The Ascent of Reform-man

Andrew Coyne blogs a summary of how the Conservatives have abandoned their principles to get and stay in power. Of course, Coyne views this sell-out with derision; I see it with a smile and great thanks, but with concern that they will rediscover those lost “principles” should a majority somehow be achieved. Despite the perspective it reads as a nice overview of the Reform to Rule era, and the policies that were ditched along the way.

A choice quote:

In retrospect, indeed, the appointments of David Emerson and Michael Fortier that first day in office, which seemed so shocking at the time, was not the start of the process. It was already well advanced. Think back to the late 1990s, and what the Reform party then stood for. Not just balanced budgets, but balanced budget laws. Referendums—on tax increases, on constitutional amendments, on citizens’ initiatives. Tight controls on spending. A flat tax. Abolition of corporate subsidies, and of their “regional development” dispensaries. Reform of employment insurance, of the Canada Pension Plan, of the CBC. A federation of equal provinces and citizens. An elected Senate. Free votes in Parliament. More power for ordinary MPs. Open nomination races at the riding level, free of interference by the leader’s office. Fixed election dates.

By the time Stockwell Day was running for prime minister in 2000—the Canadian Alliance having replaced the Reform party, and Day having replaced Preston Manning—a third or more of these were already gone. But the pace only quickened from there. By the time of the 2004 election, the newly formed Conservative party was still vaguely interested in abolishing corporate welfare, and still mentioned tax cuts. But mostly it was interested in telling you what it wouldn’t do: it wouldn’t cut spending, for instance, or much else that might upset someone, somewhere.

The party’s founding policy convention in 2005 took things still further: gone was any mention of referendums, for example. Spending cuts were out; subsidies were in. The courting of Quebec nationalists, which Harper had once warned against, had begun in earnest. Probably the delegates thought they were making a prudent set of concessions to reality, in a bid to establish themselves, once and for all, as a centrist party, ready to form a government. But in fact they were only softening things up for the next round. The accession to power, after so many years, did not mark the end of the party’s concessions. It merely provided it with the means to make still more, each more jaw-dropping than the last: on Quebec, on Afghanistan, on confidence votes, on foreign takeovers, on fixed election dates, on appointing senators, on corporate bailouts, until at last we arrived at last week’s establishment of a regional development agency for southern Ontario.

So they’ve given up everything they ever stood for, and what have they got in return? Pretty close to nada. They’re stalled in the polls, again. The fabled majority remains firmly out of reach. Those disposed to mistrust them are as suspicious as ever, while their own followers are now thoroughly demoralized. They have not moved to the centre; they have only succeeded in shifting the entire political spectrum to the left. The Quebec experiment, likewise, is in tatters, Quebec more nationalist than ever. The destruction is total. The failure is absolute.

Coyne blames this pattern for their stalling in the polls, but if they had stuck to the script those poll numbers would likely be much lower. Coyne is wrong about the shift of the political spectrum, which has been moving consistently to the right for a quarter-century; with the exception being the past year in which Keynes got dusted off as a recession took hold of the economy.

One could probably tell a similar story on the other side of the political spectrum with the NDP, who have also stalled in polls after moving so much to the centre it would make the Regina Manifesto blush. If you go to Coyne’s blog post and read the comments of disheartened Tory supporters, you could replace the Conservative for NDP to get a rough proxy of a similar debate that might happen over at

The lesson: political parties in our system move to where the votes are. No big surprise. In my mind Reform was a marriage of tax rage and 19th century economic thinking with some gimmicky ideas around democratic reform. But those ideas, in particular the ones where the government shrinks to a night watchman’s state, really did not resonate with voters.

Ultimately, that Reform germ about democratic reform can still resonate with voters, I think, and since it has been abandoned by the right it should be picked up by the left. What was gimmicky about Reform was that most of the ideas were minor tweaks to parliamentary procedure. They did not fundamentally change the system so that people had a greater say in decisions that affect their lives.

This is not the place for details, but minimally, an alternative democratic reform package would include proportional representation (which would encourage parties to stick closer to their values), plus a variety of other democratic reforms, such as participatory budgeting, citizen’s assemblies and deeper engagement processes, restricting corporate political influence, maybe even the odd referendum. Judy Rebick’s book, Imagine Democracy, is full of these ideas, and there are many examples in Canada and around the world from which we can draw inspiration.


  • While I’m a huge fan of those democratic reforms, I’m not sure it would resonate with voters. When opportunities come along to get involved with government, like elections or the coalition crisis, judging by person on the street interviews, the reaction seems to be anger that politicians are bothering them rather excitement at the opportunity to be involved.

    The referendum in Ontario seemed to be met with massive disinterest which I don’t think can be entirely blamed on bad marketing.

  • Let’s not forget the BC Liberal’s reversals of far-right policies they instituted in their first term. In so many cases their decisions were overturned in the courts or turned out to be such disasters that they reversed cuts and announced “new spending” (same as or lower than before they were elected).

    The bogeyman in the centrist’s mind is “where are all those anti-immigration rednecks that we used to hear calling for bans on abortion and gay marriage and re-instituting capital punishment.” That’s the sort of thing that always killed Reform in Ontario, driving voters into the arms of centrist Tories and Liberals. A lot of people are still thinking of that, hence the “stalled in the polls” phenomenon.

  • Great Post – I really enjoyed it. With better government the left and the right could perhaps both benefit.

  • The referendum in Ontario was stifled by a party that was no longer interested in electoral reform now that they are the ones with the unfair advantage (“majority” government with 42% of the votes.)

    In BC, a copy of the final report of their Citizens’ Assembly was delivered to every household in the province. In Ontario, not only did that not happen, but the government actually stopped printing the report during the referendum campaign, so copies were difficult to get hold of. Elections Ontario was pressured to be “neutral”, so they didn’t give out any actual information about the proposal to be voted on. The report and other fine explanatory materials prepared by the Ontario Citizens’ Assembly were deemed to be “partisan” and were not distributed.

    A Referendum Information officer was hired for each riding. Their chief qualification was that they didn’t know anything about the topic, so they could be properly neutral. But just to be sure, they were forbidden to answer questions. (I am not making this up.) They would organize a meeting of local citizens, show them a copy of the ballot—and leave!

    About a third of Ontario voters did not know there was a referendum on until they were handed a ballot. Another third thought they knew something about it, but what they knew was mostly lies (List members aren’t elected, they are just appointed party hacks.) thanks to an underground but well organized anti-MMP campaign. The other third voted for it.

    But don’t get me started.

  • I dunno the whole premise or perhaps I should say lack of context made Coyne’s post overdrawn. In a sense by the time the reformed Cons took power much of the economic restructuring had been achieved. Coyne fails to mention the blistering pace by which the federal liberals moved to the right to counter reform and deal with the deficit scare. The offloading onto the provinces, the renamed and hollowing out of EI, the devolution of powers to the provinces and or rather the retreat of the federal government had largely been accomplished. What was left of the rights economic agenda?–tax cuts; and one would be hard pressed to say that the Cons have not delivered. On more exotic things like constitutional reform of the senate and other things like referendums surely experienced had proved that constitutional restructuring was a political quagmire.

    That is, the whole problem, as Marc points out, is that Coyne refuses to acknowledge the degree to which the whole of the political spectrum shifted to the right–the electorate and the political parties. So yes the libertarian vision of “the withering away of the state” never came about. And it never came about in the former socialist bloc either.

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