In a recent op/ed column published in The Tyee, aging Canadian leftist Frances Russell attempts to stir up tired hysteria against the Conservative government and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Harper and his government, Russell suggests, are merely advancing the agenda of what she calls "Tea Party North" -- a designation surely intentionally designed to try to spread panic among any Canadian leftists who fear grassroots conservative activism (which frequently seems to be all of them).
Central to this (gasp) small government agenda is the move to render the formerly-compulsory long form census voluntary instead.
"An economist, the Prime Minister understands the value of statistics. He appreciates that authoritative statistics on the relative social and economic well-being of individual Canadians empower the disempowered to demand government programs (higher taxes) to reduce poverty and disparity and promote upward mobility."As an economist, Harper may well understand what Russell has suggested. But as a conservative, Harper has a different idea altogether: allow individual enterprise, rather than tax-funded government programming, reduce poverty and promote upward mobility.
As an economist, Harper understands the effect that excessive social welfare programming really has on a society: it creates dependency, and hampers the kind of independent spirit that makes individual enterprise -- whether by the impoverished individuals themselves, or through free association by groups of individuals participating in charitable endeavours -- possible.
As Russell continues her op/ed column, it becomes quite clear that Russell considers the substitution of individual action for government action to be extremely alarming.
"He also appreciates the need to dumb them down to facilitate stripping government back to its core functions: a strong military to defend the nation abroad, more police, prisons and tougher justice to defend the citizen at home and an unfettered free market to create wealth and employment through ever-lower taxes, especially on business and the well-to-do. Addressing social and economic inequality should be left to individual initiative and private charity."It's certainly true that Harper would like to roll back the role of government. But Russell's insistence that Harper wants an unfettered free market is easily discredited.
After all, it's Harper's government that has moved to establish a federal securities regulator. Russell mischaracterizes the conservative approach to the free market. A free market is good, but regulation is still necessary in order to uphold law and order.
Russell then goes on to offer some quotes from Harper, and other conservatives, that she considers to be quite alarming.
Stephen Harper: "I don't believe any tax is a good tax."
Which doesn't by any means, suggest that Harper doesn't think that any taxes are necessary.
Margaret Thatcher: "There is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women."
This has long been recognized as a rare bit of bullplop out of an otherwise-accomplished former British Prime Minister.
Sterling Lyon: "If anybody redistributes my income, it had better be me."
A sentiment to which a great many Canadians would agree. Seemingly, Frances Russell would not.
Having set the stage with what she thinks are a collection of alarming quotes, Russell's next act is to introduce the opinions of a political scientist from the Coulter-speech-cancelling bastion of Canadian leftism, the University of Ottawa.
"University of Ottawa political scientist Paul Saurette says the Harper decision defines Canadian post-modern populist conservatism. It hopes to hit two home runs. Killing the long form compulsory census simultaneously rallies the Conservatives' 'Tea Party North' libertarian base and propels dismantling 'the octopus-like configuration of arms-length organizations' created by previous Liberal administrations that 'mine' Statistics Canada data to demand social programs.What Russell refers to in the "octopus-like configuration of arms-length organizations' are a collection of state-funded civil society organizations. They frequently describe themselves as "state NGOs". Britain long ago coined a better term for them: Quasi-Autonomous Non-Governmental Organizations.
Unlike British Red Toryism, which accepts a role for government in reducing structural inequality, Canadian post-modern populist conservatism considers inequality as natural, the outcome of individual free choice. Individuals, not governments, must 'bootstrap their way up,' Saurette continues.
Saurette notes that from the day it was sworn in, the Harper government was determined to eliminate government funding for any and all forms of social advocacy, their agencies and research, at home and abroad."
Under the government of Pierre Trudeau, the government of Canada moved, under the Secretary of State, to fund and in some cases even establish so-called NGOs. In the years following this act, the selection of such groups for funding has been conducted on a more and more ideological basis. It has represented the embedded ideology of what Barry Cooper terms the embedded state.
In envoking Red Toryism, Russell may think that she's advanced her argument.
But what she overlooks is that Red Toryism is also founded on the principle of "organic societies" founded on the basis of free association.
There is no free association between Canadians and the collection of vested interest groups funded under the oft-overlooked Secretary of State. Often with little to no scrutiny, the Secretary of State distributed funds to many groups that Canadians know little to nothing about -- let alone whether or not they want to fund that particular group's pursuit of its agenda.
Russell also fails to recognize that, in many cases, the groups that have been funded under the Secretary of State often demand programs that far exceed simple eliminations in structural inequality and demand full-blown wealth redistribution schemes that in no way address the underlying causes of such inequality.
Conservatives believe in a level playing field, and are in favour of eliminating structural inequality. Conservatives also recognize that, once equality of opportunity is established, general inequality is morally neutral -- neither good nor bad.
Whether Russell or Saurette care to admit it or not, the choices made by individuals have direct consequences for the comparative levels of equality or inequality they will experience at any particular point in their lives.
"Canadian post-modern conservatives, like their American Tea Party counterparts, 'know that winning the war of ideas can offer significant returns for political movements' and 'have been explicitly planning what exactly conservatives need to do to win that war and capture the institutional structures and resources that dot the ideological battleground,' Saurette writes in the online journal The Mark.So, in other words, Canadian conservatives are beginning to work toward the advancement of their agenda, and are working hard to convince other Canadians to share it.
Harper's ideological goal, he continues, is nothing less than 'the transformation of the broad public philosophy of Canada and the cultivation of an enduring set of conservative values and principles in Canadians.'"
Only an ideologue like Frances Russell would be alarmed at such a prospect -- that the far-left progressive agenda will have to work harder in order to compete with conservatism. Only an ideologue like Russell would so clearly resent this.
But the best kick at the "Tea Party North" can is yet to come, and it comes with Russell falling into the greatest trap of such tirades: simply not knowing what she's talking about.
"Harper is a graduate of the Calgary School, a group of University of Calgary political scientists, neo-conservatives all, who follow the teachings of German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss. Strauss had a deep antipathy towards liberal democracy and its 'moral relativism.'"What Russell identifies as neoconservatism is not neoconservatism.
In fact, neoconservatism is a conservative tradition founded by anti-communist liberals who grew outraged at the mainstream left's soft approach to communism, and joined the conservative camp instead.
Neoconservatives actually favour government action on a braod variety of issues, leading other conservatives to brand them as "me-too conservatives", "big government conservatives", and "leviathan on the right".
Moreover, Leo Strauss has no real links to neoconservatism among those who are familiar with it. Moreover, the methods that Russell alludes to are embraced by individuals of varying political philosophies who embrace Machiavellian methodology.
"Harper, too, denounced the 'moral relativism' of the liberal state in a 2003 speech to the libertarian and socially conservative Civitas Society: 'Moral relativism simply cannot be sustained as a guiding philosophy,' he said. 'It explains the lack of moral censure on personal foibles of all kinds... [I]t leads to... tribalism in the form of group rights.'"If Russell is truly so alarmed by Harper's preference for individual rights over group rights, she also needs to take issue with the historical legacy of Trudeau: he, too, was a champion of individual rights.
"Shadia Drury, Canada Research Chair in social justice at the University of Regina, is a leading expert on Straussian conservatism who taught at the Calgary School for 27 years. Drury warned in a 2004 interview with The Globe and Mail that the Strauss philosophy displays 'a huge contempt for democracy' and exploits populist sentiment to strip away the rights of minorities and dismantle what is left of the welfare state.Of course, an objective examination of the Harper government record demonstrates that Drury was wrong.
'They want to replace the rule of law with the populism of the majority,' she said."
The rights of minorities have not been stripped away. Nor has the welfare state been dismantled.
Moreover, Drury must have simply forgotten -- or perhaps never known -- that it was quietly, nearly secretly -- that Canada's far left used the little-known office of Secretary of State to embed their ideology within the Canadian state.
It was Canada's far left that demonstrated an extreme contempt for democracy. Canada's conservatives are merely turning back the clock on this self-indulgence by the Canadian left.
"If you are determined to halt, if not roll back, Canada's advances in social and economic equality, turning the long form census into an unreliable statistical mishmash takes you a giant step towards your goal."Here Russell again mischaracterizes the goals of Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party.
The goal is not to halt, or roll back, "Canada's advances in social and economic equality". Rather the goal is to redefine the means by which this is done: by increasing the amount of civic space for individual action, by allowing Canadians the freedom to grow the size of their economy, and by allowing Canadians to keep more of their hard-earned money.
That is the same goal held by the Tea Party movement in the United States -- and the prospect of these ideas finding traction in Canada are far from alarming.
What Russell overlooks is that one of the first things a fully-fledged Canadian Tea Party movement would do is oppose the Conservative government's own stimulus spending, particularly as it becomes more and more obvious that a sluggish bureaucracy has harmed the efficiency of that program anyway.
What Russell must fear is that, even though a Canadian Tea Party would take issue with Harper and the Tories, it would take even greater issue with people such as Russell and the kinds of demands they make of the state.
While the Tea Party would demand greater fiscal conservaism from Harper, it would oppose even more feircely efforts by the Liberal Party and NDP to increase the size of the Canadian state: by, among other things, instituting a national public daycare system.
A Canadian Tea Party movement would likely also demand that governments start taking on public service unions and scaling back the corrosive influence these unions have had on the quality of services like public health care.
In other words, the Tea Party would represent a demand on the part of Canadians that the size of government be brought back under control.
Perhaps to people like Frances Russell, who would prefer that government be as big, cumbersome, inefficient and ineffectual as possible, that's what truly terrifies them.