Oct. 5, 2003
Right-wing revolution sputters out


If Ernie Eves had leprosy, it would be hard to imagine right wingers rushing to distance themselves from him any faster.

As the great Ontario Tory ship went under with the swoosh of the Titanic last week, just about everybody associated with the right pushed and jockeyed to get to the lifeboats, leaving Eves and his crew to bob in the water on their own.

Former premier Mike Harris was able to watch the entire disaster from a deck chair on dry land no small achievement for someone who had guided the ship straight toward the iceberg, before bailing out in plenty of time.

Right-wing commentators keenly singled out Eves to take the fall. In its lead editorial the morning after the election, the National Post praised the Harris legacy of "prudent fiscal management and lower taxes" and insisted that the crushing defeat of the Conservatives could be attributed to "Eves' decision to stray from that course."

Just as the right tried to blame Kim Campbell for the massive rout of the Mulroney Tories in 1993, so the attempt is underway to distance Harris from this calamity and keep the Harris legacy intact.

Nice try. But Frank Graves, president of Ekos Research Associates, notes that his polling indicates Eves wasn't the reason for the defeat. "They probably did better under Eves, all things considered."

In fact, the Conservatives were already trailing the Liberals badly in every major poll with some polls showing a 20-point gap back in October, 2001, when Harris announced he was stepping down, only two years into his second mandate.

The party's polling numbers actually improved after Eves captured the leadership by pitching himself as a moderate, gentler Tory.

But that disappeared in the election campaign. Both in tone and content, the Eves campaign had Harris written all over it. In addition to the heavy dose of neo-conservative policies, the campaign was divisive, vindictive and mean-spirited very much in the tradition of Harris. The Eves campaign team, ultimately guided by Bay Street fundraiser and Harris buddy Ralph Lean, was made up of people who had honed their attack skills under Harris.

Ultimately, this ugly neo-conservatism which is all about the rich pushing everyone else out of their way as they head to the trough doesn't play very well in Canada. It probably didn't help the neo-conservative cause here that, south of the border, George W. Bush has been providing a textbook example of a no-holds-barred, right-wing revolution, where tax cuts are heaped on the richest of the rich while everyone else has to do with less (including in Iraq, where U.S. soldiers have been forced to swallow a pay cut and injured soldiers are even obliged to pay for their own hospital meals).

With this sort of conservatism-gone-haywire in close view, it's getting harder and harder to make the case that right-wing revolution is about something other than straightforward plunder.

So attempts to scapegoat Eves aren't convincing. But the alternative involves admitting the right-wing revolution may be sputtering to an end in Canada, and that the endless unite-the-right efforts are not only boring, they're pointless. Most Canadians just don't like the hard right. That's something federal Conservative Leader Peter MacKay should think about before succumbing to the embrace of Alliance Leader Stephen Harper. (David Orchard might look better in the morning.)

Those who fantasize about a right-wing future for Canada have pinned their hopes on Harris leading a united right. Harris alone appears to solve a fundamental problem that the hard right is popular in the west, and all but shut out elsewhere in the country.

Harris is seen as the best hope for bridging this gap the man whose right-wing ideology would sell out west and whose Ontario roots would sell in the east.

So keeping the aura of Harris' appeal alive is critically important to the right, even though it may be wishful thinking. Graves says his polling shows Harris is not particularly popular across the country, or even in Ontario.

Still, by leaving the scene well before last week's election debacle, Harris at least created an alibi for himself. When the voters rose up in anger against the Tories, it was on Eves' watch; Harris was busy golfing.

Keeping to that message is crucial to any future political hopes of Harris and to the dreams of right wingers. Given their ample access to the media, they may succeed in spinning this version of reality.

But I suspect that when Ontarians unleashed their wrath against the Tories in last week's election, they were actually saying: "This one's for you too, Mike."

Linda McQuaig is a Toronto-based author and political commentator. She writes every Sunday.

Additional articles by Linda McQuaig

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