Monday, May 25, 2009

The cracks in the new Tory grand coalition (Very long, but in-depth)

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I'm probably going to be the 50th Liberal blogger to link this today, but here we go:
http://www2.macleans.ca/2009/05/25/conservative-ads-succeed-in-moving-the-numbers/

The numbers by themselves:
Liberal-37%
BQ-33%NDP-14%
Conservatives-13%Greens-3%

While I don't think I need to spin these numbers much, I will point out one comment that I found particularly interesting from the Macleans comments section:

However, someone wrote last week, I forget who, that Harper appears to be trying traditional way of appealing to Quebecers: having dinners and highlighting all the MPs and Senators who bring all this wonderful pork spending to the prov.Harper will a revolt on his hands from the Con base if he continues to pander to Quebec while having his support cut in half.

I'm of the school of thought that the Conservative "grand coalition" is simply unsustainable over the long-run because of its inherently contradictory nature. In a post-election article in the Globe and Mail (I think it was the Globe), they had a very in-depth look at the reasons why people across different regions, particularly Quebec vs. the ROC (off-topic, I kinda dislike that phrase because it implies a cultural unity of Canada outside Quebec/English Canada that simply does not exist, in my opinion) of the country voted for the same political parties.What they found is that for the Liberals, although some variations do exist across regional lines, by and large a person votes Liberal for pretty much the same reasons regardless of if they live in Vancouver, Red Deer, Barrie, Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, etc. While fractures can sometimes dramatically happen, the same general group of issues and opinions tend to bind Liberals together.For Conservative voters, however, the personal positions are very different, and the Quebec vs. ROC difference is huge.

The Tory "Grand Coalition’s only real true binding point is wanting to defeat the Liberals. Considering the "Grand Coalition", when including all possible members, consists of some very distant elements; Western populists, Ontario social conservatives/business interests/rural inhabitants/suburban soccer moms, Quebec nationalists, and the traditional Maritime conservativism, which tends to run at least slightly Red, it is not difficult to see how the Grand Coalition could be divided by policy issues.While purely ROC divides do sometimes happen (the split with Danny Williams and Bill Casey over the disliked-amongst-Western-populists Atlantic Accord, which for a brief period looked like it might send Atlantic Red Toryism into full revolt), the most bitter and damaging splits in the Tory coalition tend to be between Quebec and the ROC elements.

Historically, this can be seen in such issues as the Execution of Louis Riel, Manitoba Schools Question which helped hand the 1896 election to Laurier, who then proceeded to lay the groundwork for the Liberal Party to be most successful party in the democratic world in the 20th century, the Conscription Crisis of 1917, the deux nations debate which divided the PC party during the 60's, and Meech Lake/Charlottetown, which had the doubly bruising effect of both the Western populists and Quebec nationalists wings of the Grand Coalition forming new parties.

After Harper managed to combine the old PC's, which by that point was little more than a motley crew of Atlantic Red Tories, Mulroney era Quebecois activists, and a handful of Ontarians and Westerners who had remained local to Canada's Grand Old Party, with the Canadian Alliance, which was overwhelmingly dominated by the Western populism of Reform, with a dash of Mike Harris/Tom Long Ontario business neo-conservativism thrown in, one of his main goals was to re-attach the Quebec nationalist wing of the party. After failing to get Quebec back on board in 2004, Harper spent a devoted part of his time wooing Quebec, particularly the forces of the ruling Parti Liberal du Quebec, led by former PC leader and Mulroney era minister Jean Charest. The wooing, combined with a Liberal collapse, led to a Tory breakthrough in Quebec: 10 seats.

The next period of Harper and Quebec was between the 2006 federal election, and the 2007 Quebec provincial election. After the support of Charest machine, Harper and Charest developed the closest relationship between a Prime Minister of Canada and a Premier of Quebec since the last time a Tory Prime Minister and a Liberal Premier ruled the land; Charest and Harper seemed to be Mulroney-Bourassa part 2, minus the constitutional talk, that could wait at least until a Tory majority was secure, built on gains in Quebec. Harper and Charest flattered each other the best they could, and Western populists, who being from the Reform wing of the Conservative Party had largely been drawn into politics as a reaction to what they saw as Mulroney pandering to Quebec nationalists, swallowed the new arrangement fairly easily, after all, after a long walk in the wilderness, the Conservatives were back in power, and to a degree at least, the "West had gotten in", and those damn Liberals were out of power. If a polite bow to Quebec was needed here and there, so be it. All but the unelectable fringe who still thought getting endorsed by the Alliance for the Preservation of English in Canada was a good thing were still on-board, and beaming, as Tory numbers in Quebec continued to stay ahead of the federal Liberals, who were in the middle of a leadership race. The "Quebec as a nation" resolution of the LPC-Quebec wing, and was adopted by the House of Commons with near (Michael Chong, ladies and gentlemen, as well as a handful of Liberals) unanimous consent from the governing Conservatives and the House of Commons. Some speculated that this, the explicit recognition of the deux nations which had divided Conservatives so in decades past, would be a crack in the new Grand Coalition's armour. However, no cracks came.

In retrospect, and I say this as a guy who proudly supported Dion throughout all highs and lows, Dion helped the Tory grand coalition stay together in the aftermath of Quebec as a nation. While even if another candidate had won, I doubt you would have seen much rumblings in the Tory ranks either way, the nature of Dion, a staunchly federalist environmentalist (which is what as a Liberal, originally attracted me to his campaign), was such that Harper could say to both Western populists who saw Dion as a perpetrator of the global warming myth, and Quebec nationalists who saw Dion as a vendu, "Hey, I may not be perfect, but take a look at this guy!" When it came time for the first electoral tests in Quebec that were Harper vs. Dion, Harper received flying colours from the electorate, picking up Roberval-Lac St. Jean and nearly gaining Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot from the BQ, demonstrating the Tories' ability to pick up voters in the regions of Quebec, while Dion lost Outremont to the NDP, which brought many to question Dion's potential for growth in Quebec.

By the time of these by-elections, a new dynamic was in play in Quebec. Several months earlier, the populist-conservative Action démocratique du Québec had jumped from third place into nearly knocking off the Charest Liberals. While Harper had been paying close attention to the relationship with the ruling Liberals, he had never forgotten the ADQ, and in particular, its mercurial leader, Mario Dumont, who had endorsed the Conservatives personally in 2006. Indeed, it would be hard for Harper to forget the ADQ; of the 10 Tory MP's elected from Quebec in 2006, many had strong ties to the ADQ. Four of those newly elected federal Members of Parliament - Maxime Bernier, Steven Blaney, Jacques Gourde and Josée Verner - came from areas that the ADQ represented provincially, and all had various ties to the ADQ, with the exception of Lawrence Cannon, a former provincial Minister in the PLQ, as well as a former federal Liberal, none had particularly strong ties to the PLQ. More importantly from a federal Conservative point of view, Dumont and the ADQ had run on issues and rhetoric that while resonated well with Conservatives from outside Quebec; a smaller state, less immigration, greater provincial authorities, while being opposed to Quebec sovereignty, getting tough on crime, etc. Dumont had success in the same regions of Quebec Harper both had and wished to succeed in the future in. While during the 2007 provincial election Harper favoured Charest, delivering a budget with extra funds for Quebec which Charest turned into a tax cut (at this point, some of the Western populists cried foul, but they were not a loud enough voice yet for anyone to seriously worry about a crack in the coalition), after the election, with Charest looking a spent force, the ADQ on the rise, Mario Dumont looking to be the Premier in waiting, and the old federalist-sovereignties debate looked to be replaced by the ADQ rallying cry of "Autonome!"

For the federal Conservatives, this was nothing but good news. With a powerful ADQ, no longer would intergovernmental issues come between Quebec nationalists and Western populists, a true conservative Prime Minister could talk to a true conservative Premier of Quebec, and just as the Conscription Crisis laid the ground-work for Liberal dominance of the 20th century, reasonable accommodation would set the ground-work for Conservative dominance of the 21th.But something happened. While Harper and Dumont's buddy-buddy act alienated Charest and the PLQ, the ADQ started to flounder, and Charest got his mojo back. The federal Tories still seemed to be ok, and were confident that they could ride the ADQ and the provincial Liberals they had not alienated to a big seat gain and an overall majority. The next Quebec test of Dion vs. Harper, however, leaned far more heavily in Dion's favour than the previous round of by-elections. While the Tories were hyping up the chance for a victory in Guelph, and loudly hinted that local candidate Gloria Kovach would be appointed to cabinet if victorious, they downplayed the votes in Westmount-Ville Marie and St. Lambert.

The federal Liberals would not be caught off guard again, and were running strong campaigns in both ridings. The NDP was challenging in W-VM, with a star candidate, hoping to repeat Outremont, and the Tories were largely disinterested in how arguably one of the least Tory friendly ridings in the country would vote, unless the Liberals happened to be knocked down a peg. St. Lambert was somewhat more promising. A suburban riding, with a strong federalist side despite going Bloc, (and a good chunk of the Bloc vote was seen as more of a personal vote for retiring incumbent Makka Kotto, who made the jump to the Parti Quebecois), and if the Tories could finish ahead of the Liberals, at least, that would show that Dion could not win Quebec, and that the Tories could get out the vote not only in rural areas, but right on the doorstep of the Liberal/BQ fortress (Outremont not withstanding) of Montreal.

As the campaigns wore on, rumours began floating. The Liberals would cruise to victory in Westmount -Ville Marie, Kovach was floundering in Guelph as the Liberal vote held steady and the Green vote was skyrocketing, and the BQ would hold on to St. Lambert, and arguably worst of all, would be able to retain second place against the Tories. All this went against the Conservative narrative. Both the Liberals and the BQ were supposed to be the past of Quebec. The Green Shift and the Liberals were supposed to be going down in flames in mid-sized cities/ridings like Guelph. Dion was not a leader. As voting day neared for the three ridings, increasingly, rumblings were coming out of the PMO that Parliament, and particularly the Liberals, were "obstructing" the governments agenda. It rapidly became clear that Harper intended to break his own election date and call a snap election. The timing of the dissolving of Parliament, a mere day before the by-elections were timed, left little illusion that that the anticipated results had at least something to do with snap general election.

For most of the early weeks of the campaign, the polling had the Tories right on the cusp of a majority, but not quite at the point. Numbers from Quebec were ok, not as strong as expected, but doing decently, guaranteed at least some seat pick ups, and a nice little bounce was all that would be needed.Then the first big crack in Harper's Grand Coalition appeared. Egged on my ADQ staffers who were largely in charge of the Quebec Tory campaign, Harper was advised that throwing a piece of red meat to his populist base in the form of culture funding. Harper's comments about artists, arts funding, and more broadly, the role of the state in promoting culture, was intended to placate the more populist/social conservative element of the Tory base in English Canada, which tend to take a dim view of using tax-payer dollars to support culture. For Quebec nationalists, however, the relationship between the state, the people, and the culture, is extremely close. The nationalist wing of the Tories revolted, and the BQ, in one of the most interesting political maneuvers I've ever seen, switched its tactics almost completely from identifying itself as the soverigntist option, and instead Gilles Duceppe, who I have no doubt could have become Prime Minister were he a federalist, openly campaigned for federalist voters to support the BQ. Duceppe argued on the grounds that they were the best equipped to combat a Harper majority. Duceppe had used this line before the culture comments affair, but they took on a new urgency after, and in an an election which was supposed to be the death knell for the BQ, and the rise of the Tories was instead a story of Bloc defiance, Harper dropping the ball, and a modest Liberal recovery, as ironically, Quebec, the province which Dion's harshest critics said he could not win, provided the only province-wide bright spot for the Liberals come election night, and I saw more than a few Liberals raise a glass that night to Quebec.

The pattern of that election, Harper strengthening his hand in the ROC, while Quebec expansion was dropped, was an ominous foreshadow for the next development in Harper's relationship with Quebec: for all the talk of the Conservative "Grand Coalition", a coalition, without air quotes, and with strong support from Quebec, but unpopular in ROC, was looking to push Harper out after a fall economic update which took the position that in the middle of an economic crisis, the best course of action was to deny a deficit and recession were on the horizon, and attack the public service and the opposition parties. The aftermath was arguably the greatest Canadian political turmoil since the collapse of the Mulroney "Grand Coalition", as Canadians took to the street to protest either in favour or against. The country was sharply divided, and Harper, never one to pass up a wedge issue, hit it will full force.

Any Quebec support Harper had evaporated as Harper attacked the "Separatist Coalition", telling the ROC that the BQ would have a policy veto, and other outright falsehoods. Had Harper asked for an election, and the GG given it to him, Harper would have swept across English Canada, but would have been lucky to return more than the seemingly locally unimpeachable Maxime Bernier from Quebec. The ADQ, fresh off mismanaging Harper's campaign in Quebec, and with the reasonable accommodation issue pushed aside by the economy, started off the Quebec elections which were co-current with the dispute in a distant third, had its support further sapped by Harper's fierce attacks, as Charest, formerly Harper's dancing buddy, condemned the attacks on the Bloc Quebecois and the coalition as crossing the line. Many considered the surprisingly strong showing of the Parti Quebecois, which limited Charest to a narrowly workable majority when pre-election polls predicted a 2003-style Liberal romp, if not more, to a resurgence of nationalist feelings within Quebec voters after Harper's attacks.

We all know the story since then. Dion out, Iggy in, the coalition done, Liberal numbers and finances up, particularly in Quebec, the Tories dropping across the country, but particularly in Quebec, with seemingly no way to ever recover enough to salvage a majority, and with the last few polls showing the Liberals ahead nationally. So, what now, and what to make of this?I think what we are seeing with the Tories collapse in Quebec is a much quieter separation of a part of the Grand Coalition, and somewhat in reverse. With the Mulroney coalition, the West was the first to go, while Quebec is arguably the only province in which Mulroney remains in good standing (the decision of Harper to alienate Mulroney and his PC support network in Quebec can also be seen as a crack). Today, Quebec is rebelling most loudly against the Conservatives, while the Western, Reform Party heartland remains a largely impenetrable fortress of Tory support.

I doubt we will ever see a formal split again in the Conservatives, but Harper's use of wedge politics has driven a wedge into his naturally shakey coalition. The Conservative coalition is, as that G&M article summed up, "Francophones and franco-phobes", and ultimately is unsustainable for Canada. With Harper seemingly moving on from pitting English against French to Canadian vs. Canadian based on how long you have been in the country, and pitting those who are looking for work vs. those who have work, the Harper's inclinations for wedge issues and dividing Canadians is well at work. As Liberals we have to keep working for Canada. I have no doubt that at least part of Ignatieff's numbers, in Quebec and elsewhere, are a halo effect/honeymoon period. But I also have no doubt in my mind that if we work as a party, not just for the party, but for all Canadians, bringing them together in a positive way in a time of economic crisis, we can't drive those Liberal numbers even higher.

1 comment:

Muskoka Liblog said...

I liked your post. This part is especially true:

"The Tory "Grand Coalition’s only real true binding point is wanting to defeat the Liberals."

As a former Conservative I agree. Harper can spend like a drunken socialist, roll over for Quebec and give up his blue-tory ideology, but they always justify it by saying, "The Liberals would be worse."

The Conservative's aren't conservative at all. They ought ot rename themselves the Not The Liberal Party.