While the Senate scandal rivets the country, political junkies from across Canada are asking some fairly important questions. Is this the beginning of the end for Prime Minister Harper? Will the Conservatives weather this brutal storm and win a fourth consecutive term? Are Canadian horrified, or simply indifferent, about what is happening on Parliament Hill?
With exquisite timing, the Ottawa International Writers Festival has organized an event on Tuesday, October 29, with three of Canada’s best political journalists to discuss national politics. While all three were booked some time ago, before the latest brouhaha with Senator Mike Duffy and company erupted, this sold out gathering could not have come at a better time.
Paul Wells of Maclean’s magazine has just released The Longer I’m Prime Minister, a brutally honest portrayal of Prime Minister Harper’s seven years in power (and counting). For Conservative opponents who still cannot understand how the Tories have won three successive federal elections, this insightful work has some straight talk.
“Readers who still cannot bring themselves to believe he is the elected Prime Minister of this country not only misunderstand Stephen Harper. They also misunderstand Canada,” writes Wells.
This engaging book explains in clear detail how the Prime Minister is playing a long game, with incremental yet fundamental changes that are meant to change this country forever. For instance, Wells argues that Harper’s much criticised GST cuts were not meant to increase productivity, but to deliberately drain federal coffers so future governments cannot expand social programs. Good luck to any future Liberal or NDP government that wants to raise the GST to help pay for, say, a national day care program.
For his part, John Ibbitson of The Globe and Mail has written extensively on how Canada’s political foundations have changed, and how this transformation is setting the groundwork for our country’s future politics.
In The Big Shift, which he co-wrote with pollster Darrell Bricker, Ibbiston notes that for almost its entire history Canada was dominated by elites in the Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto corridor. The numerous constitutional battles, the push to implement official bilingualism, economic policy, even Canada’s image of itself, was by and large conceived and implemented by a specific set of interests in urban Ontario and Quebec.
Dubbed the Laurentian Consensus, this elite was pushed aside in the federal election of 2011, which saw a coalition of western interests and suburban Ontario voters bring the Tories to power. This dramatic change is now setting the stage for a completely new dynamic, in which the growing West and the political strong suburbs of Ontario advance their own agenda.
Whether this coalition holds, something that Ibbitson admits is no sure thing, will largely determine whether the Conservatives are re-elected for a fourth term.
While Wells focuses on Harper, and Ibbitson on the loss of power of the Laurentian Consensus, Shopping for Votes by Susan Delacourt of the Toronto Star looks at the changing relationship between political parties and voters. Whereas in the past the electorate were treated as citizens, today they are seen as consumers whose allegiances can be won through advertisements.
This change in attitude has had a profound effect on political campaigns and governing, argues Delacourt. Instead of seeking to build a national consensus on a single, grand project, politicians are increasingly slicing and dicing the electorate into specific sub-groups that can be pandered to.
In his inaugural speech in 1961, President Kennedy famously said, “My fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Fast forward to today, and it seems that politicians see no big role for voters, except as customers whose vote can be purchased every few years with tax cuts and – judging by the last federal throne speech – a reduction in cable bills. In today’s world it’s rare to find a leader who wants to inspire the entire country with a big, common purpose.
If voters become consumers, however, then the relationship between government and the governed is profoundly changed, says Delacourt. The result is an electorate that tunes out of the political process, and who see politics not as a way to create social change (whether from the right, centre of left or the idealogical spectrum), but rather as a means to meet consumer needs.