Jackson Doughart
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Expect the conservatives to flop on cannabis

Prince Arthur Herald, 07 August 2013

As an addendum to my column last week regarding Justin Trudeau’s statement in support of cannabis legalization, it might be worth examining the reaction of the Conservative Party to the announcement. If you recall, Justice Minister Peter MacKay categorically rejected the idea of legalization, calling cannabis use a societal ill and reaffirming the government’s commitment to controlling its use through the law. I wouldn’t expect this to stick for long, or at least not long enough for it to be remembered by voters in the next election. The reason for this is to be found in two related truths about the Party’s current incarnation, and in the realization that the nature of the electoral landscape would make opposing it strategically dangerous.

The first point is that since shortly after forming its first minority government, the Conservative Party under Stephen Harper has entirely given up on the project of preserving laws and policies that enforce a conservative moral system, which have been gradually collapsing since the 1970s but especially since the mid-1980s, either by judicial fiat or legislative action. This concession (from a party founded in 1987 on socially-conservative principles, no less) did not come about as a result of deliberation or “evolution” in thought; rather, the party took its cue from the public that any resistance to changing mores would render the party an illegitimate contestant for political office. The Conservatives learned this lesson the hard way when they opposed homosexual marriage in the lead-up to the 2004 reference case and the 2005 statutory legalization.

This opposition was, regardless of what you think on the issue generally, a reasonable position to take, seeing 1) that the Conservatives were then the official opposition party and that the Martin Government was in favour of the change, 2) that a majority of people in general, let alone right-of-centre folks, opposed it, 3) that the move was quite a radical one at the time, making Canada the first North-American and culturally-Protestant society to make the leap, and 4) that the Party’s (or at least Harper’s own) position was in favour of civil unions, not of no recognition whatsoever. But the public, and especially the white-guilt progressive types in Ontario, never forgave them, especially after the newly-elected Harper Government tried in 2006 to reopen this issue with a free vote. Ask any ten of the anti-Harperites why they harbour such strong animus toward the prime minister, and I bet that eight of them will cite homophobia as the principal reason, despite the marriage issue being dormant for about seven years and effectively over as a contested question.

Following this, the Canadian voter and the Conservative Party struck the following bargain: so long as the Party abandoned any effort to oppose social progressivism, the voter would otherwise give the Party a “fair shake”, i.e. to judge its candidates and its governance on their merits. I am sure that this “deal” was the critical factor in creating the present Conservative majority from 2011. Voters (the important ones, anyway) believed that Harper and Flaherty merited an extension of their rule because of their stewardship of the economy in the three years following the ’08 financial crisis. But this willingness to even consider such an extension was predicated on voter confidence that the PM was sincere when he promised not to reopen the (non-existent) abortion debate, one of the social progressive’s three primary moral causes, the others being homosexual rights and multiculturalism. All of this suits the party elites quite well, as their primary governing objectives, apart from simply keeping the show on the road, relate to trade, and especially to ensuring that environmental regulation does not stifle growth in industrial and energy exports. This doesn’t mean that they don’t care about social changes, but simply that they are smart enough to recognize that expending absolutely any political capital on opposing them will cost them their power, which can actually be used to advance the important economic goals that they want to achieve in any case.

The second point, related inherently to the first, is that the Party has come to loathe its members who fail to accede to this compromise or to comply with its implication for the holders of genuinely conservative views. That implication is crisply rendered by the German interjection “Halt’s Maul!”, or “keep your mouth shut”. The way that Harper behaved during the circus surrounding Stephen Woodworth’s entirely reasonable private-member’s bill, which proposed that Canada’s three-hundred-year-old legal definition of human life be reexamined by a tripartisan committee, exemplifies this perfectly. Don’t be surprised, by the way, if Rona Ambrose’s nomination papers don’t get signed in 2015. The man means business. At any rate, this loathing of social conservatives, which are in effect the party’s only loyal and reliable constituency (a definite factor in why it is disregarded) emanates from the “deal”, which stipulates that the Conservatives must refrain not only from advancing legislation or policy that challenges social progressivism, but also from providing a conduit through which or a pulpit upon which conservative views can be expressed with any whiff of legitimacy. It is of supreme importance to the “tolerant” liberal that his values not only win, but that he be insulated from having to hear an argument with which he disagrees.

I see the cannabis debate shaping up in much the same way that the homosexual marriage debate developed a decade ago, i.e. as a remarkably unsophisticated discussion based in perceived identity politics rather than actual argument. The progressives know the law and policy they want, so it is just a matter of engineering the representation in Parliament that is needed to secure them, preferably without having to acknowledge that reasonable people might take an opposing view. The battle ground in the next election will be the seats in Ontario that elevated the Conservatives from minority to majority status in 2011, and where Liberals will vie for electoral inroads. It is very possible that some of those voters agree with cannabis prohibition, and that if the Conservatives were to stand their ground it might work. But given the entrenchment of the “deal”, this would be a dangerous gamble for a government whose chief appeal at present involves the economy, not social issues. Tactically speaking, then, the Conservatives would probably be wise to fold the tent while they can and take the issue off the table, and given their social-policy impotence since ’06, I would say that this is a likely outcome. Of course, the party will represent its change of mind in economic terms, but the real motivation will be electoral in nature.

Though this might help the party’s fortunes, it would be an unfortunate development for the decline of public debate and democratic spirit, not to speak of the potential for cannabis legalization to have averse and unforeseen consequences. I say this as someone who has little investment, and certainly no personal investment, in the question. (The libertarian types are correct in the one sense that I don’t need a law to tell me not fry — or is it “bake” — my brain. That’s not enough to convince me categorically that the reformers are right, though.) Nevertheless, I do find something suspicious about a particular view that seemingly everyone agrees with, or that everyone is beginning to agree with. That isn’t contrarianism, it is reasonable scepticism about a state of affairs in which all parties are in accord — the very circumstance that is conducive to the mass overlooking of evidence and logic.

We need a real public argument about this, which would involve the introduction of substantive points and knowledgeable debaters from both sides, the engagement of the citizenry with unfamiliar claims, and, yes, the forming of a partisan fault line whereby parties would actually and genuinely represent different views. What we are likely to get instead is a phony debate, with a predetermined conclusion, conducted merely to edify the false notion that there remains anything resembling a battle of ideas in Canadian politics.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com