It says in all the papers the well has run dry. The commentators keep writing that Canadian conservatism has died on the vine, that four years into his reign of tactical obsession and fiscal profligacy, Stephen Harper has forgotten why he ever went into politics.
“Where’s the big, strategic agenda for the next election?” John Ivison quoted a senior Conservative in the National Post. “I haven’t found one yet.” In the same paper, Terence Corcoran ran a string of columns identifying programs the feds should cut, because Harper seems unwilling to do the work himself. And Andrew Coyne delivered his annual post-budget verdict of despair and mourning. “Those Conservative faithfuls who have been hanging on all these years, in the hopes that, eventually, someday, with one of these budgets, this government would start to act like conservatives, must now understand that that is not going to happen. Conservatism is not just dead but, it appears, forgotten.”
But it’s a funny thing. If Canadian conservatism is dead, somebody forgot to tell Canadian conservatives.
Earlier this month, the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Ottawa played host to two consecutive conferences, a small one by the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada followed by a big one by the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. Both were well attended by current and former ministers, employees and strategists of the Harper government. Both drew energetic crowds of activists and ordinary people. Both gave free rein to an unabashed social conservatism that is rarely mentioned, and even less frequently championed, by even prominent fiscal conservatives in the big papers and magazines. And the mood at both gatherings was overwhelmingly optimistic, because the kind of conservatism that appeals to these organizations is demonstrably on the march in Ottawa and across Canada.
Look at the victories in only the past few months. At the quasi-governmental agency Rights and Democracy, a Harper-appointed board majority comprising unequivocal supporters of Israel’s Likud government and evangelical Christian social activists began firing employees left over from an earlier, more secular regime.
Harper announced, in the vaguest terms, a new plan to make women and children overseas the focus of Canada’s development assistance. When Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff insisted that such programs include funding for contraceptives and abortion, as they have consistently done under past Liberal and Conservative governments, Conservative MP Shelly Glover said no such schemes would be funded in the future. Bev Oda, the minister for CIDA, backed her up. When Ignatieff pushed back, he wound up on the front page of the Catholic Register newspaper next to the headline, “Ignatieff Urges Abortion for World’s Poor.”
In Winnipeg, the Christian charity Youth for Christ managed to secure $3.2 million in federal infrastructure stimulus funding toward building an $11.5-million community centre in one of the city’s toughest neighbourhoods. Even without provincial support, which is usually sought for these stimulus projects, the Youth for Christ centre looks set to go ahead. NDP MP Pat Martin didn’t like the idea of government money going to an organization that seeks converts. “What if this group was called Youth for Allah?” he asked.
(The project seems an odd fit for the Infrastructure Stimulus Fund, whose website says it will prefer “construction-ready” projects that can “be built during the 2009 and 2010 construction seasons.” Youth for Christ declined to answer questions from on how quickly construction can begin and when it can be completed. However, a spokesman for John Baird, who is responsible for the infrastructure program, said Youth for Christ is committed to finish by March 31 next year—just inside the fund’s final deadline.)
In Vancouver, the Insite safe-injection site for heroin addicts, which was once championed by federal Liberals like Allan Rock and Ken Dryden, learned Harper will appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada in his long-running legal battle to shut the centre down.