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Conservatives Take a Sharp Right Turn

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In both Canada and the United States there is a new breed of conservatism, ideologically driven and very different from pre-1980s versions of conservatism that informed centre-right parties. Presidents like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan -- considered rightwing villains by their progressive opponents at the time -- today would be moderate or even progressive measured up against Tea Party standards.

In Canada, former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark did not feel at home in the new Conservative Party and Brian Mulroney's prioritizing of human rights and multiculturalism put him significantly to the left of Stephen Harper.

In the United States, the 2008 stock market crash would seemed to have discredited neo-conservativism with deregulation of the financial sector having enabled the kind of irresponsible actions that brought on the recession. As well, the recession has highlighted the difficulties of a millennial generation faced with a difficult job market and mounting student debts as well as a middle-class under siege.

While interventionist Keynesian economics has made a return, the American rightwing has come back with vengeance, with a strong social and economic conservative ideology, driven by a hatred of president Obama, taking an uncompromising stand towards Democrats. President Obama's efforts to "reach across the aisle" have been sternly rebuked by Republicans in Congress.

Obama's stimulus bill -- which included tax cuts, a policy traditionally favoured by the right, was only supported by three Republicans in the Senate. Obama's healthcare bill -- which preserved private sector healthcare and was based in large part on Republican models from the 1990s -- was vilified by Tea Party conservatives as "Obamacare."

This lack of willingness to compromise is a stark contrast to the 1980s when the rightwing Ronald Reagan would reach compromises with the leftwing Speaker of the House Tip O'Neil.

The budget put forward by Congressman Paul Ryan proposes deep cuts to government programs -- including essentially dismantling America's limited public healthcare system for seniors. Overall, the Tea Party/Republican ideology favours austerity over government spending, despite overwhelming evidence that an austerity approach is disastrous in a recessionary environment. In Britain, for example, austerity measures -- cuts to social programs and public sector jobs - have brought on a double-dip recession.

While the Harper Conservative government is not quite as ideologically driven as the Tea Party Republicans -- Harper was willing to implement a stimulus program (albeit after nearly being toppled by a coalition of opposition parties) - the Conservative government is a very different creature from its Progressive Conservative predecessor. The dropping of "Progressive" from the name was more than just symbolic.

Furthermore, achieving majority government status -- even if the mandate is from less than 40 per cent of voters -- has emboldened the Harper Conservatives to more assertively implement their agenda.

The omnibus bill - ostensibly a budget implementation bill -- includes a wide range of measures which, among other things, gut environmental protections and oversights. The omnibus bill includes giving Cabinet power, over and above the National Energy Board, to approve such projects as the British Columbia pipeline -- this would more quickly and with less oversight approve this project which has met with widespread public opposition.

This all seems consistent with the refusal of many -- though by no means all -- on the right who refuse to acknowledge of the realities of climate change, instead choosing to prioritize the interests of the oil industry over real action on climate change or environmental protection.

In an article for iPolitics.ca, Liberal MP Kristy Duncan rightly pointed out that the Conservative government has been missing out on both economic opportunities and the opportunity to do the right thing by not taking climate change seriously. She highlights that while a range of environmental protections are being weakened by the Conservative government, the United Nations +20 conference on climate change will be meeting to promote "a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication."

By not prioritizing climate change and sustainability, Duncan states that the Conservative government is missing out on economic opportunities that would place Canada in a strong position vis a vis the global economy while doing the right thing to protect the Earth's ecological balance.

She further highlights that the government's 2009 stimulus bill missed a real opportunity to invest in the green sector, that "while the (Conservative) government invested $3 billion in green stimulus spending, Germany invested $14 billion, the United States $112 billion, and China, $221 billion, in green infrastructure, and in the process, created thousands of new 'green' jobs."

Though fully acknowledging the realities of climate change, and investing in the new opportunities presented by the "green economy," do not seem to fall into the ideological scope of Harper's Conservative government. Among many -- though by no means all -- neo-conservatives, climate change science is demonized.

While there are notable differences between the Canadian Conservatives and US Tea Party Republicans, both nonetheless represent a new brand of conservatism that make predecessors seem like moderates (or even progressives). It is a rightwing that is more ideologically driven, less willing to compromise with the other side, where policy is driven more by pre-set ideological assumptions than facts and research.