The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Zach Paikin Headshot

Can Liberals Replace the Bleeding Red Tories?

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Ever since Manitoba's 11th premier -- John Bracken the Progressive Party -- became the leader of Canada's right-of-centre party, political parties carrying the moniker of "progressive conservative" have fought elections for the Tory cause.

They've often merited the name. A progressive conservative, after all, followed the Red Tory tradition of delivering limited and responsible, yet active and progressive, government. Think of landmark, forward-looking initiatives implemented by Ontario Premiers John Robarts and Bill Davis, for instance, such as the establishment of the Ontario Science Centre and TVO.

The Ontario PC Party appears to have drifted away from this balance of being both socially progressive and fiscally responsible under the leadership of Tim Hudak (e.g., the party's opposition to Bill 13) but this trend is not likely to be irreversible. The more centrist Ernie Eves and John Tory managed to lead the party after the "Common Sense Revolution" of Mike Harris.

The federal Conservative Party, however, dropped the word "progressive" from its name nearly a decade ago, and for good reason. On social issues such as gun control and law and order, this party is a far cry from what the Progressive Conservative Party once was.

On the national scene, the Red Tory is a dying breed. The last of them appear to be leaving Parliament Hill for the provincial pastures where their kind still exists. Why have we seen a sharp decline in progressive conservatives in Ottawa?

One reason may be that Stephen Harper believes that in order to hold together a coalition of voters large enough to win over and over again, Red Toryism just won't do it. He'd have history backing him up on that front as well. In the pre-Harper era of the Red Tory, the Liberal Party of Canada was Canada's natural governing party.

Harper's party had drifted away from both fiscal responsibility and social progress. Big spending to prove that he's not a radical right winger combined with red meat thrown to his party's base on non-fiscal issues every once in a while (e.g., "tough on crime" measures and gutting the long gun registry) provides his party with a near political monopoly stretching from the centre of the spectrum out to the right -- a monopoly that a socially progressive and fiscally responsible Red Tory party cannot enjoy.

But the conciliatory, moderate Red Tory on the national scene owes his death as well to the decline of interest-based politics. Previous Tory governments have sought to build their electoral coalitions on bridging common or non-contradictory interests. Brian Mulroney's grand coalition, for instance, united the West and Quebec along their shared hatred of Big Ottawa.

Conciliation within Parliament, however, began to decline. The ability of a party leader to refuse to sign the nomination papers of any candidate in any riding chosen to represent the party in question contributed over the course of time, along with other factors, to the increasing centralization of power within political parties around the leader. That means more whipped votes, less working together, and more polarization.

More polarization in Ottawa has led political parties, particularly ones whose base is not naturally centrist such as the Conservative Party, to focus on the divisions present within the Canadian electorate rather than the similarities in order to achieve electoral victory. Put differently, politicians are now forced to make a values-based appeal to voters rather than an interests-based one.

Voters in Ontario, the West and parts of Atlantic Canada voted last election for low taxes, free trade and tough-on-crime measures, among other things. Harper's coalition being values-based, it is likely more stable than Mulroney's interests-based grand coalition. After all, Mulroney's only lasted through two elections before exploding, with the Reform Party and the Bloc Québécois effectively arguing for the Little Ottawa that he had so passionately fought for prior to the 1993 election.

The rise of values-based coalitions may at first sound like a good thing. What it connotes, however, is a more divided Confederation, something that the results of the last election demonstrate clearly. Furthermore, increasing political polarization in Ottawa breeds increased cynicism among the electorate, creating a vicious cycle in which the quality of governance decreases.

The decline of the Liberal Party of Canada in effect represents the downfall of the final remnant of interest-based politics, a type of politics in which elected officials attempt to bridge, rather than emphasize, the inherent gaps and differences present among the Canadian people.

The Grits' downfall has led to a political system polarized between left and right in which the right, in order to stay in power, must jump toward the fiscal left and the social right in order to satisfy both its base and the wide centre of the electorate simultaneously. Funny enough, a right-wing party promising small government in a values-based system is unable to fully deliver it once in power if it wishes to remain in power. The fiscal left means big government and more program spending whereas the social right includes costly tough on crime measures.

Red Tories, if there are any left, are faced with quite the dilemma: a) solidify the Conservatives' position as the new natural governing party -- achievable only through the destruction or continued paralysis of the Liberal Party -- and remain a member of a party that is neither socially progressive nor fiscally responsible, while allowing for a governing alternative (the NDP) that is also fiscally irresponsible, or b) allow for the rebirth of the Liberal Party -- the only party capable of delivering socially progressive and fiscally responsible Red Tory values in government -- yet assist in the re-creation of a political system in which the Conservative Party is out of power more often than not.

Put differently, Red Tories can pour their efforts into one of two options if they wish to remain Big-C Conservatives: they can forgo many of their values in order to win power, or forgo much power in order to see their values implemented.

Tough choice.