Watching Via Rail being slashed, Air Canada being sold, foreign aid being cut, the CBC being squeezed and whatever it is that is being done to the post office, Canadians yelp in outrage. Who do these Tories think they are, we ask? The answer is that the Tories think they are Tories. We should not be surprised by that, but we are. There is little precedent in this country for Tories thinking like Tories, and even less for them acting like Tories. While Tories have always said that the private sector, if the heavy hand of government is lifted from it, can do a better job of creating wealth, as well as eliminating poverty and injustice, in fact, Tories in power have never really acted as if they believed it—at least until now.
As far back as Sir John A. Macdonald, which is as far back as it gets, a Tory government was up to its neck in the free market—a place where Tories say the government’s neck should never be. Later Tories were not all that Toryish either—at least not in the dictionary definition of a Tory as “an advocate of conservative principles; one opposed to reform or radicalism.” R. B. Bennett’s attack on the Great Depression resembled nothing so much as that of American New Deal Democrats, who were far from being Tories.
Not that it did the Tories a whole lot of good. Still, the Tories were not going to revert to being real, tory Tories. In 1942, the Conservative party decided to rename itself the Progressive Conservative party, reflecting a sense that traditional Toryism, in the sense of opposition to reform or radicalism, wasn’t going to play electorally. Certainly John Diefenbaker, who governed from 1957 to 1963, was no stodgy friend of Bay Street, although he did have in his cabinet a few fellows who wore blue suits, vests and little grey moustaches. Most of them had the good sense to avoid acting like tory Tories, although occasionally they couldn’t help themselves and
Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.
When you give a prime minister two majorities in a row, he begins to think that you want him to do what he said he would do
wound up suffering the Chief’s displeasure.
Privatization, the word that makes so many tory Tory hearts beat fast nowadays, was not even a word when Diefenbaker was in power. If it had been, he might have thought a bit about applying the concept to the CBC, with which he had vigorous disagreements. But the CBC flourished during that period, and rail passenger service, under both the CNR and the CPR, was a lot better than it is now. Also, the mail was still delivered on Saturdays, although it had been more than a decade since twice-a-day delivery.
This is not to say that Canada had become a radical haven. We did not lack for tory policies, but most of them came from the Liberals, reflecting a Canadian political paradox: the fact that Canadians will accept tory economic policies as long as they come from people who do not call themselves Tories. Pierre Trudeau, in his 16 years in office, got away with extremely conservative economic policies because people thought he was a radical, or at least a progressive.
However, Trudeau knew—or at least the people around him did—that toryism did not play at the polls, so the Liberals became reformers at the drop of a writ, or in the event of a minority government, which was viewed as
no time to save money. In one such period, Trudeau went so far as to establish what was to become one of the favorite targets of tory Tories, the government-owned energy corporation Petro-Canada.
It was that agency that Joe Clark promised, in a burst of toryism, to privatize when he campaigned for, and won, the 1979 election. Only too late, after trying to keep his promise, after introducing a decidedly tory budget, after being defeated in the House of Commons and turfed out of office by the voters, did he realize that he had not been elected to be a Tory but to be a Not Liberal. Every 20 years or so, the Canadian voter would punish the Liberals for arrogance and other sins, by throwing them out and putting the Not Liberals in, before throwing the Liberals back in. The Not Liberals have been, for much of our country’s existence, Canada’s other major party, except that most of its members, who thought of themselves as Conservatives, did not know it.
The voters know it, however, and that is why so many of them are incensed at what the Mulroney Conservatives are doing now. Mulroney was elected in 1984 as a Not Liberal and seemed, for his first term, to recognize that. Some of his supporters, cabinet colleagues and caucus members muttered hopefully about privatizing one thing or another, cutting back on funding to this and that, but we dismissed that at as a mere demonstration that the Tory party was a democratic outfit with room in it for all shades of opinion, no matter how loopy. Everybody knew that the Prime Minister had better sense than to actually do anything like that.
However, Canadians who are against tory Toryism made a fundamental mistake when they re-elected Mulroney’s government last year. It’s true the voters were distracted by other things—such as the debate over free trade. And it’s true that there was some confusion, at least early in the campaign, over whether Mulroney was more of a tory than John Turner. But still. The fact is that when you give a prime minister two majorities in a row, he begins to think that you want him to do what he says he is going to do.
So here we are, and there goes Petro-Can and Via Rail. There goes Air Canada and maybe the CBC and Canada Post too. And here come the Tories. Now, for the first time in living memory, they are behaving like Tories and we are seeing what happens. In the Eighties it has been considered unfashionable to advocate new government programs to help people. Voters seem to have accepted the sneering Tory characterization of that as ^throwing money at problems.” In power, we have learned, tory Tories cut back, thus throwing money away from problems. That does not do much good for the less fortunate either, although it is true that some people, somehow, are becoming very wealthy.
If there is any consolation, it is that Canadians have suddenly awakened to the fact that the Tories are Tories. What will they do about it? For the moment, we are still dealing with our feelings of shock. After that, anything can happen. Maybe the Liberals will become liberal and the New Democrats will become new.
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