POLITICS CHATTER: Why the Alberta vote should strike fear into the heart of the Harper government
People & Places

POLITICS CHATTER: Why the Alberta vote should strike fear into the heart of the Harper government

Contributing editor Mark Bourrie explains the surprise Alberta election result — and why it bodes badly for the federal Tories.

The web is being scrubbed clean of all the commentary about the new Wild Rose majority government and how it signals a sea-change in Canada’s political system. But unfortunately newspapers still come out on paper.

The edition of the Globe and Mail that was sold in Ottawa this morning has “Alberta prepares for change but challenges remain the same” as its main headline. The National Post is even more chock-a-block with “Dewey Defeats Truman” talk. “Unless something astonishing happens, the Wildrose Party will form the next government of Alberta,” Andrew Coyne blusters on the front page, under the headline “Wildrose changed political game.” Says Coyne: “All that remained at time of writing, assuming the polls were not completely off, was whether it would be a minority or majority.”

Inside, under the headline “Tories’ big tent torn open in campaign,” newly-minted kid pundit Jen Gerson is a little more careful and, being on the ground in Alberta, understands that this election was a battle between two very different kinds of conservatism. Her last quote is a guy saying “I’m baffled by it.”

Well, that guy’s not alone. Urban pundits, especially in central Canada, have come to believe that Canadian conservatism has morphed into the kind we see in the States. They mistook the Prairie anger that was once tapped by the CCF and the Socreds as a rising wave of Republican-style neo-conservatism that swept across Canada and put Stephen Harper into power. They think it is the dominant force in Canadian politics. And they are dead wrong.

Last night’s Alberta vote was an important election because it opened a rift in the coalition that was cobbled together by Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay. The old PCs of the Prairies and the populist libertarians and angry farmers who had made up the Reform base joined with the Tories of Ontario and the Maritimes to make a national party to challenge the Liberals.

There was a bride and a groom in that marriage. A lot of time has been spent analyzing Reform. Very few urban Canadian pundits and academics have spent any effort looking at the central and eastern Tories. I have. I grew up with these people in small town Ontario. They believe sincerely in the constitutional promise of “peace, order and good government.”

They want social peace. They’re people who don’t like fuss, who vent their emotions privately, serve their community through clubs like Kiwanis and Rotary, and leave their outward show of religion at the church door.

Parties like Wildrose (and Reform) disrupt the social order. They cause trouble and controversy. Eastern conservatives are not interested in the type of polarized politics we see in British Columbia. That’s why Tim Hudak lost the last Ontario election, one that the Leslie Frost-John Robarts-Bill Davis Tories would have won in a cakewalk.

And they want good government, quietly administered out of sight by smart, well-groomed, dull people.

Conservative Canadians in Ontario and the Maritimes don’t want to hear about lakes of fire, abortion, and getting rid of human rights laws. They don’t really like radical politicians any more than they like handing the keys to the Chrysler to their 16-year-old son.

Canadian conservatism is built on rejected revolution. Canada is the only major country on the face of the planet never to have a violent revolution. It’s not an accident, either. Three times — in 1775, 1812 and 1837 — Canadians were offered revolutions and turned them down. They also turned their back on Communism in the 1920s and ditched the labour movement when it shifted its focus to social issues instead of wages and hours.

In fact, the founders of English-Canadian conservatives were counter-revolutionaries, people who rejected the American Revolution so strongly that they moved to Canada. Before they came here, some of these Loyalists waged a vicious guerilla war against their fellow citizens in the new republic.

Their descendants — and a surprising number of new Canadians — still cherish a few simple values. They want to see politicians every four years, then they want them to go away, govern the country with as little fuss as possible, balance the books, keep taxes down, and not pester them as they go about their business.

They want the streets swept, cops on the beat, clean drinking water, and regular mail delivery.

They don’t want pictures of aborted babies, Senate pages holding Stop Harper signs, protesters disrupting traffic, preachers in the schools and outright unfairness anywhere. They’re basically fair people who don’t want to see their wives and daughters discriminated against. And if, God forbid, an unwanted pregnancy happens, they want it dealt with here, rather than in Buffalo.

What this election proves is that people with the biggest trumpets and gongs get more attention than they deserve. Pundits flip through the TV channels and come across Ezra Levant and take him and the Sun News fools seriously, when, as a recent ratings survey shows, Sun News attracts .01% of the television audience. That’s 20 viewers in a town of 20,000 — if everyone in the town still watches TV.

Then there are the polls. They are surprisingly and suspiciously in tune with conventional wisdom, even when conventional wisdom is dead wrong. When I work at home, I am constantly interrupted by spam calls, including ones from pollsters. Who else is home during the day? Mainly retirees listening to Lowell Green, pissed off that the postmistress in Almonte lost her job because she’s not bilingual.

This was a very important election. The arrogance of the old Reform wing of the federal PCs was on display for all to see. In Alberta’s media and on right-wing blogs, there was an immense amount of talk about the rise of Wildrose and how it showed Canadian conservatism no longer needed Red Tories. The Sun News types and other talking heads convinced themselves they had the country, and let it be known that they feel nothing but contempt for anyone who does not support their libertarian, activist, take-no-prisoners view of conservatism.

In that, they have sown the seeds of Stephen Harper’s defeat. Unless he quickly reassures the eastern Tories that the Ultras weren’t talking for him, the Red Tories may well find a home with the Liberals for a term or two until all of the crazies and trouble-makers are sent back to political oblivion.