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PoliticsNational Perspective: Asks if Canada's Political Realignment is Virtual or Real?

National Perspective: Asks if Canada's Political Realignment is Virtual or Real?

National Perspective: Asks if Canada's Political Realignment is Virtual or Real?

Is Canada's "Pizza Parliament" proof that the country is witnessing the political realignment first predicted by pundits during the Diefenbaker regime, from 1957 to 1963? Yes, but with a qualification. Canadians are well on the way to creating a new political map with a centre-right dominant party.

The process is not complete, but the broad outlines are beginning to emerge. One of our two-and-a-half historic parties, the Conservatives, is on the verge of going the way of the Dodo bird. The upstart Reform Party, born less than 10 years ago in the aftermath of the ill-fated Meech Lake Accord, is currently undergoing a metamorphosis from a regional protest movement into a disci-plined, right-of-centre mainstream party. Indeed, we are experiencing a political transformation on par with the Laurier Liberal Party's 1896 trouncing of Tupper's dispirited crew of Conservatives. Nearly a century of Liberal governances ensued, punctuated only by the Borden and Bennett regimes of the Great War and the Great Depression. Tory times were hard times. That is, until our first bilingual "Irish Catholic" Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, took office

in 1984 and ushered in a government-driven economic boom which culminated in our most severe and prolonged recession since the 1930s. Mulroney believed that a political realignment was possible if his Tories dislodged the Liberals from their bastion in Quebec. He dislodged the Quebec Liberals, but eventually lost the longstanding Tory bastion of Ontario. Our current political realignment does not resemble that of the Laurier years nor that of the Diefenbaker interlude. Contrary to the hopes of many, the social welfare state Liberal "Governing" Party was not dislodged by the "Chief," Robert Stanfield, or Joe Clark because they were Red Tories. In fact, the Pearson and Trudeau Liberals, with the help of Quebec Social Creditors and the NDP, dominated the centre-left of the political spectrum until the mid 1980s. Canada's belated "New Deal" politics reflected the prevailing social, economic, and cultural values of a generation of Canadians who had survived the Great Depression and the Second World War. Postwar domestic and international eco-nomic prosperity, mass immigration, and expanded educational opportunities, enabled Canadians to create a socially-progressive and economically-diversified country. Canada had come of age. The short, sharp recession of the early 1980s, the rise of a transnational global economy, and the resurgence of the socially and economically conservative right in Europe and North America, set the stage for the first real challenge to the Keynesian-inspired social welfare, interventionist state. Canada's larger, better educated, and more prosperous middle and upper middle classes are demanding less government, fewer taxes, and more autonomy for themselves and their local communities. This transition was signalled by the election of the Mulroney government in 1984 and its re-election in the heated Free Trade elec-tion of 1988. The heyday of big government was over. In 1990, I argued that Mulroney had the opportunity to consolidate this political realignment in favour of the Conservative party but blew it big time. His government failed miserably to deliver the fiscal conser-vatism and the reform of the political institutions, such as the Senate, that he had promised to the suburban middle classes of Ontario, as well as the entire western wing of the party. He destabilized his party, committed to protectionism since 1879, by embarking on a Free Trade crusade, first with the U.S. and then with Mexico, to satisfy his long-time friends and supporters in the corporate boardrooms and his political ally, Robert Bourassa, Liberal premier of Quebec. Mulroney might well have survived these policy shifts and political blunders to consolidate his party's position in the centre-right of the political spectrum had it not been for one humungous mistake. Quebecois nationalists of all political stripes, led by Lucien Bouchard, demanded that he reopen the destabilizing process of mega-constitutional politics to provide Quebec with a constitutional veto as well as a consti-tutional "special status" that could ratchet more powers for it via the Supreme Court.

The bitter constitutional slugfest which ensued over the Meech Lake and Charlottetown "deals" drove a permanent wedge between the Quebec and Western wings of the Conservative party. The Quebec caucus of nationaliste Conservatives bolted into Lucien Bouchard's Bloc Quebecois which won 54 seats in 1993, reduced to 44 in 1997 under Gilles Duceppe. The western caucus was smashed by Preston Manning's Reform juggernaut, which road into Ottawa with a posse of 52 seats in 1993, and increased to 60 seats in 1997, along with all the resources put at the disposal of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. If Manning's Reformers exercise the "discipline of power" and if the Liberals mess up on the secessionist and integrity issues, it will take only one more election for Reformers to finish off the Tories. Reform is taking its distance from Steven Harper and the ultra-right National Citizens' Coalition. This will alter the pub-lic perception of the party as one of right-wing bigots. Indeed, Reform has five members of visible minority communities in its caucus, all critical of state-sponsored multiculturalism. It also has a leader who has considerable personal integrity. If Manning stops flirting with "unique status" for Quebec, drops his absurd insis-tence on the dubious concept of the equality of the provinces, and accepts a veto for Quebec in exchange for an elected Senate based on five regions, he could have a good shot at becoming Canada's 21st Prime Minister in the 21st century. It would be up to Quebec voters to embark on the Reform train much as they embarked on the Diefenbaker landslide train in 1958. These are big "ifs" but Canadians could be on the verge of witnessing history in the making.

Michael D. Behiels

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