This Essay is an LRC Online Original
The Collapse of the Laurentian Consensus
On the westward shift of Canadian power - and values.
The following is a version of John Ibbitson's "The LRC Presents..." talk on December 5, 2011, presented in partnership with TVO's Big Ideas. Video of the event is available here.
In 25 years of reporting, I have covered my share of municipal, provincial and federal elections. Too often I described them as the most important election ever.
I am not alone in this bad habit. Journalists have a tendency to inflate the importance of elections. This is hardly surprising; we spend many weeks of our time and a great deal of our employers’ money covering elections, and of course we want to see our bylines on the front page. But the truth is, most elections are just elections. The two sides are not really all that far apart on the major issues; the only fundamental question is whether voters feel like kicking the bums out.
I can think of only four elections that I have covered that really mattered: the 1988 federal election, which was in essence a referendum on free trade; the 1995 election, which brought Mike Harris and his Common Sense Revolution to Ontario; the 2008 election, which made Barack Obama the first African American president; and the Canadian federal election of May 2 last.
You might wonder what was so important about May 2. After all, nothing that vital was really at stake. Stephen Harper, after two minority governments, was looking for a majority. The most gripping policy debates were over such nation-shaking issues as whether to acquire the F-35 stealth fighter or open the contract to public tender; whether the corporate tax rate should be set at 15 percent, 18 percent or 19.5 percent; whether and how to increase punishments for certain offences.
Stephen Harper finally obtained his much-coveted majority government, but so what? Majority governments have been the order of the day for most of this country’s history. Nor was it all that earth-shaking that the NDP displaced the Bloc Québécois in Quebec, welcome though that was. In the greater scheme, Quebeckers simply switched allegiance from one opposition party to another opposition party.
The voters certainly did not think of the last federal election as The Most Important Ever. The turnout was typically dismal. And yet I believe the election was one of the most significant in Canada’s history, because it signalled the eclipse of the Laurentian Consensus, and Ontario’s transformation into a Pacific province.
This may sound odd. You might never have heard of the Laurentian Consensus, making it difficult either to mourn or celebrate its passing. And Ontario a Pacific province? Was there an earthquake?
Today, I would like to tell you what the Laurentian Consensus was, and what happened to it. I will explain the shift of Ontario’s axis from Europe to Asia. And I will attempt to predict what this means for our nation, for its values, for its future.
The origin of the term “Laurentian Consensus” is difficult to pin down. I have been using it for a couple of years, but I am pretty sure I did not think it up. I believe I stole it from David Cameron, the distinguished political scientist at University of Toronto. But David cannot remember having used the phrase. We have agreed to take joint ownership, and we will see any challengers in court.
But never mind who invented it. What does it mean? Well, it means this:
From the time of Confederation until quite recently, the direction of this country was determined by the political, academic, cultural, media and business elites in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and other cities along the St. Lawrence River or its watershed.
On all of the great issues of the day, this Laurentian elite debated among themselves, reached a consensus and implemented that consensus. In short, they governed the country.
Those issues defined Canada. How close should our relationship be with Great Britain? Should the Dominion seek trade reciprocity with the United States? Should we have our own navy, or simply contribute to the imperial fleet? Should the federal government impose conscription to fight the war? Should Ottawa expand its influence over social policy? What does Quebec want, and should we give it? How do we patriate the constitution, and does that constitution need a bill of rights? Should we have free trade with the United States? What should we do about the deficit?
We could overhear the Laurentian elites grappling with these issues, which played out in the pages of the major newspapers, in books, on television and on university campuses. But much of the debate was held behind closed doors: in faculty clubs, the hallways of legislatures, in dining rooms in Toronto’s Annex, Ottawa’s Glebe, Montreal’s Outremont.
The leading figures of this consensus form the spine of Canadian political and cultural thought: George Brown, George-Étienne Cartier, Ernest Lapointe, O.D. Skelton, Henri Bourassa, Harold Innis, George Grant, Walter Gordon, Marshall McLuhan, Tom Kent, Charles Taylor, Jeffrey Simpson, Margaret Atwood. I haven’t even begun. You know who they were and are.
Sometimes there was no consensus and the voters had to decide, as they did with free trade in 1988. More often than not, however, consensus was achieved and the public was presented with a fait accompli, sometimes in the form of proposed legislation, sometimes through federal-provincial agreements, other times through simple social osmosis. The discussions over sherry or scotch, the academic paper or editorial that made the rounds, the quid that both sides accepted in exchange for the quo, became that most entrenched of all wisdoms: conventional.
We need high tariffs to protect Canadian manufacturers from American competition. Conscription, yes, but as little of it as possible. Ottawa must take the lead in social policy, because only Ottawa has sufficient power to tax. Quebec can and must be accommodated, but within limits. The deficit is not the most important concern. The deficit is the most important concern.
Issue after issue, decade after decade, the Laurentian Consensus shaped the public policy arc of this country.
They were few enough in number that most of them knew many of them. They were largely of British stock and largely Protestant, although any bias against the French, Catholics or Jews was far from proscriptive; indeed, agreement between the French and English elites was essential to any consensus, and whenever it was not obtained, things went badly.
They were, for the most part, from the upper ranks of the middle class, although the membrane was permeable. They were almost invariably small-L liberal and voted for the large-L party. Indeed, the Liberal Party of Canada was the most obvious and powerful manifestation of the Laurentian Consensus. Conservative governments could, however, be tolerated, provided they knew their place. R.B. Bennett created the forerunner of the CBC, one of the proudest achievements of the Laurentian Consensus. Progressive Conservatives governed Ontario through 42 years of pipe-smoking premiers. Brian Mulroney, who initially opposed free trade, embraced it when the Macdonald Commission’s report signalled the consensus on tariffs had started to shift.
If a premier or prime minister did defy the consensus, woe betide him. Why do we still, today, 50 years later, see books, documentaries and articles raging against John Diefenbaker’s decision to cancel the Avro Arrow? Because he did so in defiance of the Laurentian Consensus, and the consensus still has not forgiven him.
The Laurentian elite gave us a wonderful country. We can debate the merits of the National Policy, but we cannot debate the success of Ontario as a major manufacturing centre that provided a decent wage for millions of workers, year after year, generation after generation. The Laurentianists guided this country through two great and terrible wars, with Canada emerging from both stronger, more confident and more independent. In the 1950s they launched an infrastructure revolution: spanning provinces with highways, connecting east to west through airports, satellites and the St. Lawrence Seaway, still an engineering marvel.
They created the national social security system that many Canadians still consider a defining national value: universal public health care, near-universal public education, the Canada Pension Plan, a national housing program, national standards for welfare.
They navigated the shoals of Quebec separatism, although it was a close-run thing, and brought home a constitution with a charter of rights and freedoms that is an example to the world, watched over by a supreme court that is a model for excellence and impartiality.
They did much, much else besides. The parks system. Public broadcasting. The equalization program. The Canada Council.
These leaders were not without flaws, some of them at times egregious. Although they were no more anti-Semitic than was common in the time, that was enough for them to shut Canada’s doors to Jews in the 1930s, many of whom perished under the Nazi regime. The internment of Japanese Canadians is a similar stain. They exhibited, and still exhibit, an anti-American chippiness that reflected their own famously Canadian insecurities about who they were and where their country was going. Canada was so much smaller than the United States, and so much more virtuous. It simply was not fair.
Worst of all—by far the worst of all—their treatment of Canada’s aboriginal peoples combined condescension, incomprehension and a misdirected sense of guilt to produce policies that First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities struggle to overcome to this day.
But the Laurentian Consensus ultimately transcended its own limitations by introducing what I believe was its single greatest achievement: an open-door immigration policy that, starting in the 1960s, encouraged newcomers from Asia and elsewhere to immigrate to Canada.
Today, more immigrants come here, on a per capita basis, than to any other major developed country. Since the 1990s they have been arriving at the rate of some 250,000 a year. Canada is importing a new Toronto every decade. These new arrivals come from more places, and they integrate more successfully, than anywhere else in the world. I have argued in the past that Canada failed as a country, thanks to the inability of English and French to do more than tolerate each other. But that very tolerance, that culture of accommodation, produced what could be called the world’s first post-national state: the urban, polyglot, intensely creative and simply fabulous country that we live in, and celebrate, today.
Open-door immigration combined with multicultural tolerance represented the finest achievement of the Laurentian Consensus. It also helped bring about its demise.
One of the dangers of any consensus is that reality can evolve out from underneath it. When shared belief parts company with facts on the ground, inevitably there is error, confusion, even a sense of anger and betrayal, until everyone grasps the new reality, and new shared beliefs emerge. We have seen that happen over the past six years in the reaction of the Laurentian elites to the Harper government.
Typically, one side of a political argument disagrees with or opposes the other side. But the reaction to Stephen Harper on the part of his opponents is more visceral than that. They do not simply oppose him—they consider him illegitimate. They do not believe he is wrong; they believe he is dangerous.
In a recent article in the Literary Review of Canada, my friend Stephen Clarkson, the esteemed author and political scientist, described the Harper government as a “proto-fascist security state” that “threatens the country’s constitutional heritage.” There have been many such comments about this government.
Others appear more bewildered than angry. Peter C. Newman maintains Stephen Harper’s “ideals and goals seemed antithetical to the country I thought I knew.”
The Laurentian elites are angry and bewildered because they are not used to not being in charge. Some of them are starting to realize that they might not be in charge again for a very long time. They are generals without an army, an elite without a crowd.
What happened to the crowd? That question gets to the nub of what we are talking about today. Two things happened to the crowd: some of them moved; others changed.
For much of this country’s history, the federal government has looked upon the Western provinces as semi-colonial possessions, initially depriving them of control over natural resources, offering them fewer seats in the Senate than the older provinces enjoyed. Complaints from Westerners about unfair rail policies, Bay Street bankers and the federal government’s obsession with Quebec were ignored. The West was, after all, sparsely populated, and its Prairie populism—whether it manifested itself on the right through the social credit movement or on the left through the social justice movement—was incomprehensible.
In response, Western provinces consistently and increasingly voted for any party other than the Liberal Party, simply because it was usually the party in charge. When Brian Mulroney revealed that Progressive Conservative governments were no less obsessed with accommodating Quebec—whether through proposed new constitutional accords or by awarding a lucrative fighter-maintenance contract to a Montreal firm even though a Winnipeg firm had the lower bid—Western voters rallied to their own, new party: Reform.
Many of us spent a great deal of time analyzing and prognosticating on the schism between Reform and the Progressive Conservatives. We failed to realize that the constitutional wars, the failed accords, the battles over the GST and the threat of Quebec separation were doing even greater damage to the Liberal brand, as the party descended into a chronic civil war. One camp hewed to a more fiscally conservative line, and worried about the collapse of Liberal support in the West. The other was more socially progressive and focused on Central Canada. They fought over these ideas. They fought over power. But mostly, they just fought.
Turner versus Trudeau. Chrétien versus Turner. Martin versus Chrétien.
Once Stephen Harper was able to once again forge a broad conservative coalition through the formation of the new Conservative Party, the Liberals found themselves out of power. Still the civil war continued: Ignatieff versus Dion; Rae versus Ignatieff.
Today we are having difficulty locating the factions within the Liberal Party. We are also having difficulty locating a pulse.
Through these years of Liberal and Conservative intra-party turmoil, profound changes were underway. Oil emerged as a transcendently powerful commodity, even as new technologies made it possible to extract bitumen from the thick sludge of the oil sands. Oil begat wealth and wealth begat jobs.
At about the same time, China began to defy all expectations, growing at a dizzying rate of 10 percent a year or better in real GDP. India, starting later, raced to catch up. Once impoverished countries such as Korea and Singapore joined the ranks of the developed world. Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia also pushed ahead. The Pacific began to eclipse the Atlantic, and Canada belatedly woke up to the happy realization that—golly!—it was a Pacific country, too.
And as the tariff walls that protected trade between Central Canada and the West came down, thanks to the 1988 Free Trade Agreement with the United States, the east-west economic ties began to dissolve. Ontario increasingly integrated within the Great Lakes region of the North American economy. The economic ties of the West also reoriented north-south. And with the rise of Asia, economic bonds also began to strengthen between the West and the New East.
One statistic after another told the tale. From 1971 to 2008, Alberta and British Columbia experienced a net growth of 1.1 million people through interprovincial migration alone. Calgary supplanted Montreal and Vancouver as the second-largest home to corporate headquarters in the country; Saskatchewan reversed its population decline and became a “have” province—dispensing rather than receiving equalization payments—even as Ontario went from becoming the largest of the haves to the largest of the have-nots; Vancouver real estate prices reached Manhattanesque levels, largely powered by Asian investment; Manitoba started boasting one of lowest unemployment rates in the country, while developing a hugely successful program for provincially nominated immigrants.
Ten years ago, 60 percent of all immigrants settled in Ontario. Today that figure is 42 percent. The rest go West.
Despite the rising power and influence of the West, the Laurentian elites could have retained power. After all, population projections continue to show Ontario claiming about 40 percent of the country’s population as far out as 2035, with the West accounting for about 30 percent. Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal could have continued to dominate Parliament, forcing the West into perpetual, and perpetually frustrated, opposition. Instead, the May 2 election gave us the first truly Western-based majority government in this country’s history. It happened for one simple reason: Ontario voters broke ranks.
This was the great, shocking shift: the formation of a Conservative Coalition whose leadership was Western, whose values were Western, whose most fervent supporters were Western, but which came to power through the support of millions of Ontario voters.
In modern times, Ontario has always decided the government. It was Ontario, acting in concert with Quebec, that in the 1960s and ’70s anchored the Pearson and Trudeau governments. It was Ontario in the 1990s that sent a hundred Liberal MPs or thereabouts to Ottawa, ensuring Jean Chrétien’s Liberal majorities.
But in 2004—the first election with the new united Conservative Party on the ballot—voters in 24 rural Ontario ridings decided they had more in common with Western conservatives than with urban elites in their own province. This was not particularly new. Rural Ontario had often gone Conservative, and once a united Conservative Party was again an option, they took it.
But in 2006, voters in the suburban belts outside Toronto and the other large cities also began to shift Conservative. That shift accelerated in 2008. In May, the Liberal bastion of the so-called 905, named after its area code, collapsed entirely, and even some suburban ridings within Toronto itself went Conservative. What had happened?
There were particular reasons for this result: a string of weak Liberal leaders; the political cunning of Stephen Harper, perhaps the most underestimated politician in this country’s history; the legacy of the sponsorship scandal; Liberal/NDP vote splits that worked in the Conservatives’ favour.
But there are other, more important reasons. One of them is tactical. Conservative have been organizationally brilliant at establishing “beachhead ridings” on the edges of the 905, entrenching strong organizations within those ridings and exporting talent and resources to the adjacent seats, so that they too subsequently became beachheads, and the process repeated itself.
The Liberals could see what was happening. But they lacked the money, the energy and the message to counteract it. Instead they gambled on one leader after another who would miraculously galvanize voters. They would win the air war, and the ground war would not matter. Instead they lost both wars. The Liberals’ inability and unwillingness to counteract the Conservatives’ beachhead strategy was their single greatest tactical mistake in the last decade.
Yet the Conservatives’ success could not simply have been a matter of organizational acumen. Their message of lowering taxes, getting tough on crime and downplaying environmental issues appealed to Ontario voters—voters who until now had previously endorsed the Laurentian world view. That Liberal, Laurentian message of fighting global warming, investing in early childhood learning and expanding home care for the elderly, all of it paid for with modestly higher corporate taxes, fell on closed ears.
Before we get to why those ears were closed, let’s address one important objection that may be welling in your breasts. The majority or voters did not support the Conservative agenda, you might want to point out. Only a plurality did. The majority voted for parties of the left or centre-left.
Last May, that was generally true in the new beachhead ridings within Toronto itself. But in the 905, especially in areas where the party had already won seats, the Tories racked up much stronger pluralities. In Vaughan, which had become a beachhead riding mere months before, won by Julian Fantino by only a thousand votes in a byelection, the Conservatives took 56 percent of the vote on May 2.
Whitby-Oshawa, Jim Flaherty’s riding: 58 percent. Peter Kent’s riding in Thornhill: 61 percent. Oak Ridges–Markham: 51 percent; Newmarket-Aurora: 54 percent; Halton: 55 percent.
In these and other ridings, voters emphatically disengaged from their traditional coalition with central urban ridings, and allied themselves instead with voters in rural Ontario and, more important, the West. The more they shifted, the weaker the influence of Laurentian Consensus became. On May 2, it collapsed entirely.
Any analysis of what caused this shift must be tentative; it may take years and one or two more elections to determine both its origin and its depth. But I believe that analysis will finally conclude that on May 2 two crucial groups abandoned the Liberals and went Conservative: stressed middle-class suburban Ontario voters and immigrants.
Ontario is hurting. Between 2004 and 2008, the province lost 20 percent of its manufacturing work force. More than 300,000 manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the last eight years. The provincial unemployment rate is now chronically higher than the national average. Ontario today is the second-largest recipient of federal equalization payments, which makes no sense, since it is also the largest contributor to the program. The provincial deficit this year is $16 billion, and whatever the McGuinty government might claim, much of that deficit is structural, just like the government deficit in Greece.
Middle-class Ontario voters worried about their jobs, the property values, their future and their children’s future, increasingly turned to a party that promised them tax relief, an overriding emphasis on protecting jobs, and no grand new and expensive schemes for anything. Stephen Harper’s relentless message of promising to protect the economy above all else mattered to voters who are worried about the economy above all else. The south-of-Lawrence, inside-the-Queensway and West-Island agenda of promoting social and environmental programs resonated, ultimately, south of Lawrence in Toronto, inside the Queensway in Ottawa and on the West Island in Montreal. And apart from a handful of ridings in and around Vancouver and Winnipeg and in Atlantic Canada it resonated nowhere else. It resonated nowhere else.
The Conservative message of lower taxes, balanced budgets, smaller government and jobs, jobs, jobs also appealed to one particular group of voters in suburban and exurban ridings in Ontario that have voted Conservative in greater numbers with each succeeding election in this century: immigrants.
Practically since Confederation, new Canadians have embraced the Liberal Party, because the Liberal Party has embraced them. The Conservatives were the party of the Empire Loyalists, the WASP business class, Protestants in general. The Liberals took in Irish Catholics, Germans and Poles—anyone fleeing a pogrom, a purge or poverty.
After the Second World War, it was Liberal governments who opened Canada’s doors to East European and then Asian immigrants, who promoted multiculturalism; it was a Liberal prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, who fought to entrench minority rights within the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. An immigrant vote was a Liberal vote, and nowhere was the close identification of the Laurentian Consensus with the Liberal Party more harmonious than on immigration policy.
But as the sources of immigration shifted from Europe to Asia, a new kind of immigrant began to arrive: more socially conservative, more fiscally conservative. Indians and Chinese and Filipinos arrived long after the Charter became a fact of life, the settler cultural retreated into the hinterland and the Orange Lodge disappeared. New immigrants may never fully understand how discriminated against they are not.
Indians, Chinese and Filipinos are obviously Asian or Pacific in their origin. The old economic and cultural triangle of New York, Toronto and London has no resonance for them. But the growing links between Vancouver and Hong Kong, between Toronto and Mumbai, do. The geopolitical importance of the rising Asian tigers is, for them, viscerally important. They are bound to the Pacific by ethnicity, language and culture. And just as the West increasingly identifies itself as Pacific-oriented, so too these new immigrants, most of whom settled in Ontario, are shifting Ontario’s orientation toward the West. This new Toronto that we are importing every decade is turning Ontario into a Pacific province.
While the Liberals took the immigrant vote for granted, the Conservatives courted it relentlessly, reminding new arrivals that the Tories’ family-oriented, law-and-order values were their own. While the Chrétien government legalized same-sex marriage and toyed with decriminalizing pot, Conservatives focused on tax credits for hockey equipment and keeping more criminals behind bars longer.
Once in power, the Conservatives maintained and even increased immigration quotas even as they cracked down on bogus refugee claimants.
The opposition decried such crackdowns as evidence of Conservative intolerance, but the Tories gambled that legal immigrants were the voters most unforgiving of queue jumpers, and they were right.
Data based on the 2008 Canada Election Survey revealed that in 2000 only 20 percent of immigrant voters were inclined toward either the Progressive Conservatives or the Canadian Alliance, while 70 percent supported the Liberals. But by 2008 the two parties were virtually tied, with the Tories receiving 33 percent of the immigrant vote and the Liberals 38 percent.
We do not have the results of the 2011 Election Survey yet, but I do not think the two parties are tied anymore. I did an informal survey of ridings in Ontario with unusually high population of visible minorities to see what happened May 2. These are all suburban ridings where new Canadians have put down roots. Here is what I found:
Brampton West Immigrant population: 46 percent. Result: Conservative gain from Liberals.
Brampton-Springdale Immigrant population: 47 percent. Result: Conservative gain from Liberals.
Bramalea-Gore-Malton Immigrant population: 53 percent. Result: Conservative gain from Liberals.
Mississauga Erindale Immigrant population: 52 percent. Result: Conservative hold.
Mississauga Streetsville Immigrant population: 46 percent. Result: Conservative gain from Liberals.
York Centre Immigrant population: 59 percent. Result: Conservative gain from Liberals.
Ajax-Pickering Immigrant population: 31 percent. Result; Conservative gain from Liberals.
I do not think we need to wait for the Election Survey results to figure out where the immigrant vote went.
In summary, on May 2 immigrant Canadians, mostly of Asian background, along with other middle-class suburban, exurban and rural Ontario voters allied themselves with voters in Western Canada, forging a new Conservative coalition—shattering, in the process, the political voice of the Laurentian Consensus, the Liberal Party.
So what is this new Conservative coalition? And who is it? To explain it fully would require a whole other essay. But we can offer this preliminary assessment.
It is a coalition, not a consensus. The bonds between the Mississauga commuter, the Prairie farmer and the Okanagan vintner are too ephemeral at this point for us to describe them as one people with one world view. So a coalition, for now. In that coalition you will find commuters from Mississauga and Surrey, Saskatchewan wheat farmers and Ontario dairy farmers; vintners in both the Okanagan and Prince Edward county. You will fine petro-business executives, Filipina nannies and embattled auto workers. The coalition embraces retirees in Victoria and those daring souls who play the Vancouver real estate market, forestry workers in the B.C. interior and political scientists at University of Calgary.
Excluded from this coalition are cultural elites of downtown Toronto. Margaret Atwood is not part of the Conservative Coalition. Neither is just about anyone at Queen’s University. There are few, if any, leaders of the Conservative Coalition to be found having lunch at the Rideau Club. The Toronto Star is not part of the Western consensus. Nor is the CBC. As for The Globe and Mail, well, it depends on the byline.
The labour movement is not at the table, or anyone who feels sympathy for the Occupy Movement. Anyone who believes that income inequality is a pressing concern is outside the coalition. Anyone who believes global warming should be a top government priority is outside the coalition.
Most important, Quebec is outside the coalition. This is fundamental.
Since at least the 1960s, the dominant debate within Confederation has been how to accommodate Quebec. That debate informed the Constitutional negotiations and led to two failed accords, Meech and Charlottetown. It brought the country to the very brink, during the two referendums on separation. It led to the Clarity Act and the Supreme Court reference.
Today, Quebec is far less central to the national agenda. The Conservative Coalition does not include Quebec and the Harper government has discovered it does not need Quebec. The West has replaced Quebec as the n in the equation Ontario plus n equals a majority government. This has not left the Conservatives hostile to Quebec. This year alone we have witnessed the accord on HST and funding for a new Montreal bridge, both of which came after the election.
But it has left the Conservatives and many other Canadians outside Quebec unwilling to accord that province centre stage in the national opera of our politics. The Laurentian Consensus has recently settled on the idea that unilingual judges should not sit on the Supreme Court. This year the Conservatives appointed a unilingual English judge to the Supreme Court, and threw in a unilingual auditor general for good measure. These appointments took up many hours of debate in the House of Commons, in the Quebec media and in the pages of newspapers such as my own. But I will wager the rest of the country shrugged, and I doubt that there are many who would take me up on that wager.
Even Quebeckers seem to be getting tired of the debate about Quebec. A recent Léger poll showed most Quebeckers happy to be in Canada and positively affectionate toward the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Regardless, Quebec voters have consistently voted for opposition parties now for almost 20 years. For better or worse, the province now appears to be permanently outside the governing consensus, regardless of who that government is. Whatever the referendums might have said, Quebeckers appears content to pursue a separate, if complementary, destiny. It would seem both sides prefer it that way.
Excluded from power, excluded even from dominating the debate, the Laurentian elites rage against this new normal. They fear that the Conservatives are about to dismantle everything that they achieved. No they are not. Citizens in Regina are no less committed than citizens in Quebec City to preserving a universal public healthcare system. Voters in both Windsor and Kelowna believe in a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. Support for the Libya mission was as robust in Edmonton as it was in Halifax. Conservatives as well as Liberals believe daycare and early childhood education are good things, although they disagree about how to achieve them. People in Vancouver as well as Toronto accept that one of the roles of government is to redistribute some wealth vertically, between upper- and lower-income individuals, and horizontally, between richer and poorer regions.
Most important, the Conservative Coalition accepts, perhaps reluctantly, that the country is largely of one mind on gay marriage, the right to abortion and the prohibition of capital punishment. Whatever many small-C and large-C Conservatives may believe in their hearts, they know where the country is; they know the country has moved on.
But that does not mean there are no differences between the old guard and the new. There are, and some of these differences are profound.
In economic policy, the Conservative Coalition believes that low taxes are good and lower taxes are better. Business regulation should be minimal. Environmental regulation, to the extent any is absolutely necessary, must conform to American standards and not place Canadian businesses at a competitive disadvantage.
On foreign policy, this government emphasizes stalwart support for Israel and closer economic and security ties with the United States. It favours bilateral trade agreements over international accords such as the Doha round of the World Trade Organization negotiations. It believes the military is a tool of foreign policy and should be as robust as finances permit.
The greatest difference between the Laurentian and Conservative world views could reside in the latter’s embrace of a mild form of populism. Prairie populism, we have observed, gave us both Social Credit and the CCF—Tommy Douglas and Preston Manning. The Conservative Coalition’s brand of populism most obviously manifests itself in a pronounced emphasis on law and order. The omnibus crime bill, for example, toughens bail and parole conditions notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence that crime rates are going down and that putting people in jail longer makes it more likely they will commit another crime. The Conservatives embrace the legislation not because the facts warrant these changes, but because the population supports them.
We see the same populist approach in the Conservatives’ decision to eliminate the mandatory long-form census and the long-gun registry.
Nothing baffles, or angers, those within the Laurentian Consensus more than this bull-headed rejection of facts in favour of populist pandering. After all, shouldn’t public policy be rooted in evidence, based on data?
Yes it should. But in some cases, central Canadian elites fail to distinguish between reason versus belief, on the one hand, and conflicting beliefs, on the other.
If you believe the state should acquire as much information as it needs to efficiently allocate priorities, then you support the mandatory long-form census. If you believe the underpinning of democracy is a limited state, and that government must therefore be preventing from infringing personal liberties any more than is absolutely necessary, then you oppose a mandatory census.
If you believe that a primary function of incarceration is to rehabilitate, you loathe the Tory crime bills. If you believe we send people to jail to punish them for crimes, then you believe crime statistics are beside the point.
If you believe that cultural industries need protection to prevent American influence from overwhelming the national identity, then you support the CBC. If you believe in the free market of ideas, then you wonder why some ideas get subsidies and others don’t. You especially wonder why the CBC, for all its virtues—and they are formidable—appears incapable of expressing any vision of this country other than the Laurentian consensual one.
Walter Russell Mead, who teaches foreign affairs and humanities at Bard College, describes society as an inverted pyramid with a gyroscope whirling across its surface. At the three edges are religion, nationalism and reason. Obviously, you do not want the gyroscope to spin too close to the edges of religion or nationalism; we have seen what can happen when either of those two forces exercise too much influence over a society. But Mead points out that a society in which reason dominates too heavily can also come a cropper. For we are each of us a great jumble of values, beliefs and intuitions, too often bending the facts to fit our world view and then declaring our conclusions to be the only ones that are reasonable. My reasoning is your belief is his prejudice.
Which is simply to say that those who believe the great dichotomy between the Laurentian Consensus and the Conservative Coalition is that the former descends from the Enlightenment, while the latter originated in shamanistic rituals of nomadic invaders, should think again.
We are all masses of prejudice, we are all creatures of passion, we all twist the facts to suit our predispositions and then call that truth. If you are upset with the Conservatives, ask yourself: Am I upset because I am smart and they are stupid, and the stupid are in charge? Do I truly reason from facts while they feed on base instincts? Is this simply a question of right versus wrong? Or has it something to do with the fact that my view, my city, the consensus to which I belong, is in eclipse?
If the Laurentian Consensus truly is in eclipse, then will the new Conservative Coalition one day achieve such power and stability that it forms a consensus of its own? I do not know. This new Conservative Coalition may be held together only by the will to power and the political acumen of Stephen Harper. If so, it must one day implode. After all, governments are ultimately defeated and this one will be, too.
But this coalition reflects a powerful new demographic and political reality that must be taken into account. The West wanted in. It is in. In fact, it is in charge.
A new political reality confronts us: There are now too many people and there is too much money in the West for it to be ignored. Just as no party could once have expected to form a majority government without sufficient support in Quebec, today a majority government depends on support west of Lake of the Woods. The values and priorities of the West are now national priorities. This is permanent.
There is, I believe, something else emerging within the national fabric that we have not confronted before: patriotism.
The very word sends shudders through the Laurentian elite. It smacks of jingoism, of Yankee flag waving, of irrational and dangerous passions. Yet it is a force, at least within English Canada, and the Conservative Coalition has embraced it.
We see it in the broad support for rebuilding the Canadian Forces. We see it in the Conservatives’ romantic invocation of the Arctic, and militant determination to defend it against the claims of other nations. We saw it in the rude, raucous jubilation over Canada’s performance at the Vancouver Olympics, which had American journalists lamenting the obnoxious behaviour of Canadian fans. We see it along the Highway of Heroes.
It may be that young Canadians, new Canadians, Western Canadians and Canadians everywhere who take pride in the accomplishments of this prosperous, successful, tolerant country are ready to slough off the ancient animosities that have dragged us down for so many years: the regional grievances, the historic resentments, the lament of the victim. As Quebec recedes from the centre stage of the national debate, perhaps that too strengthens a new national notion of self. For the Quebec question was always a question of what was wrong with the country. But from the national finances, to our banking system, to our cultural exports, to the fantastic pluralism of our cities, increasingly today we focus on what is right with Canada. Canada today feels good about itself and wants to talk about it. The Laurentian Consensus could never bring itself to talk about Canada that way. Which is strange, for they gave us this Canada. In any case, if at least some of the old insecurity is passing, replaced with a new and fervent celebration of the becoming Canada, then that too will shape the politics of the future.
Ontario voters may one day shift their alignment once again. They could join in common cause with Quebec in support of a party other than the Conservatives. They could be attracted to a New Democratic Party that sufficiently matures to become ready for government. The Liberal Party could recover from its near-death experience, reform its antiquated infrastructure, reconnect with every region of the country and find a new leader worthy of the legacy of Laurier and King and Trudeau and Chrétien. Or the progressive voice in this country could unify under a new, merged political party.
Anything could happen. But whatever credible governing alternative to the Conservatives ultimately emerges must take the realities of the new, emerging Canada into account. It must take the West into account. It must take the aspirations and fears of Ontario voters outside the downtowns into account. It must take this new, emerging patriotism into account. The Conservative Coalition may itself one day break apart. But its values must be accommodated.
The Laurentian Consensus is on the outside, rejected, in eclipse. If it wants to become the governing consensus again, then it must understand who rejected it and why. The old assumptions will not hold in this new century. The old values are out of date. The pendulum will swing again, but it will never return to exactly where it was.
Those who simply wait for the universe to go back to unfolding as it should could wait a very long time.