In politics, ideas matter. In the election made certain by this vote of no-confidence, two conflicting political world views will compete for government: the night-watchman state of Stephen Harper versus the modern liberal state of Michael Ignatieff.
Students of political philosophy will raise their eyebrows. All Canadian governments govern from the centre, and Mr. Harper’s Conservative government is no exception. On his watch, spending has increased in good times and bad. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s budget, which is now the Conservative election platform, contains hundreds of millions of dollars to relieve seniors in poverty and to encourage energy-efficient home renovations.
But Mr. Harper is, in his bones, a libertarian: educated at the University of Calgary, where those minimalist principles are warmly viewed; first elected to Parliament as a Reformer; once the head of the National Citizens’ Coalition. He comes as close as any prime minister ever has to embracing the concept of the night-watchman state.
The term refers to those who believe that the duty of government is to guard the borders, patrol the streets and enforce contracts. In all other matters, the individual should be free to pursue his own ends, unfettered by government restraint. Mr. Harper does not believe those are the only priorities of government, but he does believe they should be its first priorities.
“The first duty of a national government, everywhere and always, is to protect its people, and its territory, from external threats,” he often says.
That is why the Conservatives have spent so much money on rebuilding the military, why they want to acquire the F-35 fighter jets, why they focus so heavily on toughening crime legislation, why they are so keen to eliminate the long-gun registry.
There are many other elements to this government, which betrays the night-watchman-state principle more often than it enforces it. But the emotional bond to the idea resides within the Prime Minister, and all of us recognize this.
Michael Ignatieff has a very different political soul. For the Liberal Leader, government is about mediation: meeting the needs of business while limiting the damage that amoral market forces can inflict; smoothing the excesses of wealth and poverty through income redistribution and high-quality public education; using government resources to encourage desirable behaviour and deter acts that can harm the self or others.
This pendulum swings back and forth – and will for as long as democracy lasts. For five and a half years, enough Canadian voters have believed that at least the values of the night-watchman state need reaffirming, however much the government’s actual agenda contradicts it, to keep Mr. Harper in power.
Those who want to further entrench the modern liberal state have repeatedly split their vote, which means they don’t take their vote all that seriously.
Right now, that state of affairs seems set to continue. Unless and until the pendulum starts to swing again.