Thursday, April 14, 2011

Federal election history 17, 1930: the original Stephen Harper?

I'm not sure the election itself is that interesting.  Mackenzie King's government ran straight into the Great Depression, and the depression won.  In the 1930 election, the Conservative opposition won 137 of 245 seats.

The new prime minister, R.B. Bennett, was the first Conservative Party leader elected by a mass party convention rather than by support of the party caucus (as King was the first Liberal so chosen). Bennett, like King, grasped the implications.

Bennett had been a unruly backbencher and had left federal politics rather than serve someone else.  Coming to power as leader, he essentially dispensed with the party and caucus and pretty much ruled as he chose -- hence Arch Dale's cartoon at right above.

In many ways, Bennett was an innovator.  He ran as a conventional conservative, promising protectionism, balanced budgets, and small government as the panaceas for the depression.  But when that didn't work, he improvised freely, promising that the government would "blast open the markets of the world," creating new central institutions like the Bank of Canada and the CBC, and finally coming up with the "Bennett New Deal" of large-scale government intervention in the economy.

Bennett launched the Bennett New Deal, and most of his other innovations, without even consulting his cabinet (Ramsay Cook writes in The Illustrated History of Canada that they were "astounded at this conversion.") and untrammelled by what the party or the parliamentary caucus might think.  His principal advisor was his unelected brother-in-law, W.D. Herridge.  In other words, you may think Mr Harper is an autocrat who holds parliament in contempt and runs everything from the PMO. But really, our leaders have all acted that way, ever since we authorized them to do so by freeing them from review by their caucuses.

Another feature of the 1930 election and its consequences was the continued rise of third parties. The Progressives were fading, but Social Credit was rapidly taking its place in the rural west.  And a Bennett cabinet minister, H.H Stevens, who could not stand being a flunky to an autocratic leader, formed his own party, the Reconstruction Party -- which never went anywhere itself, but helped weaken the Conservative vote.  With the rise of unaccountable party leaders in Canadian political life, it became impossible for strong regional or factional politicians to remain effective within a party; they had to become toadies or leave.   Stevens was one of the first to try leaving.

As parties became vehicles for leaders, they lost their role as broad-based combinations of jockeying factions.  Here comes the future.
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