Column

The challenge facing small-c conservatives

Diane Francis May 20 1996
Column

The challenge facing small-c conservatives

Diane Francis May 20 1996

The challenge facing small-c conservatives

Column

Diane Francis

The vote for Reform and the Bloc Québécois in 1993 was a stunning outcome and the sign of significant unrest

Americans have a healthy disrespect for governments. Canadians used to vest their trust in the state, but the country is changing. like our American cousins, Canadians are realizing that the state has very few answers and has become far too intrusive and expensive.

The historic difference in attitude between the two nations has always perplexed me because Canadians are in many ways more self-reliant and independent, and have overcome considerably more obstacles while building a nation. And yet our intelligentsia insist that our existence and identity are fragile and that we must be protected. That has been the justification for the welfare state and public enterprises.

But there is a disparity between what Canada’s ruling elites, or chattering classes, thought Canadians were and what they really

These disparities have created a “national schizophrenia,” as Financial Post columnist David Frum says in his new book What’s Right. “Canada is a big, rich, North American nation, where people live in suburbs, drive to work, shop in malls, invest their money in mutual funds, listen to country music and resent paying taxes. But watch a Canadian movie, read a Canadian novel, even turn on the news, and you’ll see a different country: a poor, struggling hinterland of the American empire, where people live in outports, work for the government if they work at all, collect groceries from food banks, listen to folksingers and enjoy paying taxes.”

were. Likewise, there is a gap between what we were told we needed and what we really wanted.

This split personality—reality as opposed to an elitist-generated view—has unfortunately spawned a subculture of dependency.

“In our heroic determination to use the state to wipe away every human tear, we have inculcated in ourselves a spooky certainty that failure is everywhere and always reflects on society. Are you poor? Fat? Ignorant? The fault is not yours, but everyone else’s—and you have a right to demand that some large, new social program come into existence to redress the fault at once,” writes Frum.

Fortunately, a Canadian revolution has been under way since 1988—a rebellion that is cautious and imperceptible to many, but irreversible. And mainstream political parties or other institutions that do not understand that new reality are disappearing. A case in point is the near-disappearance of both the Progressive Conservative and New Democratic parties in 1993. Their failure had a great deal more to do with dissatisfaction at the status quo than with the fact that they had two second-rate politicians as leaders.

This shift towards a new conservatism is the subject of a symposium sponsored by Frum in Calgary on May 24, which I will be attending as a delegate. He is assembling a group of small-c conservatives to come up with ways to politically accommodate the abandonment of the welfare-state mentality.

The population is already ahead of the institutions and elites. The first sign of rebellion was the free trade election of 1988. For the first time in political history, Canadians were not frightened to challenge Americans on a more equal footing, despite warnings of dire consequences from Canadians wedded to the status quo. And they were totally vindicated. Canada’s exports to the United States have doubled and are expected to redouble by the turn of the century.

The next flash point was the overwhelming rejection of the Charlottetown accord in 1992. Voters turned thumbs-down on a deal that represented a complicated cobbling together of special interest groups. It was torturous to understand and unpopular despite the fact that the elites—media, political, union and academic— collectively and vociferously endorsed it. The only major political oppo-

Then a year later, the federal election of October, 1993, marked a turning point in Canada’s history. That’s when one out of every three voters was disgusted enough with the country’s political elites to vote for one of two brand-new parties: Reform and the Bloc Québécois. That’s a stunning outcome in a mature democracy, and the symptom of significant unrest.

While Reform and Bloc were very different, they had several important things in common. Both parties were brand-new, without a track record of governance. Both rejected Canada as it had been constituted and wanted to apply the political equivalent of a wrecking ball to the place.

nents were Preston Manning, Jacques Parizeau and Lucien Bouchard.

Another sign of rebellion has been the tax revolt under way since the GST took effect in 1991. That tax was another flash point, not because it was new but because it visibly re-

because it was new but because it visibly replaced a hidden manufacturing tax. That was an important development because it made Canadians realize just how much tax they are paying for the state-coddling policies of the old-left politicos.

In a 1995 poll for The Financial Post, COMPAS Inc. found that some 42 per cent of those surveyed admitted that they cheated on their taxes by smuggling, buying smuggled items, hiding income or paying cash to avoid sales taxes. A staggering 77 per cent of the 820 Canadians surveyed said they would cheat if they had the opportunity to do so.

The poll clearly debunked the myth that Canadians love their welfare state and are willing to pay for it. The facts are that Canadians are a conservative lot who like to make a buck, keep a buck and keep to themselves. The population has been changing, but the state has not. This is leading to counterproductive cheating, rebellion and disdain for politics. The challenge of the conservative symposium is to forge policies, processes and structures that will force Canada’s fossilized governments and institutions to conform to Canadians, not the other way around.