Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Conservatives and the Establishment: The fight to be Ottawa's "New Men"

These days, I spend quite a bit of time explaining Canada's political system to Chinese journalists who find the whole process more than a little strange. And the fact that Canada's political system, along with its players, is in a constant state of morph does not make things more comprehensible to them or easy for me.
Take the Conservatives. I grew up believing the Conservative Party was the linear descendant of the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique, the closed group of Tory blue-bloods who controlled the patronage machine of Upper and Lower Canada until we got something resembling democratic, responsible government in the 1840s.
Tory politicians were either scions of wealth or were, themselves, well-connected new money, earned, like R.B. Bennett's, from blue-chip corporations like the CPR. The Tories did not welcome people who didn't come from Rosedale, British Properties or Westmount, except as door-knockers and stamp-lickers. Catholics were not welcome, nor were people with a lot of vowels in their names.
Liberals were middle-class and upper-middle class people: small-town lawyers, school teachers, academics. They had a big tent that held ethnic minorities, Jews and Catholics. That, in any case, was the pitch, and it was reinforced by Mackenzie King, who could honestly say he was the grandson of a genuine leftist hell-raiser.
But things have changed. These days, the Conservatives are far from being members of the Canadian Establishment. Any toe-hold they have in it is tenuous and probably transitory. Unlike Brian Mulroney, Stephen Harper did not cultivate Westmount money and American business leaders before going into politics. He is a professional politician from the very fringes of the Canadian Conservative tradition, an outsider, and he acts like one.
Harper is trying hard to gain control of the levers of power and respectability. he's hobbled by the fact that his staff and advisors are also outsiders, people who learned about power and government from books and media articles. Part of their problem lies in the fact that reality does not fit what they've read over the years. Their reaction is to develop rigidity and defensiveness, rather than open their eyes and ears.
It enrages them that the Liberals are the true Establishment party of Canada. No amount of power and perks can, for the Tories, change the fact that the top Liberals were born to power and see themselves that way.
So many are sons of power.
Michael Ignatieff is the son of George Ignatieff, one if the most connected bureaucrats and diplomats in Canada. His mother was a member of the Grant family, solid members of the establishment that sees Queens University as a breeding ground of leaders. The Grants practically created Queens and the clique that grew from it.
Ignatieff was brought to Ottawa by Ian Davey, whose father was the campaign brain of the Trudeau regime
His main challenger, Bob Rae, is the son of diplomat Saul Rae, who moved among the Pearsonian elite in the days when the Department of Foreign Affairs was Canada's most interesting and glamorous ministry. Rae held sway in the years when Canada was shifting its focus from the British to the American empire, and young Bob Rae, like Ignatieff, was dispatched to private schools and good universities. Eventually, he went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship.
The previous Liberal leader, Stephane Dion, was son of Leon Dion, a man not particularly well-known in English Canada. He was a tough, sometimes ruthless politician who negotiated constitutional issues on behalf of Quebec and is credited with developing the "knife to the throat" tactics that have served Quebec so well in the past 45 years.
The younger Dion surrounded himself with other establishment Liberals with famous last names, including Mick Gzowski, who was saddled with the debacle of Dion's disastrous TV speech during the 2009 coalition attempt.
Of course, to the Tories, Justin Trudeau is the most infuriating "name" Liberal. Trudeau 2.0 has hardly had a stellar career inside or outside of politics. His education is minimal, his work experience before he was elected was unfocused and rather uninspiring. As an MP, he has said nothing of substance. Many Liberals see him as a contender in the next decade, but no one can say what he stands for.
All of these people, and many more senior Liberals, are socially and intellectually hard-wired into the media and the bureaucracy. Old, established Ottawa believes the Harper regime will disappear soon and be forgotten as a sort of quirky anomaly, like E.C. Drury's United Farmers of Ontario provincial government of the early 1920s.
The Harper control freak system, along with the Conservative outreach to rural and new Canadians, is a reaction to that, an attempt to cobble together a coalition big enough to win a majority government that will be taken seriously by Canada's elites. They might be able to pull it off, though I'm really not sure the political talent or the intellectual depth is there.
But certainly the motivation exists. The Tories will either govern long enough to create a new country, in many ways similar to Reagan's America, or they will will be cast aside as a sort of political palate-cleansing.
The next election will probably be the watershed.

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