National Post (Latest Edition)
Hidden in the midst of the federal Conservatives’ slow decline in the polls is a slow, deliberate transition in the way the party is branding itself. Stephen Harper has of late given speeches on the importance of the Queen and the role of the so-called Anglosphere. Most notably, he chose to skip an international conference on AIDS held in Toronto to tour the Canadian North and promote its importance to Canadian sovereignty and history.
References to Canada’s historical roots suggest a reorientation of Conservative political thinking to the big picture and the long term, and stand in stark contrast to the short-term resultsoriented priorities upon which the government was originally elected.
Whether or not it is successful, this transition marks a shift in the party’s focus from doing what was immediately necessary to win the January election to obtaining a majority government down the road.
Canadian prime ministers who have led majority governments have generally shared one specific quality: an ability to create and promote a vision of the country that was grounded in the future. Sir John A. Macdonald put forward a National Policy that would take years to fulfill. Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s goal of expanding the country through immigration was part of a century-long project. John Diefenbaker’s northern vision was inspirational in 1958 when he won what was then the greatest majority in Canadian history. Ten years later, Pierre Trudeau plead for a just society, and Trudeaumania launched a new generation of Canadian thinking about social policy and individual rights.
In contrast, Canada’s minority governments have more often focused on the present. Mackenzie King, for instance, won a Liberal minority in 1921 when he promised little more than to be different from the Conservatives. It was only in 1926, when he campaigned on a platform of protecting the future of Canada from imperial domination, that he received full-fledged electoral support.
When Lester Pearson challenged the Conservatives in 1963, he promised 60 days of decision. But beyond those two months his plans were less clear, and the Canadian public responded by withholding from him the majority he sought.
Joe Clark’s greatest asset in 1979 was that he was not Trudeau. Once the Canadian public decided that this was not enough, he was replaced.
The Harper government’s original policy agenda was designed to provide Canadians with immediate results: accountability both in Parliament and in the justice system, money in their pockets through lower taxes and a child care allowance, and improved health care through shorter wait times.
The Conservatives presented themselves as the ultimate party of today. They satisfied the public’s craving, post-Gomery inquiry, for an answer to the question: What has the government done for me lately?
At the same time, they also established a standard for themselves that would be impossible to maintain.
The public appetite for immediate results is virtually insatiable; feeding it only increases expectations of even more quick fixes. Eventually, a problem arises that can’t be solved with a single promise.
It should therefore have come as no surprise that the Conservatives have struggled, and continue to struggle, to gain majority-level support for their positions on longer-term big-picture issues such as the environment and foreign policy.
In the last election, Mr. Harper gambled that he would be rewarded for not making mistakes. And he was, to the extent that Canadians are willing to reward caution and policies that promote instant gratification.
But as the environment emerges as a primary Canadian concern, and criticisms mount about the Conservative government’s approach to foreign policy, the Harper team finds itself in need of something new.
In this context, skipping the AIDS conference in Toronto to visit the Canadian North was understandable.
Showing leadership in the fight against AIDS won’t bring about a Conservative majority. Becoming the party to revitalize the Canadian North just might.
Regardless of whether it leads to any concrete results, politicians from all parties should look at the Conservatives’ rebranding effort as good news both for them and for the country more broadly.
The last national election catered to the most basic needs and wants of Canadians as individuals.
Perhaps the next one will allow our leaders to remind us that we, our children and our children’s children are citizens of a country that can and should make a difference in the world. We can only hope that all of our political parties will now step up, present their visions of the long-term future of Canada, and attempt to earn a majority.
Dr. Adam Chapnick teaches at the Canadian Forces College and is the author of
The Middle Power Project: Canada and the Founding of the United