The Base. If you want to understand the Harper government, never forget the Base. The Prime Minister doesn’t. He can’t afford to ignore it, but he can’t do everything it wants either, or his government will be defeated. He walks a tightrope, and until now he has done so quite successfully.
The Base doesn’t have many representatives in cabinet, but it is alive, well and increasingly restless on the Conservative backbenches. And it is very much kicking in Conservative constituency associations.
The Base is hard to precisely define. But among its elements are: a high degree of religiosity, a moralistic view of foreign policy, a populist dislike of government, a loathing of the media (except Sun News Network, Sun newspapers and a few very right-wing columnists), a distaste of anything that smacks of high culture, a reverence for the military, an abhorrence of abortion, a suspicion of “intellectuals” and their reasoning, a belief (against all evidence) that crime is out of control, a generalized sense that honest, God-fearing people like themselves have been marginalized and patronized by secular “elites,” a sense that produces bursts of resentment and anger about the state of the country.
The Base, of course, is critical to the modern Conservative Party. It supplies votes, fervour, commitment and money. Too much catering to The Base, however, spells trouble, because many policies the Base loves will scare off other potential Conservative voters.
Episodically, the Base has to be placated, which is what we are now seeing. Why, you might ask, would the Harper government be hesitating to ratify the new United Nations arms control treaty that attempts to regulate international trade in conventional weapons, making it harder for them to end up in the illegal market? When the measure hit the General Assembly, only three countries voted no: Syria, North Korea and Iran. So where’s the problem?
It lies in the Canadian gun lobby that, like the fanatical National Rifle Association in the United States, sees conspiracies to restrict rights of gun owners. Somehow, in the twisted thinking of the NRA and its Canadian imitators, this treaty might somehow hurt Canadian gun owners. John Baird, who as Foreign Minister one would have hoped to know better, even suggested in the Commons that this treaty might lead to a revival of the long-gun registry.
This is an assertion unworthy of a foreign minister, but if ministers have to look over their shoulders at the Base, statements like this happen.
Representatives of the Base will sometimes cause trouble by expressing dissent. As in, MP Brent Rathgeber’s resignation from caucus to sit as an independent because his desire to have all salaries in the public sector above $188,000 made public got watered down by the party leadership. This dilution, as he sees it, represents a sort of softening of the populist, anti-government, anti-intellectual positioning of true conservatives.
Mr. Rathgeber claims the Prime Minister’s Office treats MPs as “trained seals,” an ironic cliché since it used to be a favourite putdown from the Reform Party and the old Progressive Conservative party to describe government backbenchers when the Liberals were in power.
Brian Mulroney, as prime minister, used to say he wanted all caucus members to “sing from the same hymn book.” He saw to that by paying scrupulous attention to caucus with flattery, solicitousness and charm. That he held his caucus together though very tough political times testified to his political skills.
Mr. Harper has the same challenge, although with fewer MPs to keep in line than Mr. Mulroney had. Mr. Harper set up caucus committees to vet proposed legislation, and he tries to pay attention in caucus to gripes and suggestions. Ultimately, though, he holds it together by the glue of power and fear.
Abortion is another issue that fires up the Base. The pro-life group inside the Conservative Party is frustrated that the Prime Minister does not want the issue raised. He let it be debated once. He wants it to go away. But the Base wishes to keep raising the issue, inside or outside the House of Commons.
The Base won’t go away, after all, because it is a foundation stone of the modern Conservative Party.