Has the Centre Vanished?

The past and future of the middle ground in Canadian politics.

The night of May 2, 2011, was a time of dreams unexpectedly come true and worst nightmares finally experienced. Stephen Harper’s Conservatives achieved their majority goal with an amazing 166 seats despite winning only five in Quebec, and the Green Party elected its first member to the House of Commons. The virtual disappearance of the Bloc Québécois (it retained just four of its 49 seats) made real Jack Layton’s own fantasy of becoming leader of the Official Opposition by taking the NDP to 103 seats, 59 of which came from Quebec. As for the country’s most famous public intellectual, Michael Ignatieff brought the Liberal Party of Canada down to its novel and ignominious status as the country’s third party, with a mere 34 of his caucus holding onto their seats.

That night’s political earthquake posed some basic questions for the Canadian party system. If the Liberal Party had long represented the centre, where had this place on the political landscape gone? Did the Liberal Party’s collapse and the NDP’s new ascendancy mean that Canada had become polarized so that there is no longer a middle ground for the Grits to recapture? The party has resurrected itself following near-death experiences before—particularly after World War One—but are things really different this time?

The Absent Centre in Canadian History
If you think back a bit—and we have not even been at it for 150 years since Confederation launched John A. Macdonald on his two and a half decades of nation building—the centre does not have deep historical roots. Sir John A. did not so much straddle an ideological middle ground as create from scratch a federal government that could manage the general interests of Great Britain’s principal North American colonies—three in the Atlantic, the quarrelsome province of (Upper and Lower) Canada, soon Manitoba and later British Columbia—with departments to manage its several functions, courts to administer criminal and administrative justice, and, of course, a parliament to make the young dominion’s laws.

Enter politics. Managing an electoral process that chose the country’s parliamentarians across five time zones without even a railroad at first to provide transportation, let alone a federal party system or a countrywide press to forge a national community out of those men with property who had the right to vote, the great chieftain fashioned an organization labelled Conservative out of local bigwigs, the “loose fish” whom he enticed with a mix of patronage, power, manipulation and, yes, electoral thuggery and corruption into his party and cabinet while he dealt with French-speaking Roman Catholics through their eminent representative from Quebec, George-Étienne Cartier.

In this foundational period the Grits were less a political party than scatterings of more radically minded shopkeepers and farmers who were excluded from the perquisites of power and so looked east for ideological inspiration from free market British economists and south to the expanding republic that offered a more populist and egalitarian model. Socialism had no sway while manufacturing was still small-scale and simple. Rather, liberalism was the ideological alternative to Toryism but, having less popular resonance, the Liberal Party existed in more of a near-life state than in a near-death one. Only when Sir John A. was caught with his hand in the Canadian Pacific Railway’s pockets did it gain power, but Alexander Mackenzie was too principled in his minimal-government liberalism and too prim in his no-corruption politics to manage renewing his mandate as prime minister. There was no centre for him to hold between two opposing formations.

Wilfrid Laurier’s brilliance was to displace the Tories through partisan persistence and personal patience and then add to their legacy. On the party side, he persisted in his organizational efforts, notably summoning loyal Grits from the country’s widespread constituencies to a convention in Ottawa where, for the first time, Canadian Liberals could meet their fellow faithful from across the land and deliberate on what policies should form their electoral platform.

His patience entailed waiting for the great Sir John A. to die. Even at the age of 76 in the election of 1891, the infirm master had brushed off Laurier’s continental free trade pitch by arousing the electorate’s anti-American, pro-imperialist nationalism (“a British subject I was born, a British subject I will die”). Just three months later the grand old man did indeed die, leaving the leader of the opposition to wait quietly while the Tories experienced their own death throes, going through four decidedly unappealing leader/prime ministers in five years.

Having won Quebec Catholics’ support despite his radically Gladstonian rouge views in 1896, Laurier proceeded to build on his eminent predecessor’s heritage. Sir John A’s protectionist National Policy had succeeded beyond belief so that, by the end of the century, Canada’s protected market had grown into the world’s seventh largest industrial economy, and Laurier happily built on this base. Constructing a second transcontinental railway and actively promoting immigration, he consolidated the prairies’ settlement and, having learned patronage politics from its inventor, Sir Wilfrid put Liberals in control of the new provinces in 1905 when he established Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Socialism was still not politically potent in English-speaking Canada, where the social gospel movement was more evangelical than political and where the fledgling trade unions had come under the control of the American Federation of Labor. In Quebec Henri Bourassa attacked Laurier for tugging his forelock to London’s demands that Canada contribute ships to the British Navy, but his nationalism took the form of founding Le Devoir, not a left-wing opposition party.

After winning the elections of 1896, 1900 and 1906, Laurier faced the Conservative Party, which Robert Borden had revived to the point that he could mobilize Canadian big business against the prime minister’s renewed attempt to sell free trade with the United States. The 1911 election constituted a defeat for Laurier. The Great War brought both him and his party to the brink of their own death. Rallying Canadians to the British flag, under which 60,000 were slaughtered on Flanders fields, Sir Robert co-opted the bulk of English-Canadian Grits into his National Union coalition government, leaving the disheartened Laurier with a rump caucus of anti-war Quebec loyalists.

Even with the Bolshevik revolution’s inspiration of such labour unrest as the 1919 Winnipeg general strike, progressive politics in Canada remained in the hands of farmers’ movements, which successfully stormed into power in a number of provinces and even elected members to Parliament in the early 1920s. But by then a certain Mr. King was leader of the Liberals. Fancying himself a radical modelled on his grandfather William Lyon Mackenzie, who had led the 1837 rebellion and for whom he had been named, the young intellectual had managed to get himself selected party leader when Laurier died on the way to the second convention he was organizing to restore his divided party’s morale. Becoming prime minister after the 1921 election by co-opting the few Progressives who had won federal seats, King displaced the Conservatives for most of the post-war years of prosperity without having any left flank to watch.

The Emergence of a Political Centre
But boom turned catastrophically to bust, and William Lyon Mackenzie King’s luck was to lose the 1930 election to R.B. Bennett who, although pushing along the Canadian state’s development by founding the Bank of Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was widely blamed for the economic crash that he had not caused. It was only the Great Depression that finally galvanized Canadian socialists along with some supportive farmers’ associations into founding a viable social democratic party, but their lack of political moxie also started with their unmanageable name—the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation—and the Canadian labour movement’s U.S. bosses stopped it from lending its mass muscle to a CCF committed to nationalizing the means of production.

High unemployment and social dislocation were rampant in all capitalist economies whose extreme social distress bred advocates of extreme solutions—from totalitarian fascism on the far right to totalitarian communism on the far left. In more moderate Canada, radicalism in the Great Depression took the form of the Social Credit, which made few federal inroads on the right, a somewhat more successful CCF and a Communist Party whose political appeal was shattered by the repeated reversals of party line imposed on it from Moscow. So by the time King reoccupied the prime minister’s office in Ottawa’s East Block in 1935 he found himself in a brand new centre where he had more to worry about in partisan matters than just fending off the Conservatives.

Indeed, the Conservatives’ adoption in their political distress of the moniker “progressive” and their endorsement in the middle of World War Two of the British economist John Maynard Keynes’s interventionist solutions to the crisis of capitalism helped King justify inching the government of Canada along the road toward what became known as the post-war Keynesian welfare state. He was already being nudged to the left by the CCF’s threatening surge in the public opinion polls—to distribute the fruits of industrialization more equitably by policies to reduce income inequalities, mitigate unemployment, support pensions for the elderly and supply high-quality, universal education.

All this is to assert that the centre in Canada only dates back to World War Two, when the government of the day could lean right to court the Tory business community by encouraging American investment and borrow from the left when, for instance, the CCF under Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan had proven public medical care to be both more efficient and more popular than private medicine.

The Centre’s Moving Consensus
The first three post-war decades were not notable for a centre mainly presided over by the Liberal Party. More significant was its moving consensus about what this centrism comprised. When Diefenbaker overturned King’s chosen successor, Louis St. Laurent, in the 1957 election, he did not overturn the Liberals’ legacy. He built on it. Some of his measures were progressive: a bill of rights. Others were conservative: setting up a private television network to compete with the CBC. Some were nationalist: his “roads to resources” to develop the North. Others were continentalist: his national oil policy. These initiatives generated intense partisan fights as did those of the Liberals when they wrested back control under Lester Pearson (a national flag) and kept it with Pierre Trudeau (a charter of rights).

Meanwhile the CCF never came close to breaking out of its third-party status federally. Despite the adhesion of the increasingly Canadianized labour movement, despite recruiting the popular Tommy Douglas to be leader, despite renouncing nationalization and despite its name change, the New Democratic Party remained on the political sidelines.

Even when Brian Mulroney wiped out John Turner in 1984, he maintained the Liberals’ previously much-contested bilingualism and continued federal support for medicare. His own signature achievement, a bilateral free trade agreement signed with Ronald Reagan, polarized the country in the bitterly fought 1988 federal election, but Jean Chrétien, breaking his promises made when leader of the Opposition, entrenched the Conservatives’ shift to continentalism by signing the North American Free Trade Agreement as soon as he won power back in 1993. Just as significant for my argument, Paul Martin as Chrétien’s minister of finance consolidated the Mulroney government’s Margaret Thatcher–inspired shift to neoconservatism by sharply cutting those same social programs that had been the Liberal Party’s proudest achievement.

So the Liberals may have straddled the partisan centre in the late 20th century, but more important for this reflection on their future prospects and those of Canada’s centrist politics is the way that they—as well as the Progressive Conservatives—typically worked within the evolving consensus by accepting the main positions they inherited from their just-defeated opponents as they proceeded to move the country toward their own redefined goals.

Harper’s Polarization
Now enter Stephen Harper, who has rejected consensual centrism in favour of a program carefully conceived to overturn this social-market legacy he has inherited. Having occupied the prime minister’s office since 2006, his agenda is no longer as hidden as it once was.

1. Cutting taxes was not just electorally popular; it was programmatically strategic. True, the financial crisis forced him to accept the G20’s call for a Keynesian-lite stimulus program in each industrialized country. Actually, his spending splurge along with its massive government advertising campaign paid off handsomely in the short term by generating his 2011 majority. Better still, the resulting massive deficit can now be used to justify sharply cutting back government spending on social programs, if not on overly sophisticated fighter planes.

2. Tearing up the government’s contract with civil society has perhaps less electoral appeal, but liquidating non-governmental organizations reveals Harper’s deep hostility to the previous centrist consensus. Denying funding to KAIROS, a church-led NGO labouring in impoverished countries, was part of a pattern to wind down the Canadian state’s support for citizens’ autonomous creativity, even when it takes the form of organizations established by previous Conservative governments such as FOCAL, the think tank Brian Mulroney established to support the development of Canada’s policy toward Latin America, or the productive Law Commission of Canada.

3. Undermining the political system’s foundational norms by his “lack of respect for the institution of Parliament, an almost pathological fear of transparency with respect to [its] public policies, and distrust of the independent regulatory surveillance of much of our life,” as John Meisel, the dean of Canada’s political scientists, recently wrote, shows that Harperism has little in common with previous Conservative reorientations brought in by Diefenbaker’s prairie radicalism or even Mulroney’s fawning continentalism.

4. Lying to Parliament (about denying funding to Kairosairosairosairosairos) and withholding from it the basic information it demanded (about Canadian soldiers delivering their prisoners to Afghan authorities for likely torture) or the data it needed to debate a proposed new policy (on building prisons) have shown Harperism’s contempt for representative democracy’s civil culture that has developed over several centuries.

5. Degrading the decennial census confirms Harperism’s extreme ideological approach to knowledge. Objective data are no longer needed when government policy is determined by a deeply flowing, if quietly expressed, hostility to the inherited order.

We do not need to find out what the prime minister will do with his now absolute control of Parliament in order to admit to ourselves Canada’s nasty new reality. Stephen Harper has moved Canadian politics into an extreme mode that is driven by three factors. It is guided by his personal, if no longer articulated, extremism. It is buttressed by the significant public support for radical-right populism, expressed municipally with Rob Ford’s mayoralty success in Toronto and, provincially, with the Wildrose Party’s strong poll numbers in Alberta. And it is connected ideationally to such foreign manifestations of neo-fascist resurgence as the nearby Tea Party movement’s flirting with violence in the United States and further away in the Hungarian Jobbik Party’s call to bring back chain gangs for convicts—a policy idea that Tim Hudak picked up in Ontario.

Prospects for Balanced Reasonableness
If polarization has become Canada’s new political hallmark, this places what used to be the centre in new terrain because the blanded-down NDP and the drifting Liberal Party now constitute a polar opposite to Harper’s reactionary governing. So the question becomes: how will the two parties handle this new challenge?

In the short term, the Liberals will surely try to retool their electoral machine, scrape together enough funds to run it, revive their following in Quebec and select a presentable leader. They will quarrel over how to rally the partisans within and the public without. They will hesitate between the son of a late prime minister (Justin Trudeau with his familial brand) and the son of a late governor general (Dominic Leblanc with his organizational smarts). But it is hard to believe they will replace their addiction to opportunistic incoherence with a set of policies that offers the country an ideologically coherent program. At the very best, it would be a considerable feat to displace the NDP and reoccupy Stornoway by the 2015 election.

As for the NDP, it is quite possible that it could lose its lead, particularly if Jack Layton’s death triggers a divisive leadership fight. Whoever directs the NDP for the next four years will then face a major challenge managing a caucus the majority of whose members have no experience in solidarity with the rest of Canada. In this scenario, it is highly likely that the political stage four years from now will look very much as it does today, with Harper still in control and the parties representing the old liberal democratic consensus sniping at each other in ineffectual opposition.

But Layton’s last eloquent appeal to the party’s “history of social justice, universal health care, public pensions and making sure no one is left behind … [aiming for] a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity … a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly … [that] can look after our seniors … [that] can offer better futures for our children … [that] can do our part to save the world’s environment … [and] restore our good name in the world” was pure, simple, late 20th-century liberalism around which his successor could easily negotiate a merger platform with the Liberal Party.

So the most obvious move is for the two parties to coalesce as a single liberal democratic organization united around the once-prevailing consensus. Whatever its label, it would be Canada’s real conservative party, promising to restore the previous system. The merger’s basic pitch—that the Harperites had overturned the political order and that it would restore integrity and balance to Canadian politics—might work. But this scenario is premised on the wishful assumption that Stephen Harper—the master of vicious politicking who knows how to vilify his opponents, whom he has now deprived of election campaign financing—will crump.

What intrigues me is whether at that point, when a nostalgic appeal to 20th-century values will have lost its traction, the representatives of the previous consensus could instead become the vehicle for the more globally connected democratic liberalism that is required to confront the 21st century’s already almost insuperable crises.

Thinking in broad-brush historical strokes, we could consider the long struggle throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to develop liberal democracy and social justice to have begun in the 15 years from 1774’s “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” to 1789’s “liberté, égalité et fraternité.”

The 21st century may only really get under way by 2020 in the sense that the world’s elites may have finally wriggled free of neoconservatism’s narrow-think clutches and accepted that traditional human needs for social emancipation combined with more urgent concerns for managing the world’s economic dysfunction and reversing its impending environmental catastrophe have both to be planned globally and implemented nationally. But national egotism resists global solidarity, and, as a fully owned subsidiary of the tar sands, Harper is unashamedly in the egotists’ camp. To be relevant, a new democratic vision will have to adopt an overarching global approach that recognizes that the required actions must be taken locally.

If Canada’s former centrists started to gain ground by endorsing this vision, Harper would be sure, first, to distort, trivialize, mock and scaremonger about its specifics and, failing that, to try to steal them. But a strong, coherent program oriented toward a game-changing, world-saving program might be hard for such an extremist to plagiarize convincingly.

It is a cliché of retail politics that electoral success requires a message of hope. But there is a distinction between the glib hope statements ghosted into politicians’ rhetoric by their speech writers and a genuine hope for humanity’s emancipation, which was the centre of small-l liberalism’s original appeal, based on a realistic analysis that offers practical solutions while rejecting the proto-fascist security state. Focused on a global Keynesianism that advocates a smaller, but still central and guiding, role for nation-states as it cooperates with global civil society to rebalance the world’s perilously skewed regime, a new Canadian liberal democracy will have to acknowledge the need for higher, more progressive taxes to pay for rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and refinancing its public services. And it will have to educate voters that taxes need to be more progressive to achieve greater equality and that family health depends on strict controls of polluting industries, starting with the tar sands in Alberta but extending through to the automobile industry in Ontario.

The sad spectacle of interwar Europe showed many totalitarian movements exploiting constitutional electoral processes and using populist rhetoric to take power and wreck their societies. The danger that Stephen Harper poses is not that he has polarized Canada’s politics, which have been divided between left and right before. Things really are different because he threatens the country’s constitutional heritage.

Which political organization or organizations oppose this dangerous figure do not matter to most citizens, although the issue preoccupies militant New Democrats and loyal Liberals. What does matter is that the former centre, which now becomes the left alternative to Harper’s extremism, must regain power if a parliamentary civic culture is to be restored. Unless this restoration happens soon, it is hard to believe that it can be done without adding 21st-century, global wings to energize and internationalize what has become the country’s social-market alternative.