The Province

Conservati­ves just love those nutties on the left

- Dan Gardiner Dan Gardner is a columnist with the Ottawa Citizen.

As in the Sherlock Holmes story of the dog that didn’t bark, what can be most interestin­g is what didn’t happen. So what hound didn’t howl during the first year of Stephen Harper’s Conservati­ve majority government? The hardcore right. All year long, the Conservati­ve marching band stayed in lockstep behind the drum major. Conservati­ve pundits remained seated politely in the reviewing stand. The conservati­ve base cheered and clapped on the sidewalks. Oh, there was a little grumbling here and there, but it was barely noticeable and quickly forgotten, and there was nothing that could be called dissent.

For five long years, true believers had consoled themselves by reciting a mantra: “He has to because it’s a minority; wait until the majority.”

Harper accepted gay marriage and refused to even discuss abortion. “Wait until the majority,” social conservati­ves sighed.

He increased federal spending 19 per cent even before embracing Keynesian stimulus spending with the fervour of a convert. He expanded the federal civil service by 13 per cent. He supported supply management, expanded regional developmen­t agencies, interfered with foreign investment, and implemente­d a series of tax reforms that made economists cringe. “Wait until the majority,” tearful fiscal conservati­ves whispered. Then came the majority and not much changed.

At the beginning of 2012, when the government was accused of trying to quietly roll back gay marriage, it responded with strong support of gay marriage in both word and legislativ­e substance. Last week, when a private member’s motion prompted accusation­s that the government was trying to quietly raise the abortion issue, the Conservati­ve whip condemned the motion, declared the government would never restrict abortion rights and made a prochoice speech as powerful as any ever heard in the Commons.

Fiscal conservati­ves did a little better than social conservati­ves in the first year of the Harper majority, but the emphasis must be on the word “little.” The budget that had been touted as “transforma­tional” was nothing of the kind. Yes, there were modest cuts, but orthodox Keynesiani­sm calls for spending to be curtailed after a recession passes and the economy is moving up the business cycle, so there was nothing particular­ly radical about that. The simple truth is that the prime minister’s first budget with the free hand of a majority could have been delivered by a Liberal government led by John Manley or Paul Martin.

Conservati­ves know that, but don’t take my word for it. “I haven’t spoken to a single Conservati­ve who’s satisfied with the budget Jim Flaherty brought down last month,” noted Paul Wells of Maclean’s.

So why haven’t we heard more of that disappoint­ment in public? Where’s the alienation and dissent? Why doesn’t that dog bark?

There are many factors at work. For one, Harper essentiall­y created his party and has ensured there are no Paul Martins with prominence and power of their own. Other prime ministers could not have dreamt of Harper’s control.

There’s also the sense that however much Harper may compromise conservati­ve principles he is, at heart, a conservati­ve, and so he is cut far more slack than the young Stephen Harper and his Reform colleagues gave Brian Mulroney, who was never seen as “one of us.”

But there’s another factor at work that’s seldom recognized but critical to keeping the right quiet — it’s Harper’s leftist critics.

Last spring, Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick described Canada after a Harper majority: “Guns on the streets, gated communitie­s, rampant drug use, unlimited anonymous corporate political donations, no government safety standards for food and medicine, classrooms that resemble holding pens . . . .” Deep breath. “Women’s rights would retreat, including abortion rights, access to medical advances, and the right to go to court to protest inequality . . . .” There’s more but you get the idea.

Hardcore conservati­ves love hearing stuff like that. It means Harper is hated to the point of loopiness by people they loathe, and so they conclude he’s doing something right. In this way, the more unhinged warriors of the left and right mirror and reinforce each other.

When Harper was in opposition, the left insisted he had a secret agenda he would implement if he ever took power. The right hoped that was true.

Harper took power and there was no agenda. The left said that was only because he was restrained by minority government. “Wait until the majority,” they said. Nothing cheered up the right like hearing the words they whispered to themselves coming from the left.

Then came the majority. Still no secret agenda.

No matter. The zealots are sure it’s slowly coming. “Stephen Harper is remaking the country,” wrote Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom after the budget was tabled. “It is not a convulsive remake. Like the prime minister himself, it is slow, relentless, inexorable.”

Evidence? There isn’t much. Or any. Now. But there will be. Just wait. It’s all part of his master strategy. He’s “boiling the frog,” the left insists. It’s incrementa­l. We won’t recognize the country when he’s done.

The right wipes away a tear, smiles, and keeps marching in lockstep.

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