Monday, October 19, 2009

Derailing (and Re-Railing) The Train of Public Virtue

Time for the Conservative Party to offer its own model of public virtue

Writing in an op/ed in the Ottawa Citizen, David Warren offers his take on Barry Cooper's recent opus It's the Regime, Stupid!.

Cooper is one of the better-kept secrets of Canadian political science: a paleo-conservative with one eye on Canada's past, another on its future, and his finger on the pulse of Canada's present.

Cooper's book offers a scathing critique of Laurenti-o-centric politics and where it has led the country:
"Looked at from another angle, we are the curious aggregate of 'two founding cultures' -- the combination of French Canadian nationalist whining and extortion, with the old English Canadian Loyalist junction and anti-American malice, in a kleptomanic welfare state -- fuelled by revenue appropriated from Western Canadian resources.

This is not exactly my way of looking at post-war Canada, and perhaps an over-simplification of Cooper's, but there's a lot of truth in it all the same. A 'regime,' which we may fairly associate with the Liberal party (though spread through other parties by such mechanisms as the 'sacred trust' of our dysfunctional medicare system), has embedded itself in Canadian life, in the form of a self-interested and self-serving federal bureaucracy of extraordinary size.

The notion that Canada consists centrally of ourselves -- the Laurentianistas -- plus imperial extensions east, north, and west, would come very close to being the irritant that has inspired Cooper to produce his string of pearls on Canadian politics, the most memorable of which before the book now published was entitled,
Deconfederation (1991), co-written with David Bercuson. It was a book that proposed to call Quebec's separatist bluff, by sketching out the benefits to the Rest of Canada over and above the transaction costs, if Quebec would only leave."
Cooper's and Bercuson's argument circulated around the notion of the politics of public virtue. Although they argued that the politics of public virtue -- leaing Canada inexorably into the era of the welfare state -- actually originated with John Diefenbaker, who they identify as the first Prime Minister to govern with social justice as a central preoccupation (although the traces of this notion can be identified earlier at the provincial level, in the Saskatchewan government of Tommy Douglas and Alberta government of -- believe it or not -- William Aberhart), it was the fight against Quebec separatism that truly entrenched those ideals as central to Canadian governance.

The Liberals struggles to find ways to fund their efforts to use democratic socialism to soften the demand for Quebec sovereignty often led to ham-fisted attempts to suck revenue out of the Western provinces, and often became as big a threat to national unity as anything imagined by Rene Levesque or Luicen Bouchard.

The growing public bureaucracy became a symbol to the west of the country financing Liberal attempts to pander to Quebec separatism at Western Canada's expense.

The election of (briefly) Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney as Prime Minister did little to stem this slide itno a bureaucratic and self-interested state. By the time Paul Martin -- who at times seemed to possess the will to turn the tide -- his party's own excesses in twisting Canadian governance to their own benefit finally bit him.

The election of Stephen Harper resulted not only from the nadir of the sense of entitlement born out of the Liberal party's vision of the politics of public virtue, but also of a slowly-emerging distaste for that particular status quo, and a desire for real change.

But, just as the Liberal vision of the politics of public virtue was fraught with peril, so is Warren's view of how Stephen Harper should proceed:
"My own view, that Harper's political strategy is simply to remain in power for as long as possible, governing with as much common sense as circumstances will allow, until the hegemony of the Liberal party recedes into memory, would probably answer to Cooper's requirements. Harper is a transitional figure; not the new regime but the man who allows one to emerge over time. He is astute in his grasp of his own limitations.

In particular, he must stay in power until the threat has passed of the Liberals replacing their old divide-and-conquer 'national unity' fraud, with a new divide-and-conquer environmentalist fraud. The global warming hysteria -- seized upon by bureaucrats all over the world as the means to advance and consolidate the Nanny State -- is itself receding. We must wait it out.
Warren's view seems to be that the Conservative party should simply outwait the allegedly waning surge of environmentalism. But this may is an ultimately short-sighted view.

The enthusiasm for the apocalyptic view of environmentalism may indeed be waning -- it's usually difficult to tell for certain.

But to pretend that the Liberal party couldn't profit politically from a new environmental focus is naive. Even if Canadians stop fearing an environmental apocalypse, the environment is still central to the issue of quality of life.

This is the conservative angle on the environmental issue. Even if apocalyptic zealots are outraged at the very idea that an environmental catastrophe may not be as imminent as activist scientists have insisted it is.

The other issue with Warren's thesis is the notion of Stephen Harper needing to remain in power for as long as possible.

The strength of Cooper's thesis is that it reflects a change in the purpose of Canadian government. Retaining power for power's own sake -- or even out-waiting political changes that may favour his party -- doesn't reflect these changes away from aelf-serving politics of public virtue and toward more responsible and accountable government.

Harper achieved this by doing what Tom Flanagan described as "tightening the screws" on government -- not only through a program of tax cuts, but also by trimming old Liberal party-era social engineering projects, as embodied by the court challenges program and by the ideological direction of the Status of Women.

Some would have expected that Harper's re-adjustment of the Royal Commission for the Status of Women -- as well as suggestions that Harper has treated women as a "left-wing fringe group" -- it seems that female voters are continually softening toward Harper.

The termination of the Liberal agenda of social engineering via various pet projects doesn't seem nearly as threatening to many Canadians as left-wing Canadians would have the rest of us believe.

Last but not least, dismissing national unity and environmentalism as fraudulent is intellectually perilous. Canada came within less than a percentage point of breaking up during the 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum because the Liberal government of Jean Chretien was inattentive to, and bungled, the national unity file. Not because concerns regarding national unity are fraudulent.

Brian Lee Crowley has recently noted (and Denis Stairs noted before him), demographic shifts within Quebec will soon take the teeth out of Quebec separatism. This will change the form the national unity debate takes in Canada, but it will not lay the issue to rest.

Likewise environmentalism is not fraudulent. Whether the action taken on preserving the environment is taken to head off an apocalypse or is taken simply to improve the quality of life of Canadians, the issue of the environment is crucial.

The Conservative party needs to stop short of abolishing the politics of public virtue, and instead offer Canadians an alternative to the tired version of it to which they had once resigned themselves.

A conservative version of the politics of public virtue will very likely share the most compelling elements of the Liberal version. The difference, of course, should be that the conservative model shouldn't rely on state action to achieve that vision, but rather make it possible for citizens to accomplish those goals on their own -- even if the state provides some help along the way.

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