A Conservative dynasty?
Five years ago I was invited by columnist Lorne Gunter to speak at the annual meeting of the Civitas Society in Ottawa. This was after he read an article I had written for the Cardus publication, Comment. Although the organization touts itself as “a strictly non-partisan ‘society where ideas meet’,” it soon became clear to me that this gathering of journalists, academics, prominent politicians and political aides was only too pleased to celebrate the recent victory of Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative government at the polls. Tasting the first fruits of political power, Stephen Harper himself made an unscheduled appearance with his entourage on that first evening of the event.
The most revealing session of this meeting was an in-house talk by Frank Luntz, the American pollster and consultant – or spin-doctor, in current parlance – whose work for the Republican Party had contributed to two electoral victories for President George W. Bush. Somewhat to my surprise, Luntz told the gathering that, if Harper’s party were to listen to his advice, he could help them create a Conservative dynasty that would last for twenty years. At the time this seemed somewhat implausible. After all, the Liberals had ruled virtually unopposed for more than a decade and could still claim in some fashion to be Canada’s “natural governing party.” The newly elected Conservatives had only a minority in the House of Commons, and the Bloc québécois had a stranglehold on La Belle Province, apparently preventing any other party from achieving majority status.
I was reminded of Luntz’s promise after the Canadian people gave the Conservatives their coveted majority in May, demoted the Liberals to third place, virtually eliminated the Bloc as a political force, and elevated the New Democrats to official opposition. Now the notion of a lengthy Conservative dynasty does not seem nearly as far-fetched as it did in 2006. The NDP has just lost Jack Layton and is being led for the time being by a neophyte. Michael Ignatieff has become only the second federal Liberal leader, after Stéphane Dion, not to become prime minister. Finding a suitable replacement will not be easy for the deeply-divided party.
Even those otherwise sympathetic with the federal Conservatives’ policies should be uneasy with the current state of affairs. One senses that Harper and company have smelled blood and are going in for the kill. Yet a healthy democratic polity requires more than one robust political party. These parties must be fairly evenly matched to preserve the genuinely competitive character of elections. A ruling party must function under a realistic threat of being defeated in the next election; otherwise it will become complacent and take its popular mandate for granted. Where one party is repeatedly favoured to win, corruption and injustice are likely to creep into its activities.
If Stephen Harper wishes to leave behind a positive legacy for Canada, he should do what he can to support the New Democrats’ choice of an able leader who will keep the Conservatives on their toes and hold them to account for their policies. A weakened opposition unable to perform this vital task will tempt the government to pursue policies of short-term benefit to itself but detrimental to the public interest just because they can get away with it.
One of the things that brought down the Liberals in 2006 was public indignation over the Sponsorship Scandal, which saw their government disbursing funds by questionable means to advertising firms for unclear purposes. It did so during a period when its position in the House of Commons was virtually unassailable, facing as it did a divided opposition. During Luntz’s address to Civitas, he emphasized the “disgusting” waste of tax dollars by the Liberals – something intended to appeal to the participants’ sense of justice.
However, partisanship itself can be taken to unjust lengths. Partisans are more easily outraged by their opponents’ missteps than by their own. Reinhold Niebuhr once observed that those fancying themselves the “children of light” underestimate the power of self-interest in themselves even as they see it in their enemies. Yet if we understand clearly the teachings of Scripture, we must admit that everyone, and not just our opponents, has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). This recognition will keep us from embracing a narrow partisanship that ignores the good in our adversaries and the evil in ourselves.