I didn’t really want to write anything about Robert Ford’s election as mayor of Toronto, mostly because I reject the premise that the parochial political developments of Ontario are automatically of massive national consequence to the rest of the country. If anything, the election of an unabashedly conservative, Tea Party type character in the heart of what is supposed to be Canada’s liberal wonderland merely proves something that should be fairly obvious by now: Canadians have a rather strong propensity to vote for right-wingers when given the chance.
I realize this contradicts the mainstream consensus about Canadian politics, spouted by the media, academia, and and often the politicians themselves, which holds that the only truly palatable form of conservatism in this country is the moderate variety; the so-called “Red Tory” tradition.
But the recent electoral history of Canada tells a markedly different story:
- 1967: John Diefenbaker, a man of the right-wing faction of the Progressive Conservative Party, is dumped in Dalton Camp’s famous “Red Tory” coup. Polite, moderate Robert Stanfield is installed as leader, and proceeds to lose three back-to-back elections to Pierre Trudeau.
- 1987: The Reform Party is founded as a more right-wing alternative to the ruling Progressive Conservative Party. Conservative voters flock to it, and it skyrockets from from 0 to 52 seats in the 1993 election, completely eclipsing the PC Party, which is reduced from 169 to 2. From its founding to dissolution, the Reform/Alliance subsequently increases its share of the popular vote in each federal election it contests (most significantly under the leadership of “scary,” evolution-denying Stockwell Day, who raises the party’s support from 19% to 25%).
- 1998: Former Red Tory prime minister Joe Clark attempts to make an electoral comeback. His “revived” leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party fails miserably, only winning 12 seats and 12% of the popular vote in the 2000 election.
- 2006: Stephen Harper, founding father of the Reform Party, and scary right-wing demagogue (whom Joe Clark refuses to endorse) is elected prime minister of Canada, ending over a decade of Liberal rule. His new Conservative Party has seen an increase in its seat count and popular vote percentage for every election that he has been leader.
At the provincial level, we can also note the success of unabashedly anti-establishment right-wing premiers like Michael Harris in Ontario (winner of the largest Conservative landslide since 1929) and Bill Bennett in British Columbia (whose right-wing leadership of the Social Credit Party during the 70s and 80s completely eviscerated whatever tenuous support the BC Progressive Conservatives had been enjoying). Even in Alberta, which is often dismissed as a right-wing outlier, we can note the marked contrast in popularity between the genuinely conservative premier Ralph Klein (four back-to-back majority governments), and his more moderate successor, Ed Stelmach, who enjoys an over 60% disapproval rating and has faced caucus defections — and possible electoral defeat — at the hands of the further-right upstart “Wildrose Alliance” party.
In short, despite the fact that miles of editorial columns have been churned out urging Canadian conservatives to moderate or die, and the veneration of “respectable” men like Joe Clark in the popular culture, over supposed “angry” and “divisive” figures like Harper, Harris, and Ford, there really aren’t that many case studies where a conservative guy in this country has lost an election because he was deemed “too extreme.” Just the opposite, in fact: “extremists” tend to do quite well, and the supposedly “more electable” moderate Tories tend to do quite poorly. Far from being uniquely Canadian, it’s an analysis that lines up almost perfectly with the rhetoric of the Tea Party in the United States, who will very certainly score several major victories in next week’s mid-terms by employing a successful strategy of right-wing insurgency that is actually quite old hat in Canada.
If Canadians do have a bias against “extremists,” it seems to be directed more towards ideologues of the left-wing variety. The success of the supposed “far-right” in Canada contrasts quite sharply with the perpetual unpopularity of the social-democratic New Democratic Party, whose leftism does often generate very severe blowback from voters when flaunted too brazenly.
In Ontario, for instance, Premier Robert Rae’s 1990-1995 NDP administration was rejected after only one term, kicking the New Democrats from government status to third-place in the legislature in favour of the “far-right” Michael Harris. British Columbia saw a similar phenomenon with the ascension of Premier Glen Clark, a man associated with the hard left of the NDP. Though he ultimately resigned prematurely, the massive public opposition to his tenure resulted in one of the largest anti-incumbent landslides in Canadian history, gutting the BC NDP from 39 seats to just two in the 2001 election. It’s similarly the left, and not the right, that seems to reap the largest success from moderating its more radical impulses; a considerable reason for the longevity of the NDP governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan has been due to their explicit rejection of socialist economics in favour of conservative restraint. Indeed, the NDP government of Premier Calvert in Saskatchewan (2001-2007) is now routinely cited by right-wing economists as an admirable model of fiscal responsibility.
To be sure, moderate conservatives can get elected in Canada. They often have. But history suggests that their victories tend to come mostly during an absence of alternatives.