By ANGELO PERSICHILLI
The Hill Times (Jan. 30, 2017)
The post-Harper Conservative Party is a déjà vu of the post-Mulroney era of more than 20 years ago.
In both cases Conservatives were seriously divided. In the 1990s, the Progressive Conservative Party tried disassociate itself from the Mulroney legacy. The Conservative Party today might do just the same with what was accomplished during the Harper era.
Of course, there are differences. The division in the then Progressive Conservative Party was more evident because of the presence of two strong leaders like Preston Manning, who created the Reform Party, and the charismatic Lucien Bouchard, who, along with Liberal defector Jean Lapierre, created the Bloc Québécois.
Today, without the presence of strong dissenters like Manning and Bouchard, Conservatives are still living in the same house, but in separate rooms with no chance to reconcile their ideological, social, and personal differences.
Of course, there are also deep differences between Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper in terms of style and policies. Furthermore, the post-Mulroney Conservatives were financially and politically broken, while the Conservative Party after Harper is still the official opposition and financially sound.
Differences aside, the Conservatives today could end up making the same mistake they did 20 years ago when they dumped on their former leader without having a viable alternative. What they didn’t do was defend their own record.
Instead, the Liberals did. After demonizing Mulroney and his policies, such the GST and free trade, the Liberals picked up where Mulroney left off. Using the huge amount of money flowing into the government coffers thanks to GST and exports, and cutting health-care spending, which Mulroney refused to do, the Liberals eliminated the deficit and led the country during years of economic prosperity.
This is shrewd, pragmatic politics at its best. It should be praised because it worked for Canada.
Conservatives, because of their internal bickering, ignored the achievements of their former government, marginalized their former leader, and failed to create an alternative to the Liberals. Aside from some differences in foreign politics, the Liberals governed the country with the economic policies of the Conservatives and used them to deal with some social issues.
Lately, Mulroney has been criticized because he’s perceived to be closer to the Liberals than to the Conservatives. I understand that. They were the Liberals who demonized him, but were the Liberals who appreciated his work and indirectly re-evaluated his legacy. During the Liberal era, Mulroney was also considered the best Canadian prime minister to defend the environment, and rightly so. I remember in Quebec City, in 1985, when the acid rain agreement was signed at the Shamrock Summit by Mulroney and the then U.S. president Ronald Reagan; it was the only concrete legislation protecting our skies.
I don’t want to elaborate much on the present Liberal economic policies, because it is too early. However, considering what we now know, the difference between the Trudeau government and the Harper government is only in some peripheral changes in foreign policy. They have the same approach toward international trade (TPP, Canada-EU free trade agreement), and even with immigration, where real differences are slow to materialize. The upcoming budget will tell us more about the economic approach of Trudeau government and how that differs from Harper’s.
The biggest difference is in communication and the relationship with the media.
I agree that the Harper government had a bad communications approach and, believe me, I know something about it. But the former prime minister tried hard to unite the party, to be more sensitive toward the middle class, protect important social programs, and did not hesitate to create a huge deficit when Canadians needed help to face the 2008-09 recession.
I know some dispute this scenario, saying Harper was the worst PM in Canada’s history. I am not particularly concerned about them. They are the same people who demonized Mulroney only to praise his policies 20 years after.
I hope that the present Conservative leadership candidates will keep this in mind and won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, just like they did 20 years ago.