Friday, July 02, 2004

Crisitunity in the West

Lisa Simpson: “You know Dad, the Chinese use the same word for crisis as they do for opportunity.”
Homer: “Yes…crisi-tunity!”


There are several things that went very, very right for the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) in the recent federal election campaign. Notwithstanding the angst and mouth-foaming around here at the result, there is ample reason to be optimistic for the CPC’s prospects. My only pessimism is derived from the myriad of citizens and pundits who are attributing the result to the exact wrong reasons.

For starters, there is this notion that the party’s chances are permanently limited by the fact that many candidates are, well, conservative, and unafraid to say so. This is not supported by the evidence. Just using the abortion issue as an example, there are several Liberal MPs who are unapologetically pro-life. If you had to identify one single candidate who was rigidly and unreservedly pro-life, it would have to be Newfoundland NDP candidate Father Des McGrath, a Catholic priest.

The other repeated misinterpretation of the election result is that “Ontario”, or Ontario voters, are ganging up to deny “the West” a voice in the federal government. This is pure eyewash, and it demagogues and infantilizes Ontarians.

Single-issue voters are few and far between. In Hamilton, just like in Lethbridge, they walk to the polling station, evaluate what they know about their choices, weigh that against their vision of Canada, and what they perceive as their own interests, and mark an X. If a Hamilton voter chooses a Liberal candidate over a CPC one simply because Myron Thompson in Alberta thinks same-sex marriage is an abomination, it’s probably because she doesn’t otherwise see too much difference between the parties.

The CPC, for the unknown duration of this minority government, has a tremendous opportunity to lead by example and get their message out. Jack Layton accused Stephen Harper in the debates of “hiding behind free votes in Parliament”. This statement is an obnoxious oxymoron, but no wonder it strikes a chord with many Canadians – we’re totally unfamiliar with the concept! We are so used to MPs unflinchingly voting the party line that the alternative seems radical. Stephen Harper should move to normalize it, unilaterally, and declare that CPC MPs are free to vote as they wish on every bill, without fear of expulsion. The first few times selected MPs vote against Harper (i.e. with the Liberals), the media will cite it as evidence of internal divisions in the party. But eventually, it will be known as the way the CPC does business, and Canadians should expect the same when they are in government. It may even shame the other parties into imitation. If this happens, the result is a more democratic federal government, with the added bonus of dispelling any perception that individual MPs’ views are something beyond what they are – 1/308th of Parliament’s decision-making apparatus.

The other example Stephen Harper and his shadow cabinet need to set, right now, is the termination of pitting regions against one another. We are all, from coast-to-coast, individuals with exactly one vote. The West does not own any one political culture. We are presented different visions of government at election time, and many of us choose the same one. Ontarians, thus far, have not made the same choice in similar numbers. Harper was right to blast Paul Martin for demonizing Alberta over health care, so shame on him for his pre-election comments trumpeting that a CPC victory would be the West’s victory. It would be a victory for everyone who supports the principles of his party more than the alternatives; it is bald pandering to his base to suggest otherwise.

Stephen Harper emerged from the federal election campaign with improved recognition and respect. He never contradicted his stated vow to democratize Parliament, nor his belief that CPC principles would benefit all 13 provinces and territories. He also managed to make the Liberals take three sides on every issue in a mere 36 days. These are considerable strengths to build on – he ought to seize the opportunity.

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