A review of The Right Balance: Canada’s Conservative Tradition, by Hugh Segal
History is about the past, and The Right Balance: Canada’s Conservative Tradition is not only about Canadian politics in the past, but it was written and published in the past—that is, before the upheaval of the recent election. It has to be read and reviewed in that light, even if the old battles with which it is much concerned have since been won and lost, and all perspectives have changed.
Senator Hugh Segal, a well-known Red Tory, once wrote a cover plug for a book in which I argued Canada had become a social democracy. How very agreeable of him, but Segal was like that, progressive while firmly Conservative, advisor to premiers and prime ministers, unsuccessful candidate for the House of Commons and for the leadership of his party, a prolific writer on political affairs, appointed to the Senate by a Liberal prime minister. I wish I could now return the favour he granted me, but I can’t because in this book he reveals a different Segal.
He sets out to write a history of conservatism in Canada, but it soon becomes infected by partisanship, sometimes going so far as to accuse Liberals of endangering Canada by recklessly ignoring the founding principle of the equal partnership of English and French nations. The fact of course is that Liberals and not Tories have traditionally been the party of French Canada. There have been four French Canadian prime ministers: Wilfrid Laurier, Louis St. Laurent, Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien—Liberals to a man. French Canadians over the years elected far more Liberal members of Parliament than Tories, and in Quebec today they often choose Liberal premiers, the alternative being not a conservative but a separatist.
Partisan bias also infects Segal’s history of Canada. To cite only one glaring example, he simply writes Liberals out of the achievement of Confederation. “That Sir John A.’s Tory conservatism had to combine with the more anti–establishment Clear Grit populism rooted in Canada West in order for Confederation to be made possible is not in dispute,” he allows, and passes on. The reality is very different. By 1864, the Clear Grits had been absorbed into George Brown’s Reform (soon to be Liberal) party. Brown was the owner of the Toronto Globe, and an eminently respectable figure, loyal to the British connection. Brown and Macdonald had been opposed for years in the frequently deadlocked legislature of the united Upper and Lower Canadas. Brown wanted to open new land to the West for immigrants, but that would have disturbed the balance of the two Canadas, and roughly of English and French, so Macdonald could not agree. Then Brown took the remarkable step of offering to serve in a coalition under his rival if the new government would seek to create a new federation. Macdonald was certainly the leader from there on, but the Liberal Brown planted the seed from which Confederation flowered. Had he not, there is no telling if and when the Canada we know would have occurred.
The Right Balance is roughly chronological, discussing each Conservative leader and his or her fidelity to core Tory beliefs (and, too often, the unscrupulous Liberal rivals who somehow bested them). There are, by my reckoning, three core beliefs that Segal says distinguish Tories from Liberals. The first (my ranking) is loyalty to the Crown and parliamentary government, because tried and true institutions are best. I will grant that Trudeau’s original Charter of Rights and Freedoms proposed to make the appointed Supreme Court superior to the elected Parliament, as the U.S. Supreme Court is superior to Congress. That was a thoroughly bad idea; inevitably, the U.S. court has been politicized with justices seen to represent either conservative or liberal ideologies, and it would have happened here. The provincial premiers and their advisors, including Segal, were right to devise a neat compromise, the “notwithstanding clause,” and to force it upon a surly Trudeau. Parliament and the legislatures remain supreme because they can, if they so desire, override a decision by the court.
I can think of one other occasion in which a Liberal government might be said to have been less than respectful of our history and institutions—when Prime Minister Lester Pearson pulled down the old flag, the Red Ensign with the British Union Jack in the corner, and ran up the Maple Leaf. The Tories, apparently including Segal, objected strongly on the grounds that we were abandoning our history, but he now sees the issue differently: “History has proven Lester B. Pearson, who proposed the new mono-emblem flag, absolutely right,” because the single maple leaf has become a unifying symbol.
A second Tory principle, according to Segal, is “nation and enterprise.” Tories are careful to maintain a balance so that government, while active, never gets in the way of enterprise. Thus Macdonald invested in the CPR to secure the West for Canada while also proclaiming the National Policy of tariffs to protect and encourage manufacturing in Canada. Again, Segal’s history is selective; he ignores the fact that before adopting the National Policy, Macdonald considered free trade, but could not see a good enough deal. He turned 180 degrees to tariff protection—and Tories then denounced the Liberal policy of free trade as “veiled treason.” Curiously, Segal also describes Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s “courageous” free trade agreement, which drove the last nail into the coffin of the National Policy, as “nation and enterprise” at work.
He also cites Conservative prime minister R.B. Bennett’s founding of the forerunner of the CBC as government nation building, and so it was. But Liberals can at least match the Tory record. For example, they launched the vast Seaway Project, created what became Air Canada, financed the Trans-Canada gas pipeline (which Conservatives in the Commons fought bitterly to stop) and set up Atomic Energy of Canada Limited to build Canada’s first reactor. In short, there is no real distinction between Tories and Liberals to be found under the “nation and enterprise” heading.
Fidelity to the equal partnership of English and French nations—Segal calls it duality—is the third Tory principle. Liberals, on the other hand, he says, are unprincipled, willing to do whatever it takes to defeat their opponents, and they frequently endanger the country by disregarding the founding bargain. William Lyon Mackenzie King, the longtime Liberal leader and prime minister in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, is one of Segal’s favourite villains, a crafty and unprincipled man who several times outmanoeuvred upright Tories. Why, there was even the time in 1926 when King, facing certain defeat in the Commons, “snuck” over to Rideau Hall to ask the governor general to dissolve Parliament and allow an election. He was “justifiably” refused, and resigned. Perhaps understandably, Segal does not refer to the occasion when Prime Minister Stephen Harper, facing defeat in the Commons, snuck over to Rideau Hall and persuaded the governor general to prorogue, or suspend, Parliament. The cases are not exact parallels, but the essential fact is that both prime ministers dragged the GG into political controversy in an attempt to dodge a vote in the Commons; King failed, Harper succeeded. Not in the best Tory tradition.
Similarly, Segal lambastes Trudeau because he ignored Quebec’s objection to his Charter with the result that Quebec has never signed on to the new Constitution. To make matters worse, he led the opposition to Mulroney’s attempts to bring Quebec back into full partnership with the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. It is true, of course, that Trudeau did object to Meech on the grounds it would have meant special status for Quebec, but aboriginal groups, women’s groups and others also opposed the deal on quite different grounds.
Trudeau’s policy was to draw Quebeckers out of their Quebec fastness to inhabit all of Canada. To this end he made federal services available in French across Canada, and the CBC provided service in French to support French Canadian culture. The policy failed when Quebeckers remained “at home,” where they seemed to be building a dynamic but inward-looking society with little interest in the rest of Canada, electing separatists and crypto-separatists in federal and provincial politics. Neither Conservative nor Liberal parties could claim to represent Quebec.
Segal believes the right policy is the old policy of reassuring Quebec that it is secure as an equal partner in Canada, as Harper did when, in Segal’s words, he “reached out to embrace Québécois and Quebecoise [sic] as constituting a ‘nation’ in a united Canada.” Whether this policy will keep Quebec happy remains to be seen, but the notion of equal partnership seems less and less tenable with the rise of the West and the emergence of multicultural Ontario with few roots in history. In any case, Harper’s formal statement on the issue was just that, a statement. Similarly, his formal apology to aboriginal people for the residential schools program (which ended long ago, incidentally), which Segal regards as a high point in Harper’s prime ministership, may have been nation building, in the best Tory tradition, or simply chasing votes—a quest never far from his mind.
Respect for the constitutional division of powers, says Segal, is a Tory value. It is true, I think, that Liberal governments more than Conservatives have invaded provincial jurisdictions by pushing on them so-called shared-cost programs—a gift of federal money they could not refuse. On the other hand, we would not have national medicare if Ottawa had not taken the initiative—certainly not if we had waited for Harper. Before entering the Commons, he wrote the famous/infamous letter advising Alberta to build a “firewall” to keep out the federal government. That, says Segal, was just Harper showing Tory respect for provincial jurisdiction.
Segal does not discuss Harper’s stance on deficits. That is an important oversight. On this score, it is hard to assess Harper’s record because he has been driven by the recession. It is clear that the Chrétien/Martin government sweated blood and tears to restore to surplus the budget they inherited from Mulroney (who, to be fair, had inherited a large deficit from the Trudeau era). Harper took over and promptly returned it to deficit—before the recession struck—by cutting taxes in a bid for popularity. To fight the recession, he sensibly elected to replace shrinking private demand with public demand by pouring money into public construction projects—as recommended long ago by the liberal economist John Maynard Keynes, whom conservatives used to hate. The projects are certainly nation building of a type—bridges and highways, for example—but was it really necessary for Harper to launch publicity drives—at public expense, of course—to make it appear voters owed it all to their local Tory MP?
Is Harper a true Tory or a right-wing neo-con–in–hiding until he could win a majority? Segal rejects the neo-con theory, and I doubt we will ever know Harper’s real instincts. He has had to avoid extremes in order to keep his new national party together, and that is still true.
In sum, I find little evidence in this book to support Segal’s case that the two parties, Conservatives and Liberals, are ideologically divided. Rather, they have been the Ins and Outs, driven to the centre by the search for votes—and social democratic in the sense they believe in a democratic government regulating and taxing a market economy to meet social priorities established by the voters in elections.
The parliamentary system works best when there are two national parties and elections offer voters a clear choice. Third, fourth and, counting the Greens, even fifth parties confuse debate in the Commons and distort election results. Thus, the Conservatives remain a minority party in terms of their share of the vote in the most recent election, but have a commanding majority in the Commons. If the election leads the Liberals and the NDP to merge, creating a national centre/left party to confront the centre/right party created by the merger of Reform and the old Progressive Party, all might turn out for the best.