Notes on movement conservatism and MNC 2016

The largest annual gathering of the Canadian conservative movement has come to a close and, for the second time in three years, I had the pleasure of joining in.

Here are a few thoughts hastily written as I ride the train back to Toronto.

State of the movement

This year’s conference was the first to take place in a political context without the Conservative Party in government.

While delegates certainly didn’t give off an aura of defeat or surrender, attendance appeared to be much smaller than the last time I visited (in 2014). If their recent electoral defeat has wrought any particular change among Canadian conservatives, it’s something besides an ideological one: Participants at all of the panels and sessions I attended seemed to have full confidence in the rectitude of their ideas and philosophy and, with only a few exceptions, intra ideological debate was visibly less than at the last incarnation of the conference I attended.

Instead, the conservative movement appears preoccupied with aesthetic and logistical issues. Over and over again during panels and their accompanying Q and As I heard variations of the following: “How do we communicate better?”, “How can we articulate a conservative message to people who don’t identify as conservatives?”, “How do we relate better to young people/journalists?”. There was an overwhelming sense that the Conservative Party fought the election on the basis of more or less the correct ideas, but failed to communicate them adequately.

Though the ghost of Stephen Harper – who remains the first and only leader of the united Conservative Party – looms over the movement, both his legacy and the challenges that follow from his defeat were repeatedly discussed in cloaked and evasive terms. His name was very rarely mentioned (often substituted for “our government”).

While no one ascribed blame to Harper for it, there appeared to be an overriding sense that the true motivations and aspirations of conservatism had been buried; that the party had overwhelmed the movement, become insular, and excluded potential members and activists.

All the familiar themes were present – “Personal responsibility”, related emphases on security and order; the entrepreneurial narrative and its accompanying condemnations of the state as an economic oppressor, etc. – but they emerged in a less guarded fashion than they might have during a meeting of the now deceased Harper cabinet.

Having said this, the conference’s preoccupation with the cosmetics of conservatism (rather than the ideology or philosophy of conservatism) seems to me a symptom of confusion and atrophy rather than renewal.

The path to the conservative utopia does not run through more effective use of Facebook or Twitter, or a more effective application of modern campaign techniques. An interest in value-neutral political technology may be necessary for the success of any ideological project. But, when it starts to override intellectual and spiritual introspection and debate, the movement clearly has a problem.

The view from stage left

As a left wing observer at the conference, it was a real treat to listen to my ideological opposites reflecting on their politics and the state of their movement. The right’s frustration with the status quo and its desire to produce transformative change are qualities I admire, at least in the abstract. The maintenance and nourishment of a movement takes considerable labour, as does the pursuit of ideas which run contrary to apolitical wasteland of late capitalism.

But neither my admiration or agreement survive beyond this abstract terrain. The conservative movement’s historical sense is anemic and its political-economic analysis even worse.

Its continued sense of victimization and marginalization is unwarranted, given that we’re currently living in the world the new right of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s created: conservatism may need to retain this psychological outlook to remain viable, but it lacks historical perspective and fails to take into account the near-ubiquitous triumph of neoliberalism as the ideological spirit of the times.

Movement conservatism also misinterprets and misunderstands its political opponents. “The left” and “liberalism” are repeatedly conflated (sometimes under the nonspecific umbrella term “progressive”). There seems virtually zero awareness of the difference between liberalism and social democracy, let alone anything to the left of the latter. The bogeymen du jour are messieur Trudeau and madame Wynne (Tony Clement referred to Ontario under the Liberals as “the People’s Republic of…”), who are taken to be great champions of “activist Big Government” that seek to “tax and spend” (both mortal insults in conservative circles).

Again, a little perspective here might be warranted. The Wynne administration, which certainly postured around the motif of “activist government” during the 2014 provincial election, just commenced the privatization of Hydro One, having spent its last several mandates repeatedly slashing the corporate tax rate. It may pursue social initiatives like sex ed that offend the sensibilities of the social conservative fringe, but its claims to even lean slightly to the left are shoddy at best.

Ditto for Canada’s new prime minister. His proposition, outside of a deceptively shallow emphasis on “tone”, is essentially to restore some of the programs cut under the previous Conservative government. There is nothing remotely radical about his tax plan, which has already cut taxes for most of the richest 10% of earners (it raised them slightly for the very richest, with a net loss in revenue for the federal government) and does nothing to reverse the repeated cuts to corporate taxes which took place under Stephen Harper (during the campaign, Trudeau even derided the NDP plan to raise the CIT as anti-business). His program for deficit spending is nowhere near the one undertaken by the Conservatives themselves in scale and is quite explicitly branded as an economically-necessary one-off rather than an attempt to increase structural program spending. Finally, his social policy embraces the neoliberal mould of means-testing. During the campaign, Trudeau attacked proposals to create new universal social programs and committed to addressing Canada’s childcare challenges using the same underlying logic as the Conservatives (only with more generous benefits and with the means-testing performed in advance rather than retroactively through the tax system).

That the political centre represented by the Liberals now exists on this terrain is something the right should celebrate as a sign of its ongoing victory. In caricaturing mainstream liberals like Trudeau and Wynne as harbingers of a renewed offensive by “activist government”, movement conservatives are shadow boxing with a chimera of their own creation.

As for the problems with the ideological outlook I observed this weekend, where do we even begin?

Despite retaining the classical conservative emphases on tradition and institutions of social cohesion (the family, nationalism, etc.), the conservative movement born of the 70s new right is overwhelmingly guided by a romantic obsession with the capitalist marketplace. In many important respects, it views this as the single most crucial foundation for both individual and social life – an essentially neutral sphere in which individuals can pursue their personally-crafted life goals without external interference.

If there are imperfections, it is assumed these are the products of meddling or rigging by the state rather than defects inherent by design. There is virtually no problem – poverty, homelessness, unemployment, social anomie – for which the movement conservative does not have a market solution (accompanied by a diagnosis which places blame on an overly activist state). That the market is a structure of power like any other – with intrinsic hierarchies and imbalances that only harden over time and render the ethical goal of meritocracy an impossible one – is simply not accounted for or acknowledged. It is conceived of as a natural equilibrium: as politically and axiologically neutral as evolutionary biology or the force of gravity – not a human construction that is the product of specific historical and economic circumstances, and certainly not an amalgam of institutions that should be subject to democratic change, adjustment, or wholesale replacement when signs of failure appear.

The very notion that there might be valuable moral principles outside of individual economic calculus that should govern our political, economic, and social lives is pure anathema.

Party and movement: Looking ahead

Among the most interesting features of the conference were two related panels showcasing prospective candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party. Here are a few thoughts on each of them:

Michael Chong: Chong’s speech was heavy on personal narrative and short on ideology. As many conservatives like to do, he emphasized his family’s own struggle against adversity (as immigrants from Hong Kong in the mid 20th century). Also invoking family experience, Chong spoke of Canadian heroism in the Pacific during the Second World War (his dad was in Hong Kong during the Japanese invasion) as a jumping off point to a familiar and Harperesque story about the need for decisiveness in a dangerous world. Not without a certain rhetorical appeal, but overly polished and personal for a politician regarded to have intellectual substance.

Kevin O’Leary: Whether O’Leary’s musings about running for the CPC leadership represent empty posturing, performance art, or genuine testing of the waters I do not know. His abrasive, bloviating speech was big on pro-business and energy (that is, oil) rhetoric of the kind favoured by the crowed and was well-received enough, but mostly hard to take seriously.

Maxime Bernier: By far the best of the five speeches, Bernier’s was heavy on ideology as well as rhetorical flourish. His attack on government subsidies to corporations got raucous applause and, in the subsequent Q and A, he answered Preston Manning’s policy questions with notable specificity. When Bernier runs, his apparently insurgent candidacy will be interesting to watch.

Tony Clement: Clement’s Instagram follower count probably dwarfs the crowd that heard his speech. Though he chose not to fixate on his personal story as some other candidates did, it was hard to extract a thesis from his remarks. A call for the privatization of the CBC and some mild criticism of the way the party conducted the 2015 election were the only real highlights of the speech.

Lisa Raitt: The only woman to speak (Kellie Leitch had been scheduled but cancelled last minute) Raitt focused on her youth on Cape Breton Island and, like Chong, her family’s various struggles. Beyond a few notes of traditional Toryism, it is unclear what exactly her campaign will be.

In the Q and A that followed each speech, Preston Manning asked each candidate the same question about how to make conservatism appeal to youth. Revealingly, each gave a variation of the same answer: The key to attracting the next generation is for conservatism to be more obviously and outwardly conservative: In his answer, for example, Tony Clement suggested that young people, like conservatives, are “lovers of freedom”.

This apparently banal comment may reveal more than initially meets the eye.

It occurs to me that each and every one of the prospective candidates for the leadership of the CPC came politically of age at around the same time in the 1980s or early 1990s, i.e. during the ascendency of movement conservatism. Then, its calls for “self-sufficiency”, “personal responsibility”, and “individual liberty” over and against the state had an emotional and spiritual resonance that often transcended lines of gender, race, and class. But the lived experience of today’s young people is quite different from those who consider themselves children of the Reagan revolution.

In an economic context characterized by precarious work, low wages, poor financial security, and the widespread exploitation of young labour by employers (who are often from a different generation) across the workforce, solutions that emphasize personal grist and the imperative of an improved work ethic are unlikely to be well-received.

Looking south, it is quite the opposite: Young people appear drawn in much greater measure to Bernie Sanders’ message, and its various attacks on oppressive economic structures, than to movement conservatism’s pickled ethos of “individual liberty” or its various ideological stepchildren (including the Clintonite variant).

Movement conservatism may have dominated the past three decades. But everything I’ve observed this weekend suggests the possibility that something very different may come to dominate the near future.



A few thoughts on Andrew Coyne and the Manning Centre Conference

Andrew Coyne’s latest column is about this year’s Manning Centre conference. I attended last year’s gathering, here are a few thoughts:

-I was impressed, even as a lefty, by the sheer dynamism of last year’s conference. Everything was positively dripping in ideology, as it should be at something like this. So I think his complaints about it being taken over by “party conservatives” are a little exaggerated.

-One thing that I repeatedly observed last year was a widespread belief that right wing governments have retreated from “true conservatism”. This attitude is reflected in Coyne’s column, as he actually attaches the words “planned economy” to BC Premier Christy Clark with only minimal hyperbole. The view that the Party in Power™ has abandoned the True Path™ is one found in most populist or revolutionary movements which succeed politically. In holding this view of the Harper or BC government, movement conservatives are rather amusingly in sync with the Trotskyists who held the Soviet Union to represent a deformation of workers internationalism.

-Something else I repeatedly observed last year was an almost complete ignorance about the left among movement conservatives. Most would not be able to recognize, and would probably be unwilling to acknowledge, the difference between liberals and social democrats and/or democratic socialists even though these two poles are invariably represented by different political parties and have very disparate historical origins. I know this column isn’t about the left, but Coyne too shows little interest in even trying to understand the ideological foundations upon which his opposites rest. This is a problem not limited to the right, mind you.

-I share Coyne’s irritation with how conferences like this one have become totally saturated with “activist training” sessions, concerned with the effective use of social media and the like. The Manning Centre has doubtless trained plenty of effective activists and this is an important part of its mandate. But the gathering of a movement should be about ideological debate and contestation, not Facebook or Twitter. I hope the Broadbent Institute’s Progress Summit, which I’ll be attending later this month, achieves a better balance between seminars/debates and training. Movements need to be effective at communicating and organizing, but they become hollow without ideology. Activists need to be more than effective Twitter warriors or campaign staffers. They need something to believe in.

-It’s both amusing and instructive that the “good guy” of Coyne’s column is British politician Iain Duncan Smith, one of the most hamfisted and least effective leaders the British Tory Party has ever had and the frontman for its campaign to degrade and demonize the extremely poor. Inept, mean-spirited, and fundamentally concerned with the overt defence of aristocracy and class privilege: This, apparently, is what “true conservatism” looks like.

-The tensions between a party and a movement are real. Overlooking or ignoring them serves nobody, and Coyne is right to privilege latter over the former in this context. I had some thoughts on this after last year’s conference, which you can read here: (*I’d like to scream from the rooftops that the phrase “host of ideological shards” wasn’t of my creation. It’s been a year since I’ve revisited this piece, but you still can’t have a “host of shards”. Mixed metaphors don’t serve movements either.


Has Stephen Harper made Canada more conservative?

That we’re now discussing the character of Stephen Harper’s legacy is probably cause for optimism among those of us who aren’t his fans (legacies debated preemptively are rather like obituaries-in-waiting). Whatever one’s view of Stephen Harper, it has become fashionable to imagine his departure in a manner which goes beyond the abstract and to similarly reflect on his political career and its achievements.

A recent intervention on that score comes from the Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson, who writes, unsurprisingly, that Stephen Harper has successfully made Canada a more conservative country. As evidence, Ibbitson cites six policy areas in which the Conservatives have made recognizable changes: spending, crime, immigration, security, democracy and federalism. Writing in reply for National Newswatch, Don Lenihan offers something of a contrary view: that the tenure of Stephen Harper, far from being an era of deepening conservatism, is more one of increasing centralization and authoritarianism.

It’s hard, probably impossible, to disagree with this part of Lenihan’s analysis or its staggeringly bleak observation that such centralization risks calling the very legitimacy of our democratic institutions into question. But on the question of whether Stephen Harper has made Canada more conservative, I would offer an alternative interpretation.

The notion that the past nine years have represented, in part or in whole, a deviation from true conservatism is one shared by many observers on the left and the right. When I attended the annual Manning Centre conference last year, this was a sentiment clearly held by many delegates, some of who were understandably frustrated that their ideas would almost certainly never see the light of day in Stephen Harper’s government. One journalist I spoke to referred to the event as a meeting of the “conservative movement in exile” and the overall ethos of the gathering was more like that of Woodstock (except with more suits and crappier music) than one of the infamously regimented meetings of Harper’s cabinet. This view seems at least implicit in Lenihan’s piece, as he counterposes conservatism and centralization and suggests that the latter has little to do with conservative ideology. I’m not so sure.


If we want to seriously interrogate this notion, we have to go back to the origins of the modern Conservative Party because it’s against this period that the ostensibly deviant conservatism of Stephen Harper is often measured. Reform, forged from the twin fires of Western alienation and populist ferment in the late 1980s, was officially committed to an agenda of lower taxes and public spending, reformed federalism, and, most notably for our purposes, sweeping democratic reforms. Its founder Preston Manning even initially sought to brand the party as “neither left or right” and as “more reformist than conservative”. Sweeping into Parliament after the 1993 federal election (though just missing out on Official Opposition status to the Bloc Quebecois) Manning and his MPs vowed to break with the old habits of Canada’s staid and ossified political institutions: among other things loosening caucus discipline and rejecting several of the “perks” traditionally offered to Members of Parliament. For a time, Manning even refused to follow the traditional practice of leading his caucus from the front bench and later mused about turning Stornoway into a charity casino. images Reform members behaved, and believed themselves to be, more like the parliamentary wing of a national movement than a traditional political party in the old Liberal or Progressive Conservative molds. In their future incarnations as members of the Canadian Alliance and the [pre-government] Conservative Party of Canada, the same MPs and their supporters remained committed to democratic and institutional reform. Viewed in relation to this period, it’s easy to see why many believe the pattern of increased centralization and authoritarian control of messaging that set in more or less immediately following the 2006 federal election represents a betrayal, or at least a deviation from, the Reform Party’s original project.

I profoundly disagree.

The Reform Party was, above all else, about achieving or at least advancing conservative objectives in a country whose political culture is fairly hostile to most or all of them. These were all perfectly explicit in its program, and I’ve named a few already: lower taxes and public spending, constitutional and democratic reform and, importantly, innumerable social conservative objectives related to things like law and order and “the traditional family” (a favourite phrase of Manning’s in the early and mid 1990s) and the creation of a more homogenous, austere, and martial national ethos. Its membership was overwhelmingly socially conservative and sought to use the party as a vehicle to advance sectarian causes and, where possible, turn them into national policy.

Let us consider the Reform/Alliance democratic reform agenda a bit more closely. During his campaign for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance, Stockwell Day promised to hold a national referendum on any issue should a sufficient number of citizens sign a petition calling for one. Yet leaked Alliance documents specifically referred to abortion in relation to the proposal. Day’s eventual leadership victory was welcomed by conservative members of the press such as The Report’s Paul Bunner who enthusiastically wrote:

Mr. Day’s Alliance now represents a romantic hope for a freer country where taxes are lower and government less meddlesome, where respect is granted, not coerced, and where the whims of the intelligentsia are constrained by direct democracy.

Far from being an autonomous part of the Reform project, planks like direct democracy were promoted with a view to better advancing conservative objectives. Populism was ultimately a means rather than an end, which is why it was so easily abandoned following the transition from Opposition to Government.


This fact is also illustrated by Manning himself, who has frequently conflated populist democracy with conservatism despite his own deep commitments to the latter. Take this anecdote from his 2014 conference speech (which I was, incidentally, in the front row to witness – the version below comes from the official transcript):

Back in the days when I was engaged in political door knocking in Calgary Southwest, I was thinking about better ways to get citizens more engaged in elections when I knocked on the door of this house and the voter inside immediately asked, “What’s your platform?” To which I replied, “What’s yours?”

He said: “What do you mean?”

“Well” I said, “My party and I have a platform which I can show you. But what about your platform? What is it that you want to achieve over the next four years – for yourself, for your family, for your community, for your employer or business, for your country? Write that down, and judge me as your MP and my party, if we were to form a government, by the extent to which our policies and actions facilitate and enable you to implement your platform and achieve your goals.”

This is a conservative vision of government – government as a facilitator and enabler of others. And likewise the Conservative Movement is a facilitator and enabler – a facilitator and enabler of conservative thinkers and political activists to better serve their parties, their constituents, and their country.

Had I been the nameless voter in the story above, I would certainly have replied to his question with a platform neither Manning nor his party would have wanted to facilitate (“Well Mister Manning, sir, I’d like to raise taxes on corporations and high earners in order to better redistribute wealth, and I’d like to constrain the environmental and social damage wrought by our economy through the institution of new state regulations…etc.”). You take my point.

Conservatism by other means

I believe Preston Manning to be perfectly sincere in his professed ontology of politics. But it is manifestly wrong to depict conservatism as an axiologically neutral facilitator of popular ideas or, by extension, to think democratic openness is in any way a natural or organic outgrowth of it. (And note the final sentence in the quotation above in which Manning attaches, almost as an afterthought, the word “conservative” to the idea of “facilitating and enabling”.)

Political ideas are not autonomous from their social origins, but rather intimately connected to them. American conservatives do not champion the chimera of “states’ rights” because they have some principled attachment to localism over centralization, however much they may articulate this cause as being a democratic one. Rather, the modern project of expanding state-level jurisdiction over social policy emerged in the South primarily in opposition to the Civil Rights movement and, eventually, as a means of undermining other federally-directed initiatives like equal marriage.

Similarly, the project pursued by Canadian conservatives to dismantle [some parts of] the federal government and promote provincial “freedom” in areas like healthcare has always had more to do with opposition to the kinds of things the federal government has typically pursued rather than a particular commitment to decentralized power. A more recent example is the government’s militant opposition to the NDP’s proposed national daycare scheme. In interview after interview, Conservative MPs have framed the issue as being about choice versus centralization and pluralism versus bureaucracy. But, as I’ve written elsewhere, such opposition has far more to do with a conservative conception of the “traditional family” than it does with any abstract concern about the size or scope of the state.

Ultimately, the purpose of Canada’s conservative movement is to advance the cause of conservatism. Democratic populism can be either a facilitator or an obstacle to that cause, depending on the political context. Harper My sense is that Stephen Harper understands this fact far better than the ever-earnest Preston Manning. His style of government, with its tendency towards unprecedented centralization and control of information, seems premised on an acute awareness that the vast majority of Canadians are not conservatives and, as such, need to have conservatism imposed on them in piecemeal, concealed behind a technocratic smokescreen and with as little visible ideological colouring as possible: Fabian neoconservativism.

It is this understanding, more than anything else, which motivates the almost martial discipline Stephen Harper and his apparatchiks enforce on the Conservative caucus and their ruthless obsession with bureaucratic centralization and control; their repeated steamrolling of parliamentary rules and conventions; their willingness to use public resources for the purposes of self-promotion; their very deliberate transgressions against election law; their use of selectively bellicose rhetoric on the world stage to court particular constituencies at home; and their ruthless, mean-spirited debasing of political opponents. Harper has not, by my estimation, become any less conservative than he was in his Reform Party days. Rather, time and experience have taught him that conservative objectives will be better advanced by way of a coldly Machiavellian approach that subordinates overt ideological fervor to a more utilitarian ideological calculus.

To be committed to an ideology is ultimately to believe in a particular conception of how society and politics ought to be and to pursue it as an ideological partisan; to be an ideologue is to be more committed to its realization than to the procedural and ethical constraints of existing institutions. While Preston Manning may not have fully understood or accepted this, Stephen Harper does. Far from having strayed from the conservative objectives of the Reform Party, he has merely taken them closer to actualization. As populism becomes authoritarianism the means may have changed, but the ends remain exactly the same. In this sense at least, Stephen Harper has made Canada more conservative.


John Baird and his legacy

The abrupt resignation of a senior figure in the political class invariably provokes torrential goodwill, both from other parliamentarians and the press. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this. The first, and most obvious, is that journalists and politicians have real and sustained contact with one another and often establish a level of familiarity which the public enjoys with neither. The second is simply convention. It’s considered dishonourable to speak ill of an elected politician’s legacy when he or she resigns or dies.

This brings us to a third reason, related to the first two, which is the politics of respectability. It is one of the peculiar quirks of modern democracy that the term “partisan” is almost universally invoked in the pejorative, as if strong disagreement is not something to desire or expect from elected officials. Respectability politics are partly rooted in the personal relationships which inevitably form between politicians, journalists, staffers, and bureaucrats: these people have to see each other every day, so a measure of respect and cordiality is probably necessary (and perfectly understandable).

But they are also the products of ideological consensus. Political revolutions register success when even opponents are forced to acquiesce to their language and their populism becomes orthodoxy. Neoliberalism hasn’t been as ideologically potent in Canada as it has in, say, Britain or America, but we have certainly not been immune to the thirty-year project of reshaping democratic politics around the language of accounting and management.

One of its consequences has been the profound contraction of the boundaries of “respectable” political debate and the effacement of many of the conflicts that defined earlier epochs of democratic politics with a new and more technocratic political lexicon. Respectability, though not entirely related to this development, is certainly a part of it. It represents one of the pressures placed on elected politicians to conform to the dominant language and thinking of the moment – it’s precisely for this reason that someone calling for new taxes on high earners is accused of being “divisive” or Greece’s new government is counterposed with ostensible “moderates” (who are considered “moderate” because they want to continue enforcing a socially and economically catastrophic program on their country). In this way, respectability politics begins with politeness and ends with antipolitics.

One reply to this might be that many of Canada’s elected politicians are rude and disrespectful to one another. This is often true and, were I an elementary school teacher I think I would refrain from exposing any of my classes to Question Period. But there’s a qualitative difference between profound, ideologically-fierce disagreement and smarm (I highly recommend this magisterial piece of writing on that topic by Tom Scocca as a companion to this post). Democratic politics is at its healthiest when there is disagreement without smarm.


Which brings us to John Baird, an elder statesman of Canada’s conservative movement who surprised everyone by announcing his sudden resignation as Foreign Minister yesterday. I’m not really going to speculate on the cause of Baird’s departure because, like almost everyone else in Canada, I do not know it. Perhaps the man is genuinely tired of Canadian politics after two decades on its front lines. Perhaps there is an impending revelation to be made public from which he feels it would be impossible to recover. There’s also the chance that he has leadership aspirations and, unsure of his party’s prospects in the coming federal election, wants to get out now so as to avoid being tainted by the result. We will have to wait and see.

In any case, the reaction to Baird’s resignation has thusfar been thoroughly predictable – the typical blend of insincere reverence and revisionist deification. Baird, we are told, “worked with Opposition critics” (the CBC – and here you can view an example of Baird working with his colleagues for yourself); “listens sincerely and put aside partisanery [sic] in the national interest” (Marc Garneau); “well regarded by Tories, Liberals, New Democrats, and journalists” (Robert Benzie, The Star). The CBC has compiled a great many more of these platitudes here. For good measure, Baird addressed his colleagues in the House of Commons declaring

I was perhaps just a little naive [when I entered politics]. Driven by ideology, defined by partisanship, at the age of 25…I quickly learned though to make a difference, to really make a difference, you can’t be defined by partisanship, nor by ideology. You need instead to be defined by your values.

Now, I’m really not sure how ideology and “values” are antithetical or why having either doesn’t compel you to act on them in a partisan manner. If values are strong moral views and ideology is the political articulation of those views, the two would seem intimately and inseparably related.

Anyhow, this chorus of praise is likely to grow in the next few weeks as commentators jump over one another to celebrate Baird’s career and legacy as Foreign Minister (it will be very amusing, should it happen, to watch anyone try to claim that Baird was a great Minister of the Environment). One of the more bizarre premises of respectability politics is the idea that any real criticism invariably offends and debases the dignity of its target. So let me preface what I’m about to say with the following: I don’t know John Baird and I expect that, like a great many people in public life, he’s perfectly cordial one-on-one (I’ve heard this from several people who do know him). Someone being likeable personally does not preclude them being destructive politically.

And Baird has, it seems to me, been integral to three of the most destructive ideological revolutions in Canadian politics: the neoliberal transformation of Canada’s largest province, the degradation of the House of Commons, and the ongoing reconfiguration of Canada’s foreign policy and domestic self-image. With all this in mind, here are a few thoughts on John Baird’s political career and legacy in these three areas:

-Baird entered politics as part of Mike Harris’s “Common Sense Revolution”, a political wave engineered by a new generation of movement conservatives (who built the Reform Party at the federal level) in conjunction with a number of Republican Party strategists. The powerful idiom of “Common Sense” attached a folksy charm to a socioeconomic program which reduced the rights and autonomy of huge sections of Ontario’s workforce, cut taxes for corporations and high earners, and gutted social and environmental regulation.

-A key component of this political agenda was the demonization of welfare recipients. “Common Sense”, as Ontario’s version of Thatcherism (John Baird’s cat, incidentally, is named after Margaret Thatcher) was an effective popular idiom because of its emphasis on “self sufficiency”. Thus, when John Baird as Minister of Community and Social Services sought to get people off of welfare he deemed it an opportunity for them “get back into the workforce and [become] productive citizens.” Bill 142, which Baird helped to create, forced welfare recipients to submit to drug and literacy tests in order to qualify.

-Lingering behind this “Common Sense” policy was the notion that poverty is essentially the result of moral failing – an idea that first became popular in Victorian Britain and later found new life as a favourite talking point of Ronald Reagan’s – and that the poor, far from being able to blame structural unemployment and deindustrialization for their condition, have nobody to blame but themselves. This simultaneous emphasis on self-sufficiency and the depraved “culture of poverty” has allowed politicians like Baird to claim that their assaults on already meagre social security programs are actually liberating while all the while channeling vulgar prejudices designed to make the lower middle class dislike the extremely poor as much as they do.

-During Baird’s tenure in the Harris government, hundreds of thousands of people were taken out of welfare and put on workfare – a neoliberalized version of welfare (also, incidentally, originating in Victorian Britain) which forces recipients into “community employment places” in order to receive their payments. Similarly justified by the superficially coherent idea that individuals receiving state benefits should have to “give back”, this is less a form of welfare than it is a modern version of indentured servitude in which the state effectively subsidizes low-paying employers by giving them labour on the cheap and compels those in the most precarious situations to work in order to earn their poverty. This same government, which claimed to oppose the “nanny state”, also produced a “menu” purporting to show that a single individual could dine on only $90 dollars a month – the nutritional value of the items on said menu were less than what’s required for Prisoners of War under the Geneva Convention.

-The Harris government’s tax cut regime, though not specifically Baird’s domain, was a part of this overall vision. Freeing up large amounts of capital from taxation, the government declared its intention to liberate rich individuals and profitable corporations (just as it had “liberated” the poor from “dependency”!). This hints at the double-meaning incorporated by the conservative invocation of the word “incentive”: the rich, it is suggested, will not work or be productive unless they are given more money, while the poor will not work or be productive unless money is taken away from them and a martial discipline is imposed on their daily lives. An “incentive”, in this view, is simultaneously the offer of a tax break to high earners and the threat of the workhouse to those who earn little or nothing.

Involved directly and indirectly in the above, John Baird was one of the chief ideological and political architects of this transformation. Seeing an opportunity, he entered federal politics in 2006 and became a cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government…

-In parliament and in government Baird, who is often called “partisan”, has been one of the frontmen for the Harperite degradation of the House of Commons as a space for genuine political and ideological debate. “Partisanship” doesn’t quite do justice to his hysterical performances in Question Period or the absurdly swarmy way he has tended to respond to opponents. Whatever his role – President of the Treasury Board, Environment Minister, Minister of Transport – Baird has been one of the Harper government’s chief polemicists and enforcers, as eager to mount assaults on the truth as he was to mount them against social security in Ontario. If there’s anything positive to be said about Baird here, it’s that he fulfilled this role far more effectively than any of his hamfisted successors (Dean Del Mastro may soon face jail time; both Pierre Polievre and Paul Calandra eventually became too embarrassing for even the Conservative Party of Canada to earnestly deploy during Question Period with much frequency).

This brings us to Baird’s tenure as Foreign Minister, the post he ultimately resigned from. One aspect of the Canadian media assessment that I agree with is the suggestion that this was the most serious incarnation of John Baird as a politician. I concur, though perhaps on divergent grounds. My sense is that Baird’s talents were being wasted on empty parliamentary polemicism. The PMO seemed to think this too, eventually realizing his demagogy might be better spent as part of its effort to rebrand Canada on the world stage.

-It was this that brought us the more “respectable” and less “partisan” Baird, who was less boisterous though arguably more demagogic. This John Baird would be a key part of the Conservatives’ new foreign policy; one that has less to do with achieving specific objectives internationally than it does with reshaping Canada’s image inside and out. In rhetoric, it has been more militant, more decisive, and more prone to invoking overtly moralistic language than its earlier Liberal or Conservative variants. This development, welcome at least in the abstract to anyone who prefers decisive moral language to wishy-washy equivocation, has mostly involved cultivating selective outrage around international issues of concern to current or prospective Conservative constituencies and the quite aggressive downplaying of offences committed by official allies. It is this hypocrisy that has allowed John Baird to crusade against human rights abuses in Iran, while celebrating the legacy of Saudi Arabia’s king and saying nothing about the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of arms shipments Canada makes to his country every year.

-The tokenistic and domestically-driven internationalism which Baird has helped to promote has given us some real absurdities, such as a monument in Ottawa honouring the “victims of communism” (suppose we had erected a monument to the victims of Christianity to honour the casualties of the Crusades?) or the “Office of Religious Freedom”, which won the endorsement of none other than former British Prime Minister turned globetrotting rogue statesman Tony Blair.

-This is a foreign policy which seems directed, more or less explicitly, at Canada’s self image. Conservatives have never really warmed to the institutions created during the postwar period and have successfully dismantled quite a few of them (with a little help from the Chretien and Martin Liberals, mind you). This hostility is partly towards the institutions themselves, but the greatest ideological antipathy is evoked by the national values they are said, accurately or not, to enshrine. For all its problems, Canada’s national healthcare system remains a real source of pride and solidarity for a huge number of the citizens who make use of it and is probably still the Canadian Left’s greatest achievement – it is a testament to the robustness of Medicare that the Conservatives have opted to bleed it dry rather than to launch a full frontal assault (the same can be said of their approach to the CBC).

-Not being in a strong enough position to uniformly dismantle such institutions, the Conservatives have instead tried to supplant the values they are taken to represent. This strategy has involved no less than an attempt to construct an entirely new national ethos, built around institutions like the military and the monarchy, which are seen to represent that bemusing combination of twee nostalgia and macho chest-beating which is so precious to the modern conservative psyche. The more bellicose foreign policy championed by Baird has been integral to this overall project.

-For all his efforts in these regards, Baird’s greatest institutional legacy may be the consequences of his assault on pluralism at the Foreign Affairs Department and work to reconfigure its traditional objectives. This legacy is registered by three significant developments:

  1. Helping to lead the Conservative government’s attack on the arms-length organization Rights and Democracy because it dared give grants to organizations critical of the government of Israel, and ensuring its closure.
  2. Overseeing the closure of CIDA and its merger with Foreign Affairs in order to realign Canada’s development strategy with the interests of mining, agriculture, and banking.
  3. Significant cuts in foreign aid worth more than $300 million; the cancellation of aid programs in Cambodia, China, Malawi, Nepal, Niger, Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe coupled with significant reductions in aid to Bolivia, Pakistan, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Tanzania and South Africa.

Anyways, I’m sure he’s a nice guy.


Faux-knee wars

Ending a months long cold war between Ottawa and Queen’s Park, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Kathleen Wynne have finally agreed to meet. The meeting, which is unlikely to produce anything beyond familiar platitudes about “working together in the national interest” and “cooperating on behalf of all Ontarians and all Canadians”, will take place at an undisclosed location later this week, and comes after several formal requests from the Premier.

Many commentators, in print and on social media, have expressed outrage on Wynne’s behalf, lamenting the prime minister’s refusal to meet the leader of Canada’s largest province. The Star’s Robert Benzie, to take one example, has been especially lachrymose, writing on December 4th:

The cold war between Ottawa and Ontario is so bad that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has spent more time with Russian President Vladimir Putin this year than Premier Kathleen Wynne.

Political observers are understandably upset that the prime minister has yet to meet premier of Canada’s largest province. Fair enough. But missing from such indignation, it seems to me, has been any awareness or acknowledgement of the ways in which this “cold war” has politically served Kathleen Wynne. Just as it has been in Stephen Harper’s interest to ignore Wynne’s titular entreaties – by snubbing a Liberal premier of Ontario he gets to look tough to his base – it has been in hers to have such gestures ignored.

Among the most valuable political cards a Liberal premier has in her pocket (particularly when facing left wing opposition to her planned privatization and cuts and a Conservative federal government) is an anti-Ottawa animus. So long as Wynne is able to portray her government as a progressive bulwark against the barbarians at the gates, she is on relatively safe and convenient political terrain. Since this phoney war has served to reinforce exactly that narrative, one imagines she and her advisors have been quite content to be publicly outraged and privately chuffed at Harper’s failure to pick up the phone.

In any federal system such as ours, it’s only right and proper to expect, even demand, meetings between representatives at different levels of government (the Canadian system, in which provinces have tremendously vast jurisdiction, only makes this more imperative, and it bears worth adding that Stephen Harper has proven an exceptionally bad example of how to conduct intergovernmental relations). But, so long as such meetings are informal – that is, so long as they only happen at the whims of competing political leaders –  we can expect them to remain pawns in the eternal federalist game of chess.

Only institutionalized meetings, in which prime ministers and premiers were compelled to meet by convention, will ever put these phoney wars to rest.


A few notes on Calandragate

Paul Calandra just cried on the floor of the House of Commons – in the process, I hasten to add, of apologizing for his disgraceful performance on Tuesday. A few comments on this ridiculous series of events:

-Calandra wouldn’t have given that Tuesday performance unless instructed to in the first place. Whether these instructions came directly from the PMO or from the Tory whips or from the government House Leader is irrelevant. The point is, a member of the governing party who is not actually a member of the government (Parliamentary Secretaries aren’t technically in cabinet) was ordered to do something transparently stupid, and he obeyed.

-Similarly, I don’t think he would have given a tearful apology unless instructed to do so following the backlash since Tuesday. Conclusion? The Supreme Soviet of the Conservative Party is once again callously instrumentalizing its own MPs for partisan purposes.

-It’s true that Paul Calandra is an adult capable of making his own decisions. But it’s still very hard not to feel sorry for him. MPs, particularly government MPs, are subject to enormous pressures. Had Calandra refused to comply, he might have found himself excluded from a government announcement in his riding or lacking party financial support at the next election.

If you ask me, a governing party which treats its own MPs in this way is probably unfit to govern.

And, by the way, nothing in this disgraceful series of events has involved the Prime Minister informing Parliament about a possible military engagement in the Middle East. In that sense, Calandragate has succeeded in its original purpose: obfuscation.