Is Stephen Harper's government legitimate?
Welcome to the question that's preoccupied the Canadian punditsphere following Tuesday's release of The Big Shift, an edgy new pundit-written book that offers a provocative challenge to the collective wisdom of Canadian punditocracy. (As you can see, their preoccupation isn't much of a mystery.)
To be clear, Shift's thesis is a firm "yes": Harper is super-duper legitimate. So legitimate, in fact, that he could probably rule for another decade or three if he chooses. The Conservative Party is destined to be "to the 21st century what the Liberal party was to the 20th: the perpetually dominant party," write authors Jon Ibbitosn and Darrell Bricker, so fine-tuned is the Tory voter coalition and their sense of what Canadians want.
No, the legitimacy-questioners, the "Harper birthers," in the words of Sun journo David Akin, are the folks running the media outlets and opposition parties who stubbornly refuse to accept the permanence of the Harper regime and the reality of its public support. Said folks, who live disproportionately around the St. Lawrence, are supposedly trapped in a "Laurentian Consensus" of closed-minded self-righteousness.
What exactly is the Laurentian Consensus? Well, if I may go meta for a moment, I'd note that in the course of writing "Media Bites," I've read literally hundreds of newspaper editorials from this country's leading (which is to say, Laurentian) newspapers. And I still find it very difficult to tell individual Canadian columnists apart. Not because they all write in the same bland, middling style (though there is that) but because their opinions are so darn similar on so many issues. Lacking much to distinguish, their personalities quickly congeal into a one giant mental lump of marbled Play-Doh.
They like Quebec, and fear separatists. They don't like the Senate, but agree it's too hard to change. They think Canada should be an "honest broker" in foreign affairs, and favour cool relations with Israel. They want more attention given to First Nations' self-governance and less to the military. They find China exciting and glamorous but America dumb and scary.
In short, they spend an awful lot of time worrying about things that don't affect your life very much. But these are the matters they've decided Canadian governments are supposed to care about, and they regard ones that don't (such as the one we've got), as sinister, unpatriotic, and yes, illegitimate. At best, Harper's a cruel interregnum. At worst, a home invader at 24 Sussex.
This argument -- that the Canadian media elite and the politicians they support inhabit an isolated, esoteric bubble-world of bizarre nationalistic hangups -- is not new. Peter Brimelow made it nearly 30 years ago in his splendid book The Patriot Game, and Brian Lee Crowley made it more recently in his equally elegant tome, Fearful Symmetry. Heck, Ezra Levant makes it almost every day on Twitter. Big Shift differs only that it offers an explanation for Conservative triumph, too. While earlier observers doubted the possibility, we now have ample evidence that a non-Laurentian Consensus PM can get elected. Multiple times, in fact.
Or do we?
Writing in the Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Simpson (a Laurentian purebred if there ever was) notes that successful or not, Harper voters remain right-wing outliers in a firmly liberal country. "On symbol after symbol, the Conservatives are in a minority," he says, citing their contrarian views on issues such as climate change and taxes that polls consistently show most Canadians don't share.
At the National Post, noted Torontonian John Moore agrees. The Tories haven't really converted Canadians per se, he sniffs, they've merely solidified "rural and suburban anger" into a cynical redneck base.
"Dissatisfaction in these parts of Canada may provide Mr. Harper with a good seat count, but it doesn't represent a shift across demographics." Correct for Harper, and you'll find "63 per cent of the electorate favouring the centre and left."
Muttering such soothing words doubtlessly helps lull Laurentians to sleep in their cozy Ottawa beds under their giant framed copy of the Canada Health Act, but they don't mean much. And not just because, as iPolitics' Colin Horgan notes in his cranky review, "anyone who disagrees with Ibbitson and Bricker can always be branded as part of the problem" thanks to the circular logic of the Laurentian elite thesis.
No one's ever claimed that the preference of the majority is the source of the Harper government's legitimacy, just as it was never the source of any previous prime minister's (even the sainted Lester Pearson only impressed 41 per cent). In a first-past-the-post parliamentary system such as ours, what matters is whether some small slice of partisans within the equally small slice of Canadians who bother to vote can be motivated to do so, and with enough vigour to squeak their guy into the top job. The Laurentianites may well be right about peacekeeping or whatever, but the fact that a powerful minority has grown to resent their ideology, their priorities, and indeed the Laurentian themselves is the reality progressives have to work with.
Minority-rule might be unfair and it may be unjust, but it's the only system we've got at the moment. And since the Laurentians, with their know-it-all veneration of Canadian institution and tradition, don't seem much interested in changing the rules of parliament or elections, their choice is clear: either enjoy the useless smugness of always being right, or accept that winning sometimes requires respecting the wrong.