How shall we understand the thirty-year period starting in 1987, when Preston Manning’s Reform Party of Canada (rpc) elbowed its way into Canadian electoral politics? Was it all a bad nightmare as Globe and Mail columnist Patrick Martin maintains? Was it a failed effort to return Canada to its political and historical roots? Was it another chapter in principled parties selling their souls to stay in power? Was it the story of two insurgent parties bested by the institutions and norms they sought to upturn? Or was it a volatile period in which the Conservatives happened to benefit from being the first party to adopt the new techniques of political communications and voter data mining? This balanced and informative collection of essays on recent federal Conservative politics suggests that the Conservatives under Stephen Harper practised a new brokerage politics–the systematic search for a minimum winning coalition of voters that would tilt Canada incrementally, but decisively, to the right of the political continuum. [End Page 307]
Conservative parties have historically been about conserving things–institutions, memories, and forms of decency, among other things. But we live in the age of the ethics of repudiation; it is difficult to hark to the beneficence of the past without inviting catcalls of colonialism and white oppression. Conservative parties have adjusted to this new reality. They are now about reacting to mushy nanny state liberalism and its celebration of the rights and identities of the marginalized and overlooked. This may require disrupting entrenched policies and institutional forms. Thus, conservative parties are more about common sense revolutions and less about conservation. The Conservative Party of Canada (cpc), like its predecessor, the rpc, was the party of disruption. Faced with a federal landscape shaped by decades of Liberal government, how could it be otherwise?
Several essays trace the roots of the cpc in the Reform Party, noting how Harper co-opted the Reform electoral base while disposing of many of the planks that made the rpc so popular among western Canadians. Harper’s cpc rejected Manning’s populism, establishing in the process one of the most centralized, leader-dominated parties in recent political memory. Harper gestured to Quebecers, calling them a “nation” in hopes of capturing seats and majority status in the House of Commons. He played ethnic politics, departing from Manning’s critique of special interest electioneering. Manning could never surmount his western Canadian roots; Harper, born in Ontario, found it easier to pivot from regionalism to a politics of non-territorial coalition building. On Senate reform, Harper remained loyal, but, even here, his model of Senate reform was a pale reflection of Manning’s Triple E Senate.
One of the more notable features of cpc influence was the way in which a conservative party dealt blithely and even carelessly with institutional and constitutional norms. Jonathan Malloy suggests an elegant distinction between two approaches to Parliament: the logic of representation, favouring the role of the member of parliament, and the logic of governance, stressing the role of the executive. The rpc championed the former and fell flat. Harper pushed the logic of governance to new heights, building up the Prime Minister’s Office, centralizing government branding and messaging, and diminishing the role of Cabinet ministers, never mind members of parliament. Several contributors fill out the details of Malloy’s fundamental distinction.
Under Harper, first ministers conferences almost completely disappeared. While Emmett MacFarlane is correct in arguing that the cpc’s constitutional policies were generally moderate, it is also important to note that Canada’s court party disdained Harper’s occasional [End Page 308] confrontations with the Supreme Court of Canada and with the chief justice of Canada, in particular. Perhaps this is a story the essays largely overlook: how the elites of the Laurentian consensus loathed Harper so.
A prominent theme in the book is the way the cpc engaged the diversity question. The rpc, which was much closer to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals than...