Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Shifting right or tuning out?

One of the questions that has been asked with some frequency by politics watchers is whether Canada is growing more conservative. Whether over time, we have moved away from our more traditional centre and towards the right.

While this might be a fair question to ask, I am not sure it is the right one.  The problem with a question like this is that it leads to somewhat narrow answers which offer limited perspective.

The answer many offer is that three election victories for the Conservatives is hard evidence that the country is more aligned with Mr. Harper's policies than those of his opponents.  Proponents of this argument also point to not just three victories, but three increasingly stronger results culminating in the May 2011 majority.

Fair points, yes.  But surely there is more for us to consider as we ponder whether the country is shifting right.
  • The progressive alternative has been splintered as the Liberals have fallen and the NDP have grown.  This game is still playing out, and as a result the Conservatives have been able to capitalize.  The combination of a fractured opposition and the first-past-the-post system have worked for Harper in much the same it did for Chretien, particularly in Ontario.
  • Building on the point above, Mr. Harper strongly benefitted from not one but two ineffective Liberal leaders.  Yes, the vicious Conservative attack ads contributed to the ineffectiveness of Dion and Ignatieff.  However, that these ads were "complemented" by a Liberal reluctance or inability to define oneself as a credible option should not be overlooked.
  • The Conservatives were highly adept at using the financial crisis as a platform for success.  First, they were essentially implored to spend - which they did in spades, thereby being able to legitimately wear the moniker of the government that steered Canada through "the worst crisis since the Great Depression." Second, as the global political winds have shifted and spending made way for austerity the Conservatives have gained a degree of legitimacy for the shrinkage of government they have always favoured.  Imagine being able to look out an ask rhetorically "do you want us to be like the EU?".  
These points are less about whether we are shifting right or left, and more about a lack of defined alternatives combined with a very unique and shifting "crisis environment."  And yet even then, I think there is something more that explains what we have seen over the past several years that goes beyond an ideological shift.

It is not that people have shifted right, it is that people have increasingly tuned out.

Our politics is more partisan.  It is more sound-bite driven.  There is less policy being discussed.  Parliament is by-passed at the earliest convenience and with greater frequency.  And every day that this happens, more and more people tune out and try to get on with their lives.

In the end, I think the better question to ask is not whether we are shifting right, but whether we are paying close enough attention to what is going on around us.  And by "we" I don't mean those of trapped inside of the bubble of Ottawa (or those outside, but fixated on those within it).

To say Canada is shifting is to say that Canadians are engaged.  We are not.

1 comment:

  1. I believe we are on the same page. In my view Canada is not becoming more Conservative. In fact, a couple of years ago Maclean’s published a piece on an Angus Reid national study. The survey covered a wide range of moral issues and found that while attitudes differ between generations and geographic areas, overall Canadians are even more liberal than ever on issues such as abortion, gay marriage, death penalty and euthanasia.

    In addition to your points about Harper benefitting from weak adversaries (divided left and leaders) and the economic environment, I have always felt the Conservatives have benefitted from the previous reputation of the Progressive Conservatives. A disengaged electorate could easily think the two parties are one in the same. Repeated minority Conservative governments certainly perpetuated that perception as they struggled to maintain power by shifting to the centre.

    So, it would be a mistake to think Canada is becoming more Conservative based on our current politics. I believe with the freedom of a majority government, the Conservatives are going to cross a line and it will jolt Canadians into realizing we are being pulled to the right unwillingly through our lack of engagement (one can dream). The real question is how much damage will be done in the next few years.

    As always a great, thought-provoking piece!


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