By Brian Crowley, Guest Columnist
Anyone still fondly clinging to the hoary belief that Liberals and New Democrats are natural soul mates clearly isn’t paying attention.
The cross-border embrace between the premiers of British Columbia and Alberta — Alberta Tories are helping B.C. Liberals raise money and may even be loaning them political operatives in an effort to defeat the NDP in the upcoming provincial election — underlines afresh that Liberals have more in common with Tories than with New Democrats.
The political party that almost invariably wins in Canada is the one best exemplifying opportunity, meritocracy and freedom, while the losing party is often identified with the defence of unearned privilege.
This has long been the pattern federally and provincially. Take the long period of Liberal dominance in Ottawa in the first half of the 20th century where the Grits spoke up forcefully for moderate taxation, open immigration, religious toleration and ending ties with Britain. These were Main Street attitudes. The Tories were often stuck defending Bay Street, the imperial tie, sectarianism and suspicion of immigration.
Canadians were most comfortable with the Liberals but liked to keep the Tories in reserve, as a discipline on the arrogance of a party too used to thinking of itself as the nation’s natural government. And when the Tories did take power, their behaviour wasn’t all that different from that of the Liberals, although competence wasn’t always their long suit.
Even when the Liberals were seduced by the creation of the welfare state in the Sixties, and let spending rip, the Tories followed. That suited the electorate. They had two parties reasonably close to the core values of society, so voters could change leaders without having to change fundamental policy direction. Then both parties reversed course over the deficit.
That allowed first the CCF, then the NDP, to parody the other two parties as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, indistinguishable from one another. What the social democrats didn’t get was that was just what the electorate wanted. And as long as the NDP stood no real chance of taking power, the reasonably friendly rivalry between Tories and Liberals made sense.
But virtually everywhere that the CCF and later the NDP grew to have a real chance of taking power, the division between Liberals and Tories became a liability. By splitting the votes of people who agreed they wanted a society of opportunity, competitive markets, free choice, moderate taxation, limited government and social programs that help but don’t entrap, the NDP could occasionally take power.
NDP governments tend to have certain characteristics. They are close to the trade unions, for example, a movement dominated by public sector workers keen to expand public services, raise levels of public sector pay and pensions and remove limits on public sector collective bargaining.
The party also attracts many who believe sincerely in the state’s ability to achieve fairness by high levels of redistribution, financed by high taxes, big debt, or both.
There is nothing wrong with believing in any of these policies, except that Canadian voters have, with time, tended to recoil from governments that pursue them. They do so because such policies drive out investment and growth, reduce opportunity overall and create a privileged class of public sector workers.
There are important regional variations of course. But on the whole, when New Democrats become major political players, the other two parties quickly learn there is a high price to indulging their separate identities. Where they successfully present a united front, they almost invariably beat the NDP. Where the anti-NDP coalition is weak or only partial, the NDP often triumphs.
Which brings us back to B.C. Responding to the rise of the CCF, a formal coalition of Liberals and Tories was created. When that construct fell apart, Social Credit stepped in, ruling for decades. When it stumbled the Liberals rose and now are stumbling in their turn. In between these long periods of dominance, the NDP briefly took power with rather disastrous economic consequences, forcing the anti-NDP coalition to reconstitute itself.
Under the last NDP government, Alberta benefited as people and investment fled B.C. This time, an anti-business NDP that obstructed every plausible means of moving Alberta’s oil through B.C. to Asia would cost Albertans as well as British Columbians.
While a week is famously a lifetime in politics and the B.C. election isn’t until May, the smart money remains on an NDP victory thanks to disillusionment with the Liberals. If the NDP remains true to economic form, watch for the rapid reinvigoration of the Liberal-Tory coalition, with trans-mountain support, in time for 2017.
Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent nonpartisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.