What the West Wants Next

Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to Ottawa with a checklist of Western grievances he had committed to relieving. At the time it seemed like a long one. Turns out it wasn’t: After little more than five years in power, what early priorities he hasn’t scuttled — such as the Reform party’s one-time tendencies toward social conservative policy and populist democratic reforms — he’s nearly finished.

Spend enough time driving around Alberta and you might still spot, on the very occasional older model vehicle, the yellow, Reform-era bumper sticker: “No Kyoto, no wheat board, no gun registry.” Those were radical enough ideas back in the mid-’90s that angry Westerners felt it important to brandish them rebelliously on their pickups and minivans.

They might as well scrape them off now: Canada’s obligations under the Kyoto accord have been tossed aside; the Conservatives’ bill to deregulate the wheat board is en route to a third reading in the House; and the government tabled a bill to kill the gun registry Wednesday.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to Ottawa with a checklist of Western grievances he had committed to relieving. At the time it seemed like a long one. Turns out it wasn’t: After little more than five years in power, what early priorities he hasn’t scuttled — such as the Reform party’s one-time tendencies toward social conservative policy and populist democratic reforms — he’s nearly finished. He’s adding Western seats (as well as Ontario) in the House of Commons, and has almost reached the limit on Senate reform — setting term limits, encouraging provincial elections — at least till someone next has the nerve to reopen the Constitution.

With all that behind him, it might look like there’s little remaining of the Western-flavoured agenda that has animated so much of Mr. Harper’s crusade since he became leader of the Opposition in 2002. But as long as Mr. Harper’s in charge, the Conservatives will continue to be animated by the alienated spirit of the West, ever suspicious of the potential excesses of federal power, long after the wheat board and gun registry are gone.

After all, just going through the motions of day-to-day management isn’t much of a cause for a Prime Minister who’s spent his life driven by causes.

Preston Manning, founder of Reform and the spiritual leader of the latest Conservative movement, itemizes what he expects will constitute Mr. Harper’s priorities in the coming years: economic stability, deficit reduction, continental energy security with the U.S. and improved Canadian innovation and productivity. But it’s not all that hard to imagine a business-friendly Liberal — a John Manley or even a Jean Chrétien, just as readily championing those same objectives.

“As conservative values become more Canadian values, on the one hand that’s something Conservatives should be happy about,” says Mr. Manning. “But the downside of it is that those values no longer become distinguishingly Conservative.”

It’s hard to imagine that Mr. Harper would be satisfied, anyway, with merely being a competent economic steward: He’s spent his leadership working to remake the country in a more traditional, conservative image — reviving royal designations in the Armed Forces, installing royal portraits at our embassies, reasserting Judeo-Christian values in the immigration guide — while gradually dismantling post-modern Liberal imprints on the nation. More importantly, to understand the Prime Minister, it’s necessary to understand that he looks upon the wheat board, Kyoto, the gun registry and an unelected, unaccountable Senate not merely as individual irritants to the West. To him, these are symptoms of a much larger offence: the growth of a powerful and intrusive centralized federal government.

A meddlesome Ottawa has historically been more objectionable west of Ontario simply because Ottawa has historically tended to privilege central Canadian interests over smaller provinces. But decades of brooding over the National Energy Program, distorted equalization formulas and other plagues of Western alienation, have convinced Western conservatives, including Mr. Harper, that the problem is a structural one; that, before now, national governments have sought to overpower the provinces in the federal arrangement, using transfers and law as carrot and stick to entice and, where necessary, demand obedience to national priorities.

It’s a philosophy that can be seen everywhere in Mr. Harper’s approach over the past five years: Clearly an elected, equal Senate would provide the necessary and potent provincial check on power at the federal level; it’s in his fight against grand carbon-trading schemes and sweeping First Nations funding packages; his child-care allowance has effectively thwarted attempts by Ottawa to encroach on provincial education policy; his tax cuts (now as politically difficult for a different government to reverse as the child-care cheques) are as much about constraining Ottawa’s future ability to raise funds — thereby limiting the potential for grand national schemes — as they are about streamlining the economy. In the Tories’ eyes, even the federal deficit, a symbol of a government straining to manage what it already has on its plate, may well be preferable to a government capable of raising so much money it would be sorely tempted to find ways to spend it.

The Tories aren’t “revolutionizing government, but they are certainly differentiating it from a large statist [government],” says Faron Ellis, a political scientist at Lethbridge College, author of a book on the Reform party’s rise. Whether led by Paul Martin, Stéphane Dion or Michael Ignatieff, the Liberals have proposed “a large state program for every problem real or perceived,” he says. The Conservatives’ approach: “governments can do things but they’re going to do it through incentivizing individuals and provinces.”

It’s about getting “rid of the idea that if things aren’t going well it’s because the government isn’t taking care of us,” adds Ted Byfield, whose defunct Alberta Report magazine first gave voice to the Reform party’s agenda — rid Canadians of “the entitlement mentality that has been bred into us.”

It’s long been clear that Mr. Harper’s purpose has been to make the Conservatives into the new natural governing party. The point isn’t merely to govern, but to transform the nation, through politics and structural shifts, away from more Liberal (or, should it ever get elected, NDP) experiments in centralization. The original list of Western grievances may be nearly fixed, or fixed well enough. Mr. Harper undoubtedly sees his next big task as finding ways to obstruct such things from ever happening again.

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