John Ibbitson’s next Canada

Aug 19th, 2004 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

Serious fans of Canadian politics first bumped into John Ibbitson in the late 1990s. He arrived as the best-informed reporter on Mike Harris’s “common sense revolution” in the provincial politics of Ontario (currently home to some 38% of all the people of Canada).

Since then Ibbitson’s indisputable talents have raised him to the higher calling of reporting on federal politics in Ottawa, for Canada’s self-confessed national newspaper in Toronto. And even if you hardly ever agree with him at all, he has been unusually intriguing to read lately. His reactions to the strange federal election of June 28, 2004 were uniquely provocative. He is one of the people who have made politics in Canada … well, a bit interesting again.

Back in Parry Sound-Muskoka

As he recently alluded to himself, John Ibbitson grew up in the Ontario electoral riding of Parry Sound-Muskoka – in the ruggedly beautiful rural countryside of the Canadian Shield, a few hours’ drive north of greater Toronto.

It is a kind of place that has found the international neo-conservative revolution of the late 20th century attractive in various other parts of the world too (using “neo-conservative” mostly for want of better words). And in other parts of Canada. Especially oil-rich Alberta and the ruggedly beautiful rural countryside of British Columbia, another few hours’ drive from Vancouver.

Ibbitson’s own descent from the rural hinterland – which is in some ways more exurban or even vaguely suburban nowadays than “rural” used to be – has given him an intimate grasp of current conservatism in Ontario and Western Canada.

He has written so well about the new and sometimes almost self-contradictory political currents on the right (“conservative revolution” is an oxymoron at best), because he has felt their demographic attractions deep inside himself.

So in the 2004 federal election many in Parry Sound-Muskoka voted for the new Conservative Party of Canada – which has largely grown out of the old Western Reformers and the oxymoronic Harris revolutionaries. And there seems little doubt that John Ibbitson voted this way as well.

But his hometown riding at large, which is also seasonally inundated by highly urbane cottagers from the Toronto region and beyond, finally opted for the Liberals, by a few thousand votes.

No tears for dwindling Red Tories

Ibbitson had a few interesting things to say on the way to the June 28 election. It has always been the new populist neo-conservatism of the more recent past, with its occasional strange revolutionary moments, that has inspired him. He is a present-day conservative who does not worry about earlier progressive conservative traditions in Canada.

He is finally only amused by the increasingly obsolete Red Toryism once thought especially crucial in Ontario. (And, with a few variations, in Atlantic Canada, and Winnipeg and maybe one or two other parts of the West – such as Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, home of Canada’s 18th prime minister, John George “the Chief” Diefenbaker, 19571963).

As Ibbitson urged late in April 2004, just as the much anticipated Canadian federal campaign was starting in earnest, “your typical Red Tories are fiscally conservative, socially progressive, loyal to the Queen, viscerally antagonistic to the Liberal Party.” But “their numbers have been dwindling for half a century; they’re becoming as exotic as the Orange Lodge.”

(Ontario Toryism, which from its beginnings has been exotic in its own right in continental North America, once also had a lot to do with the local Orange Lodge. Among all manner of Tories and others, there are still more smoldering embers of its ancient Anglo Protestant hyperbole in many parts of Canada than the present officially pretends.)

New dynamic individualist consensus

The crux of the dwindling Red Tories’ problem today, on Ibbitson’s view, is that in an earlier era there had been a shared progressive consensus among both liberals and conservatives, in such places as Canada and the United States, or even the United Kingdom and Australia.

From some point in the 1950s down to the end of the 1970s almost everyone agreed about such things as “a mixed economy” and “an advanced welfare state.” The “only real difference between conservatism and liberalism in Canada had to do with the importance of the British heritage.”

Then things started to change in the 1980s. By the late 1990s the change had reached even Canada’s most populous province of Ontario – once sometimes thought to be a uniquely stodgy and Red Tory place. In the process “Keynesianism” was replaced by “monetarism,” and “the welfare state by the accountable state.”

Nowadays “the British heritage doesn’t matter a fig any more.” (In 2004 the old Tory Toronto of very ancient memory is resolutely multicultural and largely Liberal, with a quite faded Red Tory fringe, only a little updated by the likes of the Canadian West Indian writer, Austin Clarke.) And there is a “new consensus” everywhere – including Jean Charest’s Quebec – about such things as balanced government budgets and low interest rates.

In the end, Ibbitson urges, this new consensus “spans both the Liberal and Conservative parties.”

It is true that Stephen Harper’s united but still reformed Canadian party of the right has at last unambiguously endorsed the neo-conservative “credo of dynamic individualism.” The New Tories in Canada are happily “neither communitarian nor progressive.” Yet it is also true that “the Liberals have never been less progressive themselves.”

On this same view of the current landscape, Ibbitson stressed in the spring of 2004, there was no real logic to any advice about how true Red Tories ought to vote Liberal in the coming federal election. The only more or less major Canadian political party still trapped in the old progressive consensus of the Keynesian mixed-economy past is the still sort-of socialist red New Democrats.

The NDP forms another faded fringe in Toronto today, and something a bit more prominent in Vancouver – and Halifax, Winnipeg, and so forth. And the NDP, as Ibbitson put it (somewhat misleadingly), is the only surviving communitarian political organization that can “honestly welcome the remaining Red Tories,” wherever they may be.

Snatching a humbling victory from the jaws of defeat

In the eyes of more than a few Canadians themselves, their June 2004 federal election was just a local opening act for the much more serious and weighty November 2004 election in the global superpower next door. But it proved more interesting than almost everyone had expected.

(And, as the great majority of them apparently continue to prefer, according to all manner of opinion polls, Canadians still do not actually get to vote in American elections in any case.)

As the campaign progressed, it seemed increasingly clear that this was not going to be, as once widely thought, yet another decisive technical knockout by Canada’s natural governing party, the Liberals, buttressed by considerably less than a majority of the popular vote.

By the middle of June it had come to seem, to almost everyone paying attention, that there actually might even be some form of very surprising minority-government victory by Stephen Harper’s new and perhaps still somewhat revolutionary Conservative Party of Canada.

Like others who share his views, Ibbitson ultimately allowed this last speculation to briefly overcome his more cynically objective professional judgment.

Like others again, he was visibly disappointed the morning after the June 28 election, when it was clear at last that even Paul Martin’s besieged but still cunning and supremely opportunistic Liberals had managed to snatch their own minority-government victory from the jaws of defeat.

The Liberals were humbled by the people of Canada, and perhaps even taught a few useful lessons (though this may well be, as Ibbitson himself suspects, too much of a stretch).

But they were not exactly defeated by the new Conservative Party of Canada – or the Bloc Quebecois, the NDP, or the Green Party (which did otherwise have its best outing yet). For the moment the sovereign people in their ultimate wisdom have granted the natural governing party at least a year or two’s trial extension of its ongoing lease on Parliament Hill.

The capricious urban Ontario voters

Like others yet again, Ibbitson was looking for fall-guys on the morning of June 29. He might have looked as far as his former rural-exurban classmates in Parry Sound-Muskoka – thousands of whom also turned down the dynamic “Next Canada” offered by Stephen Harper’s new Conservatives. But he saved his eyesight for a bigger story.

Ultimately, he complained, it was “the capricious urban Ontario voters” who much more numerously chickened out on Harper’s still perhaps somewhat too revolutionary party at the last minute. More than anything else, it was “urban Ontario” that “barred the door” to a bolder future, and kept Paul Martin’s scandal-ridden Liberals in office, even if for just a little longer.

Yet there was some very good news too, Ibbitson thought. Given the inherent instability of the new minority parliament, another election “should occur within the next 12 to 24 months.”

In this imminent fresh contest, the West would of course be resolutely on board once more. There was still enough traditional support in the still quite conservative region of Atlantic Canada to get by on. The Conservative Party already had its own ancient and modern history of strategic dealing with the French-speaking nationalists in Quebec.

All that was needed was for the capricious voters in the metropolitan regions of Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, London (Ontario), and so forth to rediscover their courage. In the last half of the 1990s Mike Harris had shown how enough of the regional urban electorate (especially that part of it on the suburban and exurban cusps of the rural hinterland) could finally see the light.

Stephen Harper from Calgary Southwest, Alberta had himself been born and raised in the old Toronto suburb of Leaside. He had proved he could survive well enough in French language TV debates. He was a potential good fit for quite a large chunk of what Ibbitson calls Southern Ontario (which can indeed be more like Alberta than many in the media pretend).

With just a few final improvements in communicating the message, Mike Harris’s undoubted early provincial magic could come alive again in federal politics. Rightly inspired at last, urbane Ontario will stop fearing a bolder and more self-reliant future, in the “Next Canada” that now looms so inevitably on the northern North American horizon.

Stephen Harper’s new Conservative Party had done much better on June 28, 2004 than virtually anyone would have remotely thought possible a year before. Whatever else, Ibbitson enthused, Harper had “staked a claim to the future.” The New Tories had “momentum” at last.

Say what you like, there do seem at least a few grains of more cynically objective truth in all this. The Liberals were wounded on June 28, 2004, quite seriously.

It has now been revealed that even Paul Martin’s reinvigorated natural governing party is far from invincible. During the first six months of 2004 the heirs of Laurier, Mackenzie King, Lester Pearson, and Pierre Trudeau made many more plain dumb mistakes in judging the national mood than had once been thought possible, inside and outside Ontario. So Ibbitson sharply reminded any who were still listening on June 29: the “Next Canada will not be denied forever.”

On a clear day you can see forever

Ibbitson has a bit of a reputation for being attracted to the extremes of the political thinking he reports on. As many are quick to point out, it remains a problem for his kind of current predictive theory that Mike Harris’s now merely historic revolutionary regime in Ontario never did scale the heights which Ibbitson and a few other bold thinkers thought they might, or ought to.

From a related angle, something of the stark mental clarity that so energized the 19th century agrarian democracy north of the Great Lakes still does haunt such places as Parry-Sound-Muskoka – or at least it did when John Ibbitson was growing up. Almost uniquely among his contemporaries, in Ontario at any rate, Ibbitson’s political writing today still has some of the intellectual coherence of the noble old society of the North American family farm.

This stiff ancient agrarian edge is one of the attractions of Ibbitson’s reporting. But the trouble here, some will go on to stress, is that in Ontario especially the 20th century brought some vast changes to everyday life for the great majority of the incubating people of Canada. In the midst of these changes the old mental clarity turned into something of a liability.

William Lyon Mackenzie, leader of the failed 1837 Rebellion in Upper Canada said: “Up then, brave Canadians. Get ready your rifles and make short work of it.” But his grandson, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Liberal prime minister of Canada 1921-1926, 1926-1930, 1935-1948, just said: “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.”

Canada being what it still is today, Ibbitson’s style of analysis is no doubt still vulnerable to some rough judgments on this score. Too much stress on clarity sometimes can be too dysfunctional in the kind of highly heterogeneous and diverse societies that such places as John Ibbitson’s Southern Ontario have become over the past century. (Especially when they live right next door to French-speaking Quebec, along with Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York State).

Yet it is also true that nowadays we have entered yet another new century again. And there increasingly do seem a few good reasons to suspect that the 21st century is not going to be quite like the 20th century, just as the 20th century was not quite like the 19th, and so forth. In the new age that now lies so quizzically before us, at least some additional degree of mental clarity just might be growing into something more functional, or even almost urgent again.

“I am Canadian…”

Ibbitson’s “Next Canada” may finally prove not quite or even much at all like what he and others who feel as he does today imagine, or hope for.

It could be, e.g., that the practical side of the neo-conservative revolution in Canada has already won most of its point, and gone about as far as it can go. As Ibbitson himself has urged, Paul Martin’s Liberals have got and, during Martin’s own recent years as finance minister, even acted on much of that part of the dynamic individualist message with real claims to wide relevance.

In the Ontario politics where Ibbitson started his reporter’s career, even Howard Hampton’s New Democrats effectively endorsed a balanced budget in the 2003 provincial election. Jack Layton’s federal NDP was only a little more imaginatively blurry in 2004, as a marketing tactic.

It could be that the Next Canada will finally have more to do with such things as provincial rights and the federal power to tax and spend, Senate reform, the rights of the unique French-speaking political community in Quebec, aboriginal rights, and the (since 1982) chartered rights and freedoms of all the people of Canada, from coast to coast to coast.

(Ibbitson’s own column on June 28 even took a moment to remind us that: “We have overlooked one fundamental issue during this election campaign. Whoever wins tonight, the influence of the federal government is about to further diminish. The questions is, by how much?”)

Yet Ibbitson may still rather astutely have his indisputably talented finger on something, when he predicts that some kind of new Next Canada will not be denied forever.

The old Ontario Red Tory Robertson Davies used to say that Canada is the kind of country you worry about. In some similar updated spirit, if Canada today is going to survive the new 21st century, it is probably going to have to become at least somewhat bolder than it has been so far – since it at last began to emerge from the shadows of the fallen British empire in the 1960s.

You could read the recent Canadian federal election of 2004 as evidence that Stephen Harper and his exotic New Tories are ultimately the people who best understand this need, and are prepared to act on it, seriously enough. That, in any case, finally seems to be John Ibbitson’s strongest argument. And it just may be true that it can no longer be dismissed out of hand.

And now for something completely different … uniting the left too?

Ibbitson drove this point home in his column on Canada Day, July 1, 2004, which was provocatively entitled “THE LIBERAL PARTY? THINK EATON’S.”

Eaton’s, for those who may have forgotten, was the family-owned Toronto-based department store chain that had established itself almost everywhere, across the entire old Dominion of Canada, by the middle of the 20th century. Then it started to forget that its best customers were the ordinary rural and other Canadians who devoured its mail-order catalogues and revelled in the old urbane populist ambience of its original big- and small-city department stores.

As the private good fortune of the Eaton family rose, it lost touch with the broader populace that had briefly given it an empire. It started to think that its best future lay with assorted new upscale executive elites. And then in the very late 20th century it finally went bankrupt and vanished – something hardly anyone in Canada would have thought possible only a few decades before.

The federal Liberal Party, Ibbitson advised his readers on Canada Day 2004, is approaching some at least vaguely parallel kind of bad shape today.

“Paul Martin had hoped to renew the Liberal Party,” Ibbitson urged. “Instead this election has left it looking old, desperate and detached …Worse, in fighting to save himself and his party from electoral defeat, the Prime Minister has worsened the very tensions that risk the future of the federation” (which is of course just a polite way of saying the future of Canada itself).

“Make no mistake,” Ibbitson went on: “The party might have won this time; it might even win next time. But its long-term prospects are bleak. The Liberal Party is Eaton’s.”

Of course nothing in world or local and regional history nowadays is at all certain, or even, it seems, just probable. That is what makes the future so interesting at the present juncture in human progress.

But, even if you have almost no real sympathy at all for John Ibbitson’s own underlying new Canadian neo-conservative point of view, it is hard to reflect on the 2004 federal election without thinking that he may again be onto something in his assessment of the current federal Liberals. (And the glimpses of their somewhat triumphal first post-election caucus meeting in Ottawa available on Canadian national television only seemed to stiffen this point.)

Those who really do not want Stephen Harper and the new Conservative Party to start shaping and defining the early details of the Next Canada might even want to start thinking about all this a bit harder, as the exact duration of Paul Martin’s new minority government starts to unfold. Now that the right in the true north, strong and free, finally does seem to have united itself, effectively enough, it just may be time to start thinking about some new long-term and more united strategy for the left as well.

A new free and democratic party that combined Liberal and NDP votes in British Columbia, e.g., would have done a lot better in 2004 than either the Liberals or the NDP did on their own …

(As matters stand, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives won 22 of BC’s current 36 federal seats on June 28. The Liberals won 8, the NDP 5, and there was one independent. But if the 2004 Liberal and NDP votes were combined, the results would be dramatically different. A “united left” Liberal New Democrat Party would have taken 26 seats in British Columbia – along with more than 55% of the popular vote – and the new Harper Conservatives only 9.)



This was the first piece to appear in the first edition of counterweights  in August 2004.  John Ibbitson’s career has changed in some important respects over the past five years.  To start with, he “became the Globe and Mail’s Washington columnist and correspondent in May 2007.” And this has helped push his thinking in still newer directions.

If you want to catch up, consult his short biography in the Globe and Mail, or an equally short Wikipedia piece on him. His most recent book, just published this past spring, has continued to stir controversy. See, e.g., Barbara Yaffe’s recent column in the Vancouver Sun, “Here’s a thought – how about erasing the Canada-U.S. border? … A book by Toronto journalist John Ibbitson suggests we’re overdue for a North American environmental, economic and security accord,” and a response from reader Madeline Bruce of  Nanaimo, BC in the same newspaper, “Erase the Canada-U.S. border? Over my dead body.”

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