The Americas: Regionalism Beats Ideology in Canada Elections

Republished on on February 07, 2006

Wall Street Journal, Sep
14, 1984

Will Progressive Conservative Brian Mulroney`s
victory in Canada`s recent elections prove as evanescent
as the 1958 Tory electoral sweep? Most interpretations
of Mr. Mulroney`s victory seem intent on preserving the
dogma that Canada`s political culture is different, more
"moderate" and collectivist, than that of the
U.S. But in fact, English-speaking Canadians are pretty
much like their neighbors in other sections of North
America. They are certainly no more liberal than the
inhabitants of the Upper Midwest or the Pacific

The differences between the U.S. and Canada are more
a result of institutions than ideology. It is Canada`s
parliamentary system, with its ruthless party discipline
and utter lack of regional balance, that has effectively
suppressed a Reagan-style, Western-led conservative
insurrection up to now. It is salutary to remember that
if the U.S. had the parliamentary system, Tip
O`Neill—because he controls the House of
Representatives, which with equal-sized single-member
districts most closely corresponds to the House of
Commons—would now be the U.S. prime minister.

Rather than ideology, Canadian elections are about
sectionalism and ethnicity. It is here that churlish
questions must be asked about Mr. Mulroney`s victory.
There is no doubt that he scored an impressive personal
triumph in wooing French Canadians away from liberalism,
increasing his party`s share of the French-speaking
province of Quebec`s 75 seats to 58 from one. Of course,
this was partly achieved by his remarkably frank
promises to redistribute government patronage in
Quebec—a feature of Mr. Mulroney`s campaign style.

More ominously, Mr. Mulroney attracted French votes
because he is a native-born patois-speaking Quebecer and
a semi-assimilated Irish Catholic—an ethnic group viewed
as neutral to friendly in the ancestral wars against les
Anglais. By contrast, Liberal John Turner`s Ontario base
and Parisian French excited the socially acceptable
racism that was exemplified by Devoir editor Lise
Bisonette`s description of Mr. Turner as "a perfect
although he is in fact a Roman Catholic. Yet
the bulk of Mr. Mulroney`s Tory party is still
unreconstructedly Anglophone and Protestant. Cultural
clashes are inevitable in the new Tory caucus.

Cultural clashes within the Tory party are also
likely because, notwithstanding the party`s commitment
to federalism, a number of the new French Tory M.P.s,
such as Rimouski`s Monique Vezina, are Quebec
separatists. The separatist Parti Quebecois provincial
government in Quebec, which won reelection in 1981,
apparently decided to throw its weight behind the Tories
to defeat its federal Liberal enemies. Tories have been
an unknown species in large parts of Quebec, and the PQ
seems to have provided organization and personnel. Who
is fooling whom in this singular alliance is naturally a
pressing question. Mr. Mulroney probably hopes to coopt
separatists in his ranks, and has hinted that he may be
prepared to cede to Quebec the veto over constitutional
matters it was explicitly denied in the Liberals` 1981
constitutional reform. But this may not be acceptable to
English Canada.

The inflexibilities of the parliamentary system will
also make it difficult for Mr. Mulroney to alleviate the
sectional stress in English Canada. For example,
generally speaking, Western Canada would benefit from
free trade with the U.S. Instead, under the Liberals it
was treated as a colony in a fairly pure mercantilist
sense, forced to buy tariff-protected goods from Ontario
and Quebec and restricted in its ability to sell to
foreign markets. Even the National Energy Program, whose
anti-American provisions attracted attention here, was
more accurately an attempt by Ottawa to expropriate
Western energy profits and to direct domestic energy
developments along politically favored lines.

But apart from the federal government`s chronic
revenue needs, it is hard to see how Mr. Mulroney can
radically alter a policy so patently designed to favor
Ontario and Quebec, from which the majority of his
caucus comes. Similarly, Mr. Mulroney is committed to
leave unchanged the Liberals` policy of bilingualism,
their panacea for Quebec separatism. This would
effectively restrict key jobs in the federal
government—Canada`s major employer—to the 15% of the
population that is bilingual, most of whom are French
Canadians and almost all of whom live in Quebec and
Ontario. Yet Western resentment of bilingualism is
intense. A nascent Western separatist party, the

Confederation of Regions,
has put up a surprisingly
strong showing in
where an attempt to impose the policy at a
provincial level was

in the face of

virtual public insurrection
earlier this year.

Of course, the Tories` problems in trying to
consolidate their gains must seem enviable to the
shattered federal Liberals. Without any provincial
Liberal governments to succor them, and without a leader
who appeals to their traditional Quebec base, their
comeback is going to be rough. Which raises a
possibility unmentionable in Canada: The ultimate
beneficiary of the Tory win may be the Parti Quebecois,
which has succeeded in destroying its main rival for the
affection of the French Canadians.

Mr. Brimelow writes for
Barron`s and has been a columnist for the Financial Post
and Maclean`s magazine. He is finishing a book on Canada
for the Manhattan Institute.