Smart Conservatism in North America

Smart Conservatism in North America

Republicans are licking their wounds over their recent electoral defeat. For inspiration about what to do, they might want to look north. Through three elections now, Canada has been governed by a Conservative Party, and led by a Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, bent on displacing the centrist Liberals as the ‘natural governing party’ of the country. And he is well on his way to doing it. There are lessons here for disconsolate Republicans south of the 49th parallel. Harper’s strategy? Accommodate your conservative policies to the sometimes brutal realities of the country in which you live.

There is wide agreement among party activists and commentators that the Republican Party, egged on by Tea Partiers, religious fundamentalists, and economic Darwinists, lost its grip on political reality in the last election. Take hot-button social issues and immigration. Republicans pushed conservative positions on abortion, contraception and gay marriage in a country which saw three states vote in favour of gay marriage and two support the legalization of marijuana. Early on in the primary season, Mitt Romney spoke of ‘self-deportation’ as a response to the presence of around 12 million people, most of them Hispanics, living illegally in the United States. What a way to make friends. George W. Bush took 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2004; Romney managed to attract the support of only 27% in 2012 – a smaller share of a bigger pool of voters.

The Conservative Party of Canada under Stephen Harper, intent on winning political power in Ottawa, has done pretty much the opposite. On hot-button social issues and on immigration, Harper made sure his Party did not stray far from the mainstream. His Conservatives finally got their majority government in 2011, with the help of the left-wing New Democratic Party, thereby consigning the Liberals to third-party status in Parliament for the first time since Confederation in 1867. It appears that Canada is in the midst of a massive realignment of its party system, aided and abetted by Tory Party strategy.

Harper has brought in conservative policies in a number of fields. Despite falling crime rates, he has pursued a tough-on-crime agenda, which will lead to more people being incarcerated for longer periods of time; he has rescinded Liberal legislation requiring rifle owners to register their firearms, which was passed in response to the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique massacre in Quebec, in which a gunman killed 14 women with a rifle; he’s cut taxes; he has backed away from the Kyoto Protocol, indicating that Canada will simply follow America’s lead on the environment; he is spending more on the military; he’s cut back support for unsympathetic NGOs.

But he has refused to touch the hot-button issues dear to the heart of his fundamentalist Christian wing, squashing the efforts of his red-meat militants to force them onto the national agenda. Since a Supreme Court decision in 1988 striking down laws relating to abortion as unconstitutional, Canada is one of very few countries that has no legal regulation in this area, but things seem to work just fine: Stephen Harper has let it be. Ditto with gay marriage. Federal legislation in 2005 legalized same-sex marriage. Harper has not touched this issue. While he has welcomed political polarization on some issues, he does not want it on these.

His approach is most clearly revealed in the field of immigration. For years, the Liberals have been the party of immigrants, and in election after election they have been able to count on the grateful political support of newcomers to Canada. That, plus a strong base in Quebec, gave the Liberals a leg up in every election campaign. No more. The Quebec base has been taken over by the NDP, who have 59 of the 103 seats in the Province, to the Liberal’s seven. And the Tories have stolen the immigrant vote from under the nose of the Liberals, becoming virtually the only right-wing party in Europe or North America to favor immigration and immigrants.

Canadian immigration policy, based on a point system, emphasizes education, professional skills and language abilities. Around half of Canada’s newcomers hold university degrees. China, India, the Philippines and Pakistan supply the largest number of immigrants to Canada.

Recognizing that these migrants share many Conservative core beliefs – on the importance of family, on entrepreneurship and self-reliance, on social order, on limited government – the Harper Conservatives have made a systematic bid for their support. Since they took power in 2006, Jason Kenney, now Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, has relentlessly gone after these newcomers, meeting constantly with different immigrant communities, listening to their concerns, explaining the congruence between their aspirations and Conservative policies. They made some popular policy moves, too, such as reducing the immigrant landing fee, and formally apologizing for the Chinese head tax, imposed on Chinese laborers entering the country in the late 19th and early-20th centuries. The effort has paid off. They have made significant gains in constituencies with high concentrations of recent immigrants, particularly in the belt of new suburbs that surrounds the City of Toronto. Michael Ignatieff, then leader of the Liberal Party, lost his seat to a Conservative in Etobicoke-Lakeshore, a constituency in western Toronto.

No single factor wins or loses an election. But what the Conservatives have done is momentous. They have reluctantly accepted the progressive social consensus on abortion and gay marriage. They have shown that they like and respect the immigrants who come to Canada in large numbers. In doing so, they have denied the Liberals their traditional electoral premium, and have aligned the Conservative Party squarely with Canada’s future, not with a nostalgia for its fading past. Perhaps Republicans should take a closer look to the north.