Saturday, November 26, 2011

Wall brings 'Harpertism' to the provinces

By Michael Taube
Postmedia News
November 26, 2011

Is Saskatchewan the new Alberta Premier Brad Wall's massive recent re-election victory seems to indicate that conservatism - in particular, populist conservatism - has found a new home in what used to be left-leaning Tommy Douglas country.

On Nov. 7, Wall's Saskatchewan Party won 49 of 58 seats in the provincial legislature. They earned an astonishing 64 per cent of the popular vote (no Saskatchewan-based party has ever earned a higher percentage), made significant inroads in Regina and Saskatoon (traditional NDP strongholds), and unseated NDP leader Dwain Lingenfelter, who then resigned. That's a rather remarkable achievement, considering Saskatchewan's long infatuation with socialism, co-operative programs and universal health care.

How could Wall have achieved so much success in a province that has only had two other right-leaning premiers (James T.M. Anderson and Grant Devine) since 1905? Here's the answer: he's more of a populist conservative than a fiscal conservative.

Although Wall's government has been called "fiscally conservative" by various media outlets - including the Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon Star-Phoenix - it's a bit of a misnomer.

Wall is promoting a populist brand of conservatism that he believes he can sell - and has sold - to Saskatchewan voters. While that's not ideologically pure, it's a politically viable strategy.

Over time, populism started to shift into the right-of-centre political ranks. For instance, the Social Credit Party of Alberta supported right-leaning populism, or populist conservatism. Under premier William Aberhart, the party combined social credit monetary policy with distrust of the financial sector - and even threw in a few dashes of Christian teachings along the way.

This strategy continued under premier Ernest C. Manning for a spell, but he gradually shifted Social Credit into a more mainstream conservative political party. Manning's wise decision created a long-standing tradition of Albertans voting for right-leaning Socred and PC governments, and sup-port for more libertarian outfits such as Danielle Smith's Wildrose Party.

I believe the Saskatchewan Party is the second coming of populist conservatism. Wall's measured support for fiscal conservatism and the private sector has real populist appeal in Saskatchewan. At the same time, the urban and rural sectors have both been pleased with their government's balanced handling of the economy, and the province's continuing success with potash, uranium, and oil and natural gas. Whereas Devine's progressive conservatism was more of a tenuous relationship that was ultimately destroyed by political scandal, Wall's populist conservatism is becoming more acceptable as part of the provincial political discourse. In time, Saskatchewan's long love affair with left-wing politics may just shut down completely.

Does this sound sort of familiar? Well, it should: Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been doing the same thing. He strategically became the figurehead for Canadian conservatism, adjusted it, modified it, and re-branded it as a moderate - and heavily watered down - version of fiscal conservatism. My belief is this new political phenomenon, "Harpertism," (which I plan to discuss in greater detail down the road) has changed the way many of us perceive conservatism as an ideological viewpoint. The PM's informal 10-year plan to establish a conservative Canada is therefore well underway.

Wall's populist conservatism is limited to one province. But the similarities in building a conservative Saskatchewan to the way conservatism was built in Alberta - and in Canada - are rather striking. Change is in the air, and the political wheat smells sweeter than it has ever been before.

Michael Taube is a political analyst and commentator.

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