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The longstanding Liberal hegemony in Canada – and the challenges to it

By Mark Wegierski
web posted April 18, 2011

Since the federal election of 1896 (near the end of nineteenth century) when the voters in the mostly French-speaking province of Quebec switched their votes, en masse, from the Conservative to the Liberal Party, Canada has been characterized at the federal level by long periods of Liberal government, with comparatively brief Conservative interludes. Indeed, the Conservative Party had re-designated itself as the Progressive Conservative Party (in 1942), and has latterly mostly eschewed nearly all aspects of what is called in Canada "small-c conservatism." 

Since the federal election of 1993, Quebec voters have largely supported the Bloc Quebecois. However, in the 1993, 1997, and 2000 federal elections, the Liberals were able to win virtually every seat from Ontario, which is Canada's most populous province. Part of the Liberal success was based on the so-called "vote-splitting" between the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance and the federal Progressive Conservatives. In the 1993 federal election, the electorate rendered a judgement of sorts on the Mulroney years. The federal Progressive Conservatives – represented briefly by Prime Minister Kim Campbell -- were reduced to a total of two seats.

Brian MulroneyBrian Mulroney, the Progressive Conservative Prime Minister of Canada from 1984-1993, had won huge parliamentary majorities in 1984 and 1988, including major support from Quebec voters. But his apparent unwillingness to carry out some substantively conservative policies could be seen as a major reason for the arising of the Western Canadian-based Reform Party in 1987 (which formally became a countrywide party in 1991). It should be noted that the Reform Party of Canada was much different from the U.S. Reform Party (especially in its Buchananite incarnation). The Reform Party of Canada was comparatively far more electorally credible and attracted about a fifth of the popular vote in federal elections in 1993 and 1997. The frequent characterization of Canadian Reformers as "far right" was wildly inaccurate.

Although the Reform Party was even more pro-American than Mulroney, earlier proposals for a Canada-U.S. Free Trade deal (Mulroney's major accomplishment) had been, historically-speaking, strenuously opposed by more traditional Conservatives in Canada, who had looked to Britain. Mulroney also precipitously raised immigration, from the 54,000 or so persons to which it had fallen in Liberal Prime Minister Trudeau's last year in office (1983-84) to about a quarter-million persons a year, where it has remained ever since. With Canada's population now approaching 35 million, it is more than double the official U.S. immigration rate, per capita – and probably the highest rate of immigration per capita in the world. The GST (Goods and Services Tax), the Canadian equivalent of a value-added tax, while interpreted as a "hard right" move by some, could also be seen as a stereotypically liberal tax grab. In terms of society and culture, Mulroney appeared beholden to the multicultural, feminist, and other politically-correct agendas, and, despite his then rather unpopular rhetoric of "deficit-fighting," actually incurred huge deficits, doubling the total federal government debt to about $500 billion (Canadian) by the end of his tenure in office.

Mulroney had arrived on the scene in the wake of the massive transformation of the Canadian polity, society, and culture, begun by Liberal Prime Minister Lester Pearson in 1965, and spectacularly continued in 1968-1984 (except for nine months in 1979-80), by Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Except for the first election of 1968, when "Trudeaumania" swept the country, Trudeau failed to receive a majority of seats in English-speaking Canada in the successive federal elections – while perennially winning nearly every seat in Quebec. The Liberals were also assisted by the presence of the social-democratic third party in English-speaking Canada – the New Democratic Party (NDP), which had evolved out of the much different and sometimes rather socially-conservative CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation).  Some have argued that the Liberal Party had also been effectively "hijacked" by Trudeau, away from its somewhat more traditionalist earlier identifications.

It could be argued that the initial revolutionary act was the replacement in 1965 of the Red Ensign, Canada's traditional flag (which had, like Australia's today, a Union Jack in its upper-left corner) -- with the Maple Leaf Pennant -- which some Canadian traditionalists saw at that time as a Liberal Party banner. In the history of politics, the change of a country's flag is often seen as representing a "regime-change." The culmination of the process was the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into the Canadian Constitution in 1982, which virtually set down Trudeau's entire agenda as the highest law of the land. The Charter then fell into the hands of an increasingly "activist" judiciary, and the results have been similar to that of "judicial activism" in the United States. However, unlike in the U.S., it is hard to think of even one judge since the 1980s who could be identified as a solid conservative, on the Canadian Supreme Court.

Most of the developments in the Canadian polity, society, and culture occurring in the wake of Trudeau have consisted of a further extension and pushing forward of his social liberal agenda --creating the multifarious structures of what some have called the "Trudeaupia". In the last two decades, however (presumably in reaction to the collapse of Soviet Communism) left-liberalism has become far more willing to concede some major fiscal and economic issues to the "managerial Right" -- while continuing a ferocious struggle against small-c conservatism and social conservatism.

Left-liberals had tried to maintain the center-right parties in Canada in the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s in as eviscerated a shape as possible, building up the federal Progressive Conservatives at the expense of the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance, and trying to bleach out substantive conservative thinking as far as possible from all these parties. The Canadian Alliance (officially called the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance) arose out of the Reform Party as part of the "United Alternative" process in 1998-2000. 

In December 2003, a reconstituted Conservative Party was formed from a merging of the federal Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance – and seemed to have unexpectedly acquired a certain conceptual energy under the leadership of Stephen Harper. In the 2004 federal election, the Liberals under Prime Minister Paul Martin, Jr., were reduced to a minority government. Since January 2006, the Harper-led Conservatives have held onto a minority government in the federal Parliament, having won a plurality of seats in the federal elections of 2006 and 2008.

Given the left-liberal dominance in so many social and cultural areas, the election of a substantively conservative majority government at the federal level in Canada, may indeed be possible to be perpetually stymied.

It should also be noted that Stephen Harper's policies have been overwhelmingly centrist, and, hyperbolically speaking, probably close to 80 percent of the Canadian electorate could vote for him without trepidation, if only his current policies were dispassionately looked at. However, there are such factors as traditional Liberal voters (considerable numbers of whom do not perceive the vast changes in the Liberal Party since the 1960s); traditional NDP voters (some of whom still feel the afterglow of the old CCF); the Bloc Quebecois tribal vote; some among those concerned about the environment who will vote Green; and the hostile media, academic, and arts infrastructures (especially in Toronto)  – all of which will obviously serve to keep Harper's electoral support much lower.

Another possible challenge to the mostly Ottawa-and-Toronto-centered left-liberalism could arise from the ideas of maximal regional devolution (decentralization or so-called "provincialization") becoming more salient in Canada. These ideas are likely to become increasingly raised should Harper fail to break through in Ottawa. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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