a Nation: "Canadians first, foremost and always."