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Lawrence Martin

Five years later, Harper has made Canada more conservative Add to ...

Stephen Harper, some opine, lacks a major meaningful accomplishment in his first five years in power. Not true. If you consider an obvious corollary, that the main purpose of a conservative prime minister is to make the country more conservative, his record is weighty.

Ask Liberals or those of a leftish persuasion. They recoil from the new dynamics the 22nd Prime Minister has wrought. The country is of a different texture than in the leafy Liberal days of Jean Chrétien or Pierre Trudeau. Its rightward shift is recognizable across a range of indices.

Traditional progressives are driven to despair, for example, at the workings of a Justice Department where a throwback law-and-order agenda is promulgated not on the basis of research or empirical data, but on base instincts and preformed bias.

The country’s conservative image is seen in the heightened profile of the military and spending on armaments. It is seen in the area of foreign affairs, where the rejection of Canada by the United Nations and our one-sidedness in the Middle East are symptomatic of right-wing, morality-driven politics, much in contrast to the country’s traditional honest-broker role.

On the economy, while Mr. Harper has failed at the bedrock conservative criterion of making government smaller, he has reduced the tax base. More importantly, he has forged a new conservative mindset with regard to taxation. In place is an anti-tax-hike mentality so strong that the Liberal Party fears to even daintily mention the prospect of raising taxes. In a country whose system of social and economic justice was built on a higher taxation regime than in the United States, this is to be well noted.

The inculcation of the conservative mindset is seen also in the rejection of Liberal national programs such as universal daycare, the Kelowna accord and the green shift. It is seen in the Harper party’s supplanting of the Liberals as Canada’s most powerful party. The Conservatives have become stronger in the area of fundraising, in national organization, in communications. They have become a larger presence. While they have a rock-solid base in the West, the Liberals are now without a geographic anchor.

The new conservative way is seen in the manner in which politics is now played in Canada. The permanent campaign mode, the politics of aggression and intimidation employed by Mr. Harper, a Prime Minister who doesn’t know what the high road looks like, has been a staple of the hard right of the Republican Party. We had seen elements of this in Canada, but not to the degree employed by today’s Conservatives. So far, the PM has gotten away with his anti-democratic impulses, the emphasis being on “so far.”

In addition to what the Harper party has done, conservatives have benefited from broader trends. The 9/11 calamity made security, a conservative staple, a paramount issue. The aging Canadian population plays to the Conservatives’ advantage. The transference of the political centre of gravity from liberal Quebec to the conservative West is of great importance. And there’s the media. The media lead the national discussion and conservatives now dominate the media, particularly the print media.

The rightish trends are many and are undeniable. But other factors need to be considered. No less than two-thirds of Canadians still support parties – Liberals, NDP, Bloc, Greens – considerably to the left of the Conservatives. Also of note is that the Liberal Party hasn’t been rejected so much on account of its policies as other problems, such as the sponsorship scandal, party infighting and weak leaders.

Canada is moving in a conservative direction, but whether it is the direction preferred by the people – people who approve of American Democrats over Republicans by a large margin – is a question that remains to be decided.

It’s the question that makes the next election critically important. The issue in this country isn’t the economy, which is recovering nicely. The issue is values: Harper values versus Liberal values.

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