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Canada's Coming Decade of Dissensus

October 4, 2011 - Ray Pennings and Michael Van Pelt

The change that the 2011 election brought to the Liberal and NDP parties is only a small part of a fundamental reshaping of the Canadian political landscape. Ray Pennings and Michael Van Pelt argue that the stability expected from this election will not materialize. Instead there will be power struggles within the Conservative party regarding the upcoming health care battle, military debates, and Arctic sovereignty, struggles that will coincide with a resurgent NDP and Liberal partnership. While appearances suggest the coming decade will be one of political stability, the reality will be a decade of dissensus.

Si l’élection fédérale de mai 2011 a sensiblement changé la donne pour les libéraux et les néodémocrates, cet aspect reste mineur par rapport à l’ample restructuration en cours du paysage politique canadien. Contrairement aux apparences, estiment en effet Ray Pennings et Michael Van Pelt, ce scrutin ne produira pas la stabilité attendee mais lancera plutôt au sein même du Parti conservateur une lutte de pouvoir à propos de questions sur les soins de santé, les projets militaires et la souveraineté dans l’Arctique, une lutte qui coïncidera avec la résurgence du partenariat entre le PLC et le NPD. Si bien que la décennie de stabilité politique qu’on croit avoir inaugurée se caractérisera en fait par de vives dissensions.

Much has been made of the significant changes that the Liberal and New Democratic parties will need to make as they adjust to their new realities after Election 2011. This noise masks the fact that these adjustments are only a small part of a more fundamental reshaping of the Canadian political landscape. All of our political institutions need to adapt to the emerging Canadian identity that will replace the now officially defunct pan-Canadian consensus.

Starting in the 1960s, all Canadian political institutions operated within a mainstream consensus. Peacekeeping, multiculturalism, strong central government programs, the primacy of the Charter of Rights—these were not the purview of the left or right of the spectrum but the consensus within which all respectable political debate took place. The difference between red and blue was about how fast we should drive and when we might take risks and pass—not about which road we should be on.

There is some debate about whether this consensus was deep-rooted or whether it was an elite illusion, but both sides acknowledge that it began to erode in the 1980s. The Progressive Conservatives divided themselves while holding power, with both the Reform and Bloc Québécois parties, not to mention several smaller splinter groups, all expressing their discontent with how Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was managing this consensus. The resulting discord allowed the Liberals and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to extend the life of the consensus for another decade or so, but its ultimate demise was certain and with the election of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s minority government in 2006, the consensus officially went into palliative care.

In a Policy Options piece published in March 2006, we opined that this likely marked the death of the pan-Canadian consensus; however, since no other consensus had yet developed to replace it, the politics of the decade to come would belong to the skilled managers of coalitions, as opposed to visionaries. The Conservative Party contained six distinct groups, whose interests converged on only a few issues. A reorganization on the left of the political spectrum to match that which had already occurred on the right would be an inevitable consequence.

With the election, in Stephen Harper’s words—spoken at nearly every campaign stop—of a “strong, stable, majority national government” on May 2, it is easy to be fooled into thinking that the next decade will be one of stability. Politically speaking, at least in the executive branch of government, this is likely to be the case. The Conservative majority is secure for four and a half years, until the fixed election date of October 2015, and, barring outrageous scandal or incompetence, another four beyond that. It would seem extremely unlikely that either the Liberals or the New Democrats will present a realistic alternative government to Canadians in 2015. So on the face of it, we are facing the better part of a decade of stability.

But don’t be fooled. Beneath the surface, in every political party, but most fiercely among Conservatives, a debate will rage regarding how a new consensus might be shaped. A decade from now, many Canadians will be voting for a party that they cannot imagine voting for today.

So what will the contours of this debate look like? The words will be about what constitutes fundamental Canadian values, but values debates are rarely argued in such esoteric terms. Instead, we will fight about health care, with all sides realizing that the current model is unsustainable in light of our demographics, and therefore some other model than a single national health care model will take its place. We will debate what our military is for and how we will survive in a world where Canada has an ally in the world’s dominant power, the United States, as we have had with Britain for all of our history. Are we really serious about defending the Arctic, when interests not as friendly to our interests start drilling for oil and claiming it is theirs over our objections? We will be rethinking our institutions, realizing that the silliness of our current Senate debates is hardly an answer to providing the necessary regional voices (and voices for cities in an increasingly urban society). That debate will continue to be complicated by the Quebec question, as well as by the trading partners whose importance is different depending on the regions. We will be dealing with the challenges of demographics, trying to figure out how 2.5 workers are going to be able to provide for each retiree, especially considering that the current 4.7 workers are already finding it a pretty heavy burden to bear.

For each of these problems, there will be answers from the left and the right, just as there are today. But the spectrum on which we place these left-right answers will be fundamentally different. And the process of getting there is much more fundamental than who will become the permanent leader of the Liberal Party or whether the 59 Quebec NDP MPs will learn to represent Quebec interests in an effective federalist manner. For the Liberals and the NDP, there will be soul-searching and a messy period of discontent. Their battles are too recent and hostilities too deep, just as were those of the Conservative and Reform parties in the 1990s, for clearer heads to prevail and a quick adjustment to be made to the new realities. Within the Conservative Party, the perks of power will mask the rather fierce debate that will occur behind closed doors on the competing visions of libertarians (who think the market will solve most everything), Burkean conservatives (who believe that institutions other than government, such as families, community groups and faith communities, need to have an increased role) and fiscal conservatives (who seem to think that as long as you balance the books, we can live as we please). At about the same time as the current Liberal and NDP members decide once again to work together (alienating about a third of their group who cannot stomach working alongside bitter enemies, in the same way Joe Clark can’t stand Stephen Harper), the Conservative infighting is likely to burst into a more public feud. The coincidence of these events will see a significant political restructuring around a decade from now. We expect that to shape Canadian politics for a long time to come.

In the meantime, however, Prime Minister Harper has firm control of the levers of power. Most significant among these powers is the power of appointments, and the Supreme Court in 2020 will be one that is far more likely to give preference to an interpretation of the Constitution based on a federalist division of powers interpretation (sections 91/93) than to defer to the Charter. Federal programs will be cut in order to maintain a few central social programs that seem politically sacrosanct, more leniency will be given to the provinces to experiment in their areas of jurisdiction, and the host of federal agencies will have more conservative-minded boards and senior staffers. What difference this will make is unclear, as they will be just as vulnerable to the allures and perks of power as their more liberal-minded predecessors were.

The rhetoric of “stable national majority government” sounds alluring, and if the theatrics of Parliament and confidence votes is the measure, Canadians have certainly voted for a reprieve. The reality, however, is that the coming decade will be characterized more by dissensus than by stability, in spite of outward appearances to the contrary.

Posted in Politics.

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Originally Published

date: October 4, 2011
publisher: Policy Options