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The People's Party is the people's mess

Kevin Taghabon

October 24, 2018

A few months ago it would have sounded silly. Maxime Bernier and Andrew Scheer seemed like two peas in a pod. But then the peas got in a spat. Scheer had Bernier promise to keep a politically damaging chapter of his book hidden. Maxime broke his promise, was pushed from cabinet, and eventually left the party three days before their disturbing convention in Halifax.

Scheer's Conservatives speed rightwards

In Halifax, Conservative Party delegates voted to end birthright citizenship, a cruel position that could create untold stateless people. The 20th century taught most of us this lesson already. This proposal is a dramatic escalation in the wrong direction in our century, which will almost certainly be marred with unprecedented climate-induced migration. Two thirds of Bangladesh's 164 million people live barely above sea level, and this is a single country.

The Conservatives are setting themselves up to capture popular anger and marry it with the idea of internal enemies, as they have done with some confidence since 9/11. Andrew Scheer is less Donald Trump than Donald Duck, but Scheer's campaign manager is former Rebel Media exec and Alberta Wildrose operative, Hamish Marshall. An expert in far-right propaganda sits comfortably at the top of the Conservative campaign machine.

The post-Harper rightward drift of the Conservative Party has accelerated partly due to their distance from official power. They watch as reactionary forces translate resentment against austerity into anti-immigrant violence and electoral opportunities the world over. They see the right-wing party in Australia, governing over a country that almost passed the “It's OK To Be White” bill and ran refugee prison islands under the “Pacific Solution”. They see as Donald Trump skirt around the issue of fascist terrorism and enjoys high approval ratings within his base.

Bernier: not enough

Bernier, evidently, did not think the Conservatives were moving to the far right fast enough. He has now appointed himself as the saviour of “Canadian values”, a phrase about as hollow as “signature strike” or “extreme vetting”. There are seven central planks that Bernier wants to focus on if he gains power, which include well-trod reactionary ideas such as gutting public finances with tax cuts and opening the door to bankruptcy-causing private healthcare.

But Bernier is also moving comfortably with the tides of the far-right by proposing that CSIS, the RCMP, and IRCC, “do background checks on all classes of immigrants, including more face-to-face interviews if deemed necessary.” Yes, Bernier believes that an effective way of dealing with refugee crises is to have refugees interrogated by security services after their struggle to arrive. Welcoming refugees is actually very expensive,” one page states coldly.

Like Scheer, Bernier is not Trump. The purpose of Trump is to be Trump, the all-encompassing egomaniac blaring television networks that make his mirrors obsolete. The purpose of figures like Scheer and Bernier is to win office. Bernier is still calculating how he can establish himself on the right of the Conservative Party without humiliating himself in the 2019 election. Hence, the rhetorical fence-straddling with far-right sprinkles.

It would be unwise to predict his downfall. The far-right AfD has surged in Germany to second place in the polls under the reining Conservative, Angela Merkel. France came within a hair's breath of electing their own neo-fascist government in 2017. Beyond motions in Parliament denouncing Islamophobia, the government has done little to quell the spike in extreme-right violence in Canada, while security services themselves are implicated in discrimination. After the white supremacist terrorist attack against the Muslim community in Quebec last January, this is astounding. Inaction has allowed the cancerous forces of bigotry to organize openly in public spaces, which only increases the confidence and electability of far-right parties.

Moving the goal posts

For now, Bernier will have to accept his chosen role as Scheer's promise breaker and live in the political wilderness. There are those who deeply disagree with Bernier and conservative politics in general who have been celebrating the break between Scheer and Bernier. While it is entertaining to watch powerful people squabble, it is only the story of the day. Their split will not matter to people any more than the fact that Trump was once a pro-choice Democrat. The Conservatives and People's Party will harden around their bases and move forward, and their rhetoric might become more extreme as they court similar voters. Unopposed, this will infect our political culture.

“Vote splitting” between two right-wing parties will save no one. It will not help build a popular base for progressive policies. Worse, it may feed into the continual “lesser of two evils” narrative that encourages so many progressives to vote for a Liberal party that destroys the climate while continuing to arm Saudi Arabia. And as Germany is re-learning, liberal cultural values are no bulwark against an ascendand far-right.

Stephen Harper was fringe, too

Many Canadians have forgotten with the fast rightward shift in our times, but Stephen Harper was wandering in the wilderness while Jean Chretien was Prime Minister. Since his Prime Ministership, he has gone on to be a political grifter of sorts. He has even taken money for speaking tours from groups as absurd as the cultish MEK, a far-right Iranian exile group which was labelled as terrorist until Harper removed the designation in 2012. His pre-PM days were equally ideological, serving as head of the National Citizens Coalition from 1998-2002. Among other things, the NCC wants to increase the influence of money on politics (unlimited campaign contributions) and is against public healthcare.

Harper tempered his own social conservatism, and went from an outsider to Prime Minister in four years. The inability of the Liberals to meaningfully combat bigotry, coupled with the Conservative Party's need to keep in line with its base, means there is no guarantee whatsoever about the effect of the People's Party.

Popular energy

What is clear, as was the case in disgraced PC leader Patrick Brown's “People's Platform”, is that professional conservatives are well aware of where popular energy lies. It is not an accident that Ontario Proud directly imitates the UK Labour Party's “For the Many, Not the Few” messaging. It is not an accident that Doug Ford's campaign repeated “for the people” more times than any platform point. The ability of conservative politicians to convince voters that their politics are not skewed towards the rich is a significant, if hollow victory.

It is also failure of the left and in Parliament, the New Democratic Party. We must be honest: an equivalent, harnessed popular energy pushing bold candidates on the left to the national stage is missing. The press regularly covers Canadian politics as a contrast between the Conservatives and the centrist Liberals. Cries of “liberal/conservative press” do not construct a popular alternative. Social movements do, the likes of which have propelled figures like Jean Swanson and Bhutila Karpoche in their cities. As it exists, official power has been unable to stem the tide of reaction. Mass movements are the only deterrent to the birthing of a far harsher Canada, because ballot boxes only come every few years.

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