Wednesday, September 15, 2010

What is the next Narrative for the Conservative Party?

Many Conservative party supporters must surely be beginning to ask themselves what their party narrative is going to be in the near future. This is not unique; any party that has been ruling for a few years is bound to face a shifting political landscape and be forced to adapt itself to new situations. But the situation seems particularly difficult for the Conservatives at the moment because not only have circumstances changed quite a bit from their original election victory, but it seems that they have lost almost all the narratives with which they began their present incarnation.

Harper's Neo-Cons won their orignal victory with surprisingly sparse political narrative, at least at the large public scope. They really ran against Mr. Martin with little more than the implicit slogan "we are not the Liberals!" It was enough to win them a minority government, but the policy "we aren't the other guys" will only take you so far, particularly if a large portion of the population is suspicious that you are not as moderate as you portray yourself. When they won their second minority they actually did so with fewer votes than their first because the poison and combative atmosphere which they had done so much to create turned so many voters off that voter turnout was abismal. Again they won a minority with very little in the way of large public narrative and, if you will recall, even tried to resist issuing a platform and only did so in the last days under pressure from the media and other parties. Overall, I think the Harper Government has resisted too much overt narrative (particularly policy oriented narrative) because they know that the nuts and bolts of their policies are actually fairly unpopular. This is really a reflection of American political discourse where there is not substantive policy debate in the public because the two parties don't actually function as parties in the way that we understand the term and they have no actual policies that they are fighting for. Instead policy in the US is fractured and incremental and happens largely without any public knowledge of the actual form that the policies have taken. Likewise, Harper has attempted in large part to rule by stealth, making many changes outside the arena of actual Common's debate. This can, of course, be a fairly effective political strategy, as events in the US have demonstrated. The vast majority of US citizens are in fact in favor of, for example, a state run medical system of some sort but because of the fracture nature of electoral politics in the US this simply can't happen. Furthermore, if you keep the population confused about what polies are actually passing and the nature of those policies, it makes actual substantive debate very difficult, if not impossible.

Having said this, I believe that you can't simply transplant the US politics into Canada because the nature of the systems is very different and with a much smaller population in Canada it is simply more difficult to obfuscate the discourse. Thus while US elections tend to generate around vague ideas with little clear policy conclusions such as 'illegal immigration' or 'economic reform,' the discourse in Canada will inevitably return, I think, to a number of actual issues. This means that Harper cannot sustain this vague and obfuscated approach forever and issues, substantive issues, will eventually catch up with him no matter how hard he tries to alienate the voters or rule by stealth.

This brings us to what I would call the background narratives of the contemporary Conservative Party. Though there has been a noticeable absence of substantive debate in recent years, the Conservatives have traded, in part, on a group of background narratives which pulled just enough votes to elect them to two minority governments. These have been (in no specific order) political reform, transparency, social conservatism, fiscal responsibility, good governance, tough on crime, and strong military support. The problem the Conservatives now face is that it appears that all of the narrative possibilities of these political platitudes seem to have been exhausted.  Political reform and transparency were the first to go. Even I, and I am not prone to political idealism or naivety, thought that after the Liberal years of rather blatant corruption and patronage, the Conservatives would attempt to reform the system somewhat and function differently in power. However, it didn't take long to see that this was not to be the case. In fact this government has reformed nothing, and has entrenched the traditional power of the PMO to ever greater lengths as well as undermining the power of Ministers and the role of the House. It has also undermined the independence of the judiciary, the civil service, and a number of NGOs that have traditionally been federally funded.  It also became pretty clear early on that this government was not interested in transparency. Instead it has raised secrecy and control to a new standard and profoundly undermined the freedom of information. As for social conservatism, this government has not really pursued this ideology in policy form except to undermine groups that advocated for women's and minority rights. This oversight is, I believe, a result of the fact that the Conservatives know, despite the spin, that the Canadian public is gradually becoming more liberal socially speaking and the idea of, say, outlawing abortion or gay marriage would be political suicide for the Government.

Their narrative of fiscal responsibility has also become tarnished, perhaps fatally so. It began during their first two years in office when they brought the country to the brink of deficit even when everyone knew a recession was coming. I believe they did this because they were going to use it as an excuse to cut social policies. But when the recession hit harder than expected they were forced into an extreme deficit situation which no party, least of all one that traded on fiscal responsibility, wants to be in. Now facing serious debt and deficit the narrative of fiscal conservatism will be a very difficult one to sustain. And with proposed billion in spending coming in dubious areas such as prisons and jet-fighters, as well as over a billion being spent on a summit with little outcome, the government not only will have trouble with their fiscal narrative but with their 'good-governance' one as well. Building outhouses in Tony Clements riding under the auspice of Summit spending, and spending billions on untendered contracts just doesn't make good narrative no matter what your politics are.

The 'tough on crime' narrative still plays fairly well with many voters, particularly aging ones. However, this is also wearing thin as more and more people are realizing that crime is actually going down and large-scale prison programs have actually helped to bring some economies to near bankruptcy while having little or no impact on crime. Spending ten billion dollars to house ghosts who committed unreported crimes is not going to sell well at a time when the government is going to have to talk about making major cuts to health and education.

Lastly the military narrative. This is usually an oldie but a goodie for conservative governments. However, here too the narrative is breaking down. This government has actually done surprisingly little for the military and their treatment of veterans appears to be abismal. Furthermore, large new military expenditures during a time when everyone is talking about fiscal prudence is surely going to be a difficult narrative to sell.

With the weakening of the Conservative narratives the Liberals have actually done little to fill the vacuum. They seem as reluctant as the their political opponents to venture out with specific policies which reflect actual narratives. I suppose knowing the nasty, American-style, political approach that this government takes, the Liberals have been reluctant to give the Conservatives ammunition with which to brand the Liberals in the next election.

So it seems to me that the Conservatives have sort of painted themselves into a corner in the apparent hope that the Liberals will bail them out somehow. We can predict that, in the absence of anything else, the Conservatives will attempt to bring the 'coalition of socialists and separatists' constantly to the foreground  but I don't see that having much play. And with the extreme centralizing power of Harper dominating the Conservative Party at the moment it will be very difficult to rebuild the party after a loss - this is Political Science 101.

The next couple of years will be interesting.

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