For decades after he arrived in Canada from Punjab, India, Gurmeet Singh voted Liberal without hesitation, in gratitude for Pierre Trudeau’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But in 2011 he voted Conservative for the first time in his life, and now believes it’s the party he should have supported all along.
“Social, religious as well as the family values – all those values match with the Conservatives,” said Mr. Singh, 54. “I don’t know how the Sikh community in general or the Indian community in general were voting for Liberals for so long.”
But although Mr. Singh thinks the Conservatives deserve at least one more term in office, he’s concerned that the party has “shifted more towards the centre.” He wishes it would return to its right-wing roots. It’s an increasingly common refrain, in the wake of this week’s Throne Speech.
Stephen Harper is the prime minister who drove the law-and-order omnibus bill, the man who made cutting sales and corporate taxes a top priority and who has given Canada the reputation of having Israel’s back like no other nation. His party, the Conservative Party, is infused with his own dedication to economic and social conservatism. Rather than being a brokerage party, it is values-based.
So, how can a Conservative government, which should support minimal regulation and the free play of market forces, propose limits on mobile-phone roaming fees and order banks to reduce service charges? How can the same government make NDP-style polluter-pay promises and legislation to fight cyberbullying?
It has some of Mr. Harper’s oldest allies and friends wondering what has happened to him.
“It’s my hope that Stephen Harper will soon get back to the values we had in 1993,” said Myron Thompson, the former Reform and Conservative MP from Sundre, Alta.
“I hope he hasn’t lost them, but he’s certainly gotten away from them.”
So how conservative is Stephen Harper, really? Is he still a conservative at all?
“We are a conservative government,” Finance Minister Jim Flaherty responds, firmly. “Look at the fundamentals. The fundamentals are fiscal. And we are a fiscally conservative government.”
Go find another national government, he points out, that has cut sales and corporate taxes so deeply, that is holding the line on the operations budget, that has instituted so many pension reforms, that will eliminate its deficit by 2015.
Mr. Flaherty is convinced that the voters who matter most to this government – the suburban middle class that dominates his own riding of Whitby-Oshawa –“are fundamentally conservative. They don’t want government in their face. They don’t want high taxes. They want to have enough money to make their mortgage payments and pay their car loan and raise their kids.” And he gives them what they ask for.
But sometimes they ask to have their television channels unbundled, their phone bill slimmed, their bank charges reduced.
And when the corporate sector gets too much into the consumers’ faces, Mr. Flaherty acknowledged, “I nudge them a little.”
But it’s a difficult balancing act, and the loyalty of voters in the 905 – the vast suburbs surrounding Toronto named after their area code – is hardly something the Conservatives can take for granted.
Parm Chahal, a 39-year-old entrepreneur in Brampton, Ont., switched his allegiance from the Liberals to the Conservatives in the last election because that’s where “the movers and shakers” in his community were also going.
But he wonders whether many recent immigrants would still vote Conservative if they knew everything about the party’s hard-right Reform roots.
That historical amnesia “has been a blessing for [the Conservatives], Mr. Chahal believes. “They’ve been able to come more to the centre.”
This is the nub of it. Mr. Flaherty’s suburban Ontario voters may be conservatives, but they’re not as conservative as the rural and Western base that sustains the party.
“There’s nothing for social conservatives, there’s very little for fiscal conservatives,” and there’s nothing “for democratic reformers,” maintains Brent Rathgeber, the Edmonton MP who quit the Conservative caucus earlier this year in frustration.
He predicts Mr. Harper will face intense heat from the party faithful at the Conservative convention later this month in Calgary.
Keeping the coalition stitched together may be why Mr. Harper, who was once something of a firebrand, has become what Gregory Thomas of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation calls a “pragmatic, data-driven incrementalist.”
Gerry Nicholls, who worked with Mr. Harper when they were both at the National Citizens Coalition, says his former boss was “second to none when it came to criticizing conservative leaders who strayed even slightly from ideological purity.”
But Mr. Nicholls now sees very little difference between “what Harper is doing and what a Liberal government would do.”
Mr. Harper has tempered his firebrand past in the interests of putting together the broadest possible coalition of conservative supporters, from New Brunswick Red Tories to 905 Sikhs to Prairie farmers. That means he can only move the dial a bit to the right each time; sometimes he even has to dial it back. It also means, if breaches are not to be publicly exposed, imposing a smothering discipline on the caucus and the party machinery.
Tom Flanagan understands what the Prime Minister is doing. The former ally and campaign manager for Mr Harper, though there is considerable distance between them now, calls the periodic Tory tacking toward the centre “political overlay” – the day-to-day work of keeping a coalition of support intact.
But even for Prof. Flanagan, sometimes it’s just too much.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s necessary to stay in power, but I do think it’s kind of catching up,” he believes.
After all, the Conservatives are languishing behind Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the polls. “I think it’s undermining the belief in the government’s commitment to principle, in general,” Mr. Flanagan believes.
But here is a historical nugget that might bridge this schism. In 1988, a great many conservatives were unhappy with Brian Mulroney’s government, which was obsessed with accommodating Quebec even as budgets went unbalanced and entitlements grew. But they voted for him anyway, because they supported the proposed free-trade treaty between Canada and the United States.
On Friday, Canada and the European Union signed the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, the most important trade accord since the one with the U.S. If the deal is ratified – and early indications are encouraging – then at the next election the budget will be balanced, the Conservatives will have announced a new round of tax cuts in the spring 2015 budget, and they will have free trade with Europe in their pocket.