March 14, 2012


Conservative Models (John O'Sullivan, March 14, 2012, National Review)

Canada's prime minister, Stephen Harper, offers a very different approach -- but one that makes good sense in the Canadian context: He underpromises and overdelivers.

Conservatism was seen until recently as a doomed philosophy in a Canada permanently governed by a large and ideologically sprawling Liberal party with brief intervals of power granted to a "Progressive Conservative" party that, as its name suggests, was like a schizophrenic confined in a state asylum.

Harper has been described (by an admirer) as "Canada's Nixon" -- a cerebral politician who quietly calculates the steps necessary to gain his objectives and then, having also calculated the opposition to them, methodically sets about achieving them.

The objective of replacing both the Liberals and the "Red Tories" as governing parties by a genuinely conservative party was surely too ambitious even for a Nixon. There must have been many disappointments, second thoughts, and adaptations along the way. Still, that is what has actually happened, and Harper was a leading player at every stage of the game.

He first set about undermining the Tories by helping to found a rival conservative party, Reform; then he amalgamated Reform with rump Tories to form the Conservative Party of Canada; next he led the CPC into minority government on a "softly, softly" program of moderate reform; finally, last year, he gained a clear majority and made the CPC the natural party of government in an election in which the Liberals fell into third place.

This is an impressive record by any measure. Still, conservative Canada-watchers such as Mark Steyn, David Frum, and indeed me have sometimes suggested that Harper's gradualist conservatism in government was so gradual that it was unlikely to shift Canada rightwards -- to a smaller state or a more self-reliant society or a more patriotic national self-image -- to any real extent.

After six years, social conservatives do feel let down -- though not very far down, since they had modest expectations of a political leader who has avoided issues such as abortion and embraced conventional views on immigration. For other conservatives, however, that judgment looks questionable in ways large and small.

Building on the earlier budget-tightening of Liberal prime minister Paul Martin, Harper has cut the size of government to one of the smallest in the advanced world. Canada's tax burden is now similarly low, at about 31 percent of GDP. And its budget deficit, though somewhat higher as a result of the 2007-11 world recession, is on course to disappear by 2013. Overall, Canada's economy is one of the freest, according to the Heritage Foundation's index.

The other side of Tony Abbott (PAUL KELLY, 10/01/12, The Australian)

There are three truths about Abbott. First, he has a conservative set of values that he champions yet his policy outlook is highly flexible and pragmatic (witness his famous changes of mind on multiculturalism, hospitals, carbon pricing and paid parental leave, among others).

Because Abbott is seen to stand for enduring values he gets away with multiple policy switches with impunity.

Second, unlike leaders of the past generation Abbott is not defined by economics and does not wear free-market economics as his badge. This is a sharp break from Paul Keating, John Hewson, Costello and even Howard. If Abbott wins, it will become a departure point for Australia. Abbott told me back in 2003: "I have never been as excited about economics as some of my colleagues." An understatement.

Throughout his life, Abbott's social philosophy has been paramount. He is a libertarian in neither personal nor economic terms. Abbott has never hidden this truth, declaring that while many Liberals stress the "individual" and "choice" his message is always "individuals as part of the social fabric".

For Abbott, it is society, family and community that count. Individualism must always be seen within society. This is the powerful legacy of his Catholicism. It has been apparent at each stage of his life, trainee priest, journalist, community volunteer and MP.

It is what makes Abbott a different Liberal leader and what makes the Abbott Liberal Party different. Such philosophy is likely to be popular with the public but hardly encouraging to free-market reform.

Third, Abbott is a community based politician rather than an inside-the-beltway policy wonk. He is bright enough and arrogant enough to think he doesn't necessarily need to genuflect before the latest policy advice or conventional wisdom (think carbon pricing or mining tax).

Abbott is a natural populist and has materialised into something Labor never imagined - a potent threat to its voting base.

The only basis for seeing Abbott as a radical lies in the fusion of his populism and social values. The feminists preaching his infamy are clueless, with Abbott easily batting away their attacks: "Am I worried about the extent of abortions and family breakdown today? Yes, I am worried. Do I intend in office to legislate against abortion and family breakdown? No, I don't." With this formula he projects his values yet claims immunity from imposing them.

Where Labor was convinced Abbott would narrow the Coalition's appeal, the opposite has happened with Abbott widening its appeal, a point verified by applying this test in terms of regions, class and values.

The Coalition is strong in the resource states of Queensland and Western Australia, much of NSW, manages to hold its own in the southern states.

Analysis by class shows Abbott is stealing the working-class vote through his persona and ability to re-mobilise the so-called Howard battlers. On values, Abbott embodies the large-scale transfer of the Catholic vote from Labor to Liberal. This is symbolised not just by his Democratic Labor Party origins but by the December 2009 Liberal leadership contest involving Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey, each of them Catholic, a situation inconceivable in the Menzian Liberal Party and testimony to the widening of the conservative net.

For all our enchantment with our own exceptionalism, what's most notable about politics across the Anglosphere is how similar we all are.
Posted by at March 14, 2012 6:40 AM

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