No matter where I travel abroad to lecture these days, the first question economists ask me is: What happened to Canada?
The perception is that Canada made a sharp ideological turn right and is no longer a shining example of a compassionate country.
I can understand why this perception exists. After all, we have had a conservative ideologue (though not a philosopher king) as prime minister for the past eight years who has implemented a number of conservative policies in areas like the environment, fiscal policy and law and justice (by adopting tough-on-crime legislation in an era of declining crime rates).
Even Republicans in the U.S., who for decades have painted Canada as an evil socialist country, now embrace this country’s conservative (counter) revolution.
Like many perceptions, this is not the reality. While back in 2008 Harper vowed “to make conservatism the natural governing philosophy of the country,” Canadians still refuse to buy into his dogma.
While it is undoubtedly true that federal policies have indeed become more right-wing, we must differentiate between the party in power and the policies it implements on the one hand, and the values shared by Canadians on the other.
So where do Canadians stand?
On economic issues, Canadians send mixed signals.
I will concede Canadians overwhelmingly agree fiscal deficits are bad. This, I believe, has been the greatest victory of the right and its leaders, starting with former Conservative cabinet ministers Michael Wilson and Don Mazankowski, and former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin. They have convinced Canadians of the myth that government finances are analogous to household finances. The left has never been able to respond to this claim in a way that captured the imagination of Canadians.
But it would be a mistake to conclude Canadians are fiscally conservative. For instance, in an Angus Reid public opinion poll from almost three years ago, a full 56 per cent of Canadians felt there was an important role for the government to play in redistributing wealth.
What is even more important is that Canadians would accept raising taxes in order to reduce inequality.
Health and the environment
Regarding our national health-care system, 81 per cent of Canadians in a 2012 study by Environics listed it as one of the most important symbols of Canadian identity, knowing full well the cost of such a system.
Canadians also value our social service institutions, along with our (once) generous social safety net. Harper has been tinkering with these, but has stopped short of taking them on.
On environmental issues, Canadians clearly reject the government’s approach, and 57 per cent believe climate change is a man-made catastrophe that requires strong government intervention, and would be willing to pay extra taxes to better the environment.
Progressive on pot, LGBT and women’s rights
And with respect to social issues, if anything, Canada is becoming more progressive.
Take for instance the progress made by gay and lesbian groups over the last decade, including on same-sex marriage. We are still firmly in favour of a woman’s right to choose, still opposed to capital punishment, and increasingly in favour of death with dignity, not to mention the legalization of pot.
So on both economic and social issues, the majority of Canadians disagree with the direction the government is taking this country. This must surely infuriate Harper, who just cannot seem to make any headway on these issues. If anything, he orders his members to remain silent knowing full well how the population can turn with startling rapidity when these issues are brought up.
This suggests that while Conservative governments may succeed for a while to govern and veer the country to the right, the result is less impressive than imagined. Moreover, these policies can be reversed, as the opposition parties have hinted at doing. Whether they will do so once in office is another question.
Majority opposed to Harper’s vision
In the end, despite close to a decade of Conservative iron-fist governance, Harper may have adopted a number of conservative policies, but Canadians are simply not buying it. Close to 65 per cent of Canadians still oppose this government and its vision.
This suggests that at our very core, we remain a progressive and small-l liberal country, and no matter what Harper does, he will not succeed in convincing a majority of Canadians of his vision for Canada. He has failed miserably at imposing conservatism as the “natural governing philosophy” of Canada. And that’s a good thing.
Like John Maynard Keynes once opined, conservatives “offer me neither food nor drink — intellectual nor spiritual consolation ... [Conservatism] leads nowhere; it satisfies no ideal; it conforms to no intellectual standard, it is not safe, or calculated to preserve from the spoilers that degree of civilization which we have already attained.”
Louis-Philippe Rochon is associate professor of economics at Laurentian University and co-editor with the Review of Keynesian Economics.