Grits and Tories much more similar than is commonly assumed

In today’s Toronto Star, one of that publication’s best columnists, Thomas Walkom, has an excellent piece articulating with uncanny precision an argument that I have been making for years.  This article truly is well worth the read for any engaged freethinker.

Parties far closer than they admit
By Thomas Walkom

Both Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion paint their rivalry in near-apocalyptic terms.

Dion insists that Harper is defined by a “narrow-minded right-wing agenda…

“There has never been a federal election that has more clearly provided Canadians with such a stark choice,” he said on Sunday.

Harper says the choice is equally stark – between what he calls his solid, middle-of-the-road government and the wild-eyed notions of a radical academic.

“Canadians want prudence, not risk,” he said this week. “They want practical actions for the many, not theoretical ideas for the very few.”

All of this is vibrant rhetoric.

But in terms of deeds, the Conservatives and Liberals are far closer than their partisans admit.

Harper, in particular, has been careful not to stray too far from the centre-right orthodoxy of previous Liberal regimes. His critics insist that this is a ruse, that he has a hidden agenda ready to unleash if he wins a majority of Commons seats.

Yet there is little evidence of such an agenda.

As prime minister, Harper has deftly avoided most of the so-called culture war issues, from abortion to gay marriage.

Instead, he has taken aim at relatively low-budget federal schemes unpopular with his base – from a program that allowed disadvantaged groups to take on the government in court, to cultural grants that benefit those with whom the Conservatives disagree.

He has not dismantled what’s left of the welfare state, such as employment insurance. He hasn’t had to. Jean Chrétien’s previous Liberal government did it for him.

Like the Liberals, Harper has been happy to fund medicare.

But – again like the Liberals – he has ignored its creeping privatization, refusing to enforce the Canada Health Act.

Dion accuses Harper of squandering the $12 billion budgetary surplus he inherited.

If so, Harper has simply followed the Liberal lead, using this surplus to pay down debt, reduce taxes and boost federal spending.

In fact, most of Harper’s tax cuts (with the important exception of his decision to slash the GST) were supported by the Liberals.

Conversely, the Harper Conservatives have not been exactly parsimonious. During their two full years in government, federal spending on programs rose by about $20 billon.

During the last two full years of the previous Liberal government, program spending also rose by $20 billion.

True, the Conservatives favour military spending. But the Liberals are hardly peaceniks. They support Harper’s decision to keep Canadian combat troops in Afghanistan until at least 2011.

Even the parties’ scandals are eerily similar.

Four years ago, the RCMP was brought in to sort out the fabled Liberal sponsorship program.

This year, the RCMP was brought in to sort out a Conservative financing scheme that Elections Canada says is illegal.

This is not to say the two parties are identical. Dion says he would cut income taxes and impose new levies on commodities whose production involves carbon emissions. Harper says he wouldn’t.

But even this distinction is more complex than it seems. Dion’s scheme may help the environment. But by replacing progressive income taxes with a regressive consumption tax, he could help the rich at the expense of the middling classes. Conversely, Harper – in tax terms at least – could emerge here as the more leftish of the two. Which isn’t quite how he’s usually seen.


While I profoundly agree with Walcom’s argument in this article, I personally tend to go further insofar as I argue that while the NDP, Bloc Québecois and Greens are better than the two primary capitalist parties, they still have much more in common with them than any of the five would readily admit.

Those interested, can read my thoughts and arguments for why I believe this to be the case in these pieces:

Propaganda In Action: Canada as a force for peace in the world

Who says either the Liberals or the NDP are ‘left’?

Support for capitalist parties in Canada


4 Responses to “Grits and Tories much more similar than is commonly assumed”

  1. 1 leftdog 9 September, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    Very well said! Where I come from in the great province of Saskatchewan, working folks have an age old saying that has been proven accurate time and time again over the last 60 years …. ‘Liberal / Tory …. same old story’!!!

    Thanks for this post!!!!

  2. 2 Ken Furber 10 September, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    Okay Paul, point taken. But so what? So our five main parties have pretty much the same agenda. Who else do I vote for? The Marxist-Leninists? Oh no that’s right, they don’t field any candidates. Are you suggesting Canadians just don’t vote? Certainly sorting through politics in Canada to find a party to vote for is a game of splitting hairs. But I think that having the majority of our political choices clumped close to the middle of the political spectrum is a strength and not a weakness. That’s because it reflects where most Canadians sit in their political choices. It also tends to allow compromise in Parliament that wouldn’t be possible with extreme, polarized, entrenched views. Of course that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the far left or right. Because those parties are outside the comfort zone of most Canadians these fringe parties have little impact — especially if they don’t take direct part in election campaigns to get their points out. As things stand now, Canadian voters certainly do have a choice. They just have to pay close attention to what those five main parties are doing to learn which suits them. Your graphs showing Canadian and USSR choices is interesting. But you’re a political scientist and as such you should know better. In fact it’s the kind of circular argument I’d expect to see coming from the likes of the Harper types. Take a misinterpreted point and argue it as if it’s as fact. And if that doesn’t work, set loose the Puffins.

  3. 3 RevDevochka 10 September, 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Paul is back and blogging! I can’t say I know too much about Canadian electoral politics – although being from the US, especially in this period of time, I think I can understand.

  4. 4 Nick J Boragina 12 September, 2008 at 7:48 pm

    Your graphic could be much better.
    I’m not going to argue the second part, but the first. A better analogy IMHO would be China, where there are many different Communist parties (all controlled by the main one) to vote for.

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