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(Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)
(Brigitte Bouvier/Brigitte Bouvier)

LAWRENCE MARTIN

A banner year for the new conservative agenda Add to ...

In the country’s political history, there have been great years for conservatives. How about 1958, when John Diefenbaker, with his biblical incantations, captured 208 seats? Or 1984, when Brian Mulroney obliterated John Turner and won 211? But these were triumphs for old-style Tories, the Progressive Conservative school that Preston Manning and Stephen Harper rebelled against.

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For core conservatives, those of the doctrinaire variety, nothing can compare to the successes of the year now passing. In 2011, Canada took its sharpest turn right in its history. It will go down as the year of transformation in Canadian politics, the year when the political right gained unprecedented control, when the traditionally dominant centre was hollowed out and when the party of the left, for the first time, became the country’s official opposition.

It was a year in which a country built by moderate Liberals and moderate Tories saw the forces of moderation shrink. Core conservatives won a majority, they decimated the Liberals, they put in place many of their doctrinaire policies and they deepened their potential for continued dominance with the elimination of the public subsidy for political parties, with seat redistribution and other measures.

The political tremors didn’t reverberate with the shock they may have. The Conservatives’ prudent policy-making in some big-ticket policy areas has served to alleviate fears of their being excessively redneck. Their work on the economy, as seen most recently in the fiscal update, was an example of pragmatic decision-making. The recent bilateral border accord won them applause, as perhaps it should – so long as it doesn’t contribute to our becoming an extension of the Department of Homeland Security. Mr. Harper’s playing up of traditional symbols like the monarchy allays concerns of the old Canada fading away.

But at the same, it was a big year for ideological advances. They came in such areas as crime and punishment, in foreign policy – where Canada has become one of the hawks of the Western world – on the gun registry, on citizenship and immigration, on the military, on the Wheat Board and on the environment. On the latter, we recall Mr. Mulroney, a progressive Tory, winning an award as Canada’s greenest prime minister. As a show of how the party has changed, the Harper government will likely be a candidate for the brownest.

This Prime Minister’s rightward trajectory no doubt has Pierre Trudeau rolling over in his grave, which is exactly what Mr. Harper wishes. Old Tories like Robert Stanfield are probably doing the same. And Jean Chrétien came forward this month to issue over-the-top warnings about the course we’re on.

In his day, Mr. Chrétien was often condemned, by yours truly in particular, for running a dictatorial-styled government. With his authoritarian, l’état c’est moi approach, Mr. Harper is starting to make Mr. Chrétien look like Twinkletoes. In Irwin Cotler’s riding, Conservative dirty tricks, labelled reprehensible by the Speaker of the Commons, got much publicity. But this was only one of 20 or so instances of abuse of power in 2011 for which the PM was dismissively unrepentant.

Although journalists of all stripes are now on to him for this, Mr. Harper was most fortunate it didn’t cost him politically. Luck is a major component in his arsenal. His extraordinary degree of serendipity was on display again this year, particularly in the election campaign. It was not Mr. Harper but Jack Layton who was most responsible for the thrashing of the Bloc Québécois. It was Mr. Layton, as the Prime Minister appreciatively looked on, who took down Michael Ignatieff in the English-language debate and contributed significantly to the Grits’ fall.

With his election success and enhanced credibility, Mr. Layton was the left’s great hope to check Mr. Harper and the rightward tide. But his death helped clear the way for the continued ascendancy of a faction of the old Tory party that not so long ago was viewed as a fringe element, far adrift of the Canadian mainstream. Now, it’s the band that is in command.

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