The recent federal election campaign provided a classic dilemma for many small-c conservatives. Voting for the big-spending, big-government Liberals was out of the question-let alone endorsement of a scandal like Adscam this would imply. The NDP was a non-starter because at its policy base is the idea of more government control. That left the Conservatives, consisting in part of the remaining members of the old PC party, which hadnt governed for thirteen years. Also hard to forget was that on the very first day of his partys campaign, the Conservative Party leader, Stephen Harper, had called for a free vote in the House of Commons on same-sex marriage. The stance only reinforced Harpers social conservatism, which, like the NDPs approach to control in the economic sphere, underlined the Tories desire to control the personal lives of Canadians by regulating morality. It is exactly the kind of plank that, according to authors Tasha Kheiriddin and Adam Daifallah shows whats wrong with todays big-C conservatives.
Kheiriddin is Ontarios director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, and Daifallah is a journalist and a law student at Quebecs Laval University. They state that the time has come to construct a conservative movement with a dual agenda: first, to rid itself of traditional social conservatism (e.g., opposing gay marriage and abortion), thereby making it as progressive and liberal in these areas as the Liberal Party and the NDP, and more in step with mainstream Canadian opinion; and second, to stop mimicking some of the worst features of the other parties by supporting increased government spending and an expansionist state. The goal should be a conservative government that will provide a true right-wing alternative with staying power, instead of functioning as the occasional blip in the interregnum of Canadas otherwise natural governing party, the Liberals. The Tories, after all, have formed governments in just over 30 of the past 100 years.
According to the authors, the reason the big-C Conservatives havent been more successful can be found at the root of what a small-c conservative vision is all about. Why would voters elect Liberal lite when they can get the real thing? The authors advocate a return to what they say is genuine conservatism. To us, small-c conservatism means a political philosophy loosely based on the ideas of classical liberalism as outlined in the writings of John Locke, Adam Smith and more modern thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek. It emphasizes free markets, individual rights over collective rights, limited government, private property rights and personal responsibility. All that freedom stuff. Yet for most of Canadian history, no mainstream federal political party-including the Conservatives-has advocated small-c conservatism.
The 1980s marked a watershed for the conservative movement worldwide, with governments like Ronald Reagans in the US and Margaret Thatchers in Britain transforming the political and economic landscapes by downsizing or selling off state enterprises, enacting major tax cuts, and preaching the gospel of individual initiative and entrepreneurship. The Britain and America of the pre-conservative Seventies-ramshackle realms of endless strikes and long national nightmares, of Jimmy Carters malaise and Jim Callaghans winter of discontent-seem like remote planets viewed from their present landscapes, columnist Mark Steyn says in the books foreword. But this revolution never touched the Great White North. We, alas, still live in Pierre Trudeaus Canada.
The reason for this, Kheiriddin and Daifallah say, goes beyond a lack of vision on the part of Conservative leaders, with the exceptions of Albertas Ralph Klein and Ontarios Mike Harris, whose governments, at least in their first terms, legislated some free-market initiatives. More fundamentally, its because there has been no real base or infrastructure to support conservative values. Its very different in the United States, where since the mid-60s, a plethora of organizations, think tanks, and media have sprung up to vigorously advocate right-of-centre policies. The result is the Republican Partys present hegemony in U.S. politics. These include the Heritage Foundation, the Hudson Institute and the Cato Institute. They put out papers, host conferences, help get support for Republican policy initiatives and nominees and endow fellowships for conservative thinkers, prompting former Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan to remark that Republicans had replaced Democrats as the party of ideas.
Add to this a vast ring-wing media with a slew of publications like National Review, Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, and Commentary, which espouse conservative values that reach the general public. And let us not forget the ubiquitous talk-radio programs, hosted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Larry Elder.
To build its own conservative culture, the Canadian conservative movement must replicate these models, the authors write. Typically, this movement can take the shape of a pyramid, with big donors and foundations forming the base, financing think tanks from where ideas are pushed up to political strategists who can tailor messages to appeal to the public. These in turn are distributed through conservative media.
The authors dont entirely despair. Some seeds for a movement have been planted with the creation of Canadian research institutes and lobbying organizations like the Fraser Institute-the think-tank the left loves to hate-the National Citizens Coalition, and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. In fact, their existence has already borne fruit. As Fraser Institute director Michael Walker says, You dont hear governments bragging (anymore) about increasing expenditures or how big deficits are . . . even the radical left is not as radical as it used to be.
But these organizations dont emerge from nowhere; they require financing. And those who are most likely to benefit from conservative policies, such as big business, have not stepped up to the plate. Thats largely because corporate Canada perceives the Liberals to be just as good for business. And Liberal initiatives, like balanced budgets and free-trade extension throughout North America, have indeed favoured the private sector. But, the authors add, business should remember that these policies didnt happen out of conviction, but out of necessity-as election opportunism. Supporting a movement that, in principle, advocates downsized governments and fewer taxes, both of which would free up investment capital in the private sector, should be seen as furthering the interests of corporate Canada.
In the fields of public policy, Kheiriddin and Daifallah assess broad areas where the Conservative Party, once it is rooted in conservative values, can make significant gains-such as judicial rulings concerning the Charter of Rights, the environment, health care and Quebec.
Traditionally, the Conservatives have most often bashed court rulings as judicial activism over the democratic rule of Parliament. In some cases this is legitimate, the authors say. But Conservatives must use the courts as well. For instance, the breakthrough Chaouilli ruling of last year that struck down Quebecs prohibition against private medical insurance was a victory for small-c conservatives. The National Citizens Coalition, while ultimately unsuccessful, has also challenged election gag laws (prohibitions on third-party speech) in the courts.
Where the environment is concerned, Kheiriddin and Daifallah admit conservatives have been stereotyped as Neanderthals. Yet conservative values are not inimical to environmental stewardship. The best way to encourage environmental protection is to promote private property rights, they say. When you own land you want to take care of it. An example is homesteading of resources, such as giving people who fish ownership of a portion of the annual catch and therefore avoiding the tragedy of the commons through overfishing and depletion of stocks.
In Quebec, Kheiriddin and Daifallah argue, conservatives should take an approach that bypasses the pro-separatist academic and cultural élites-a carbon copy of the Old Europe social democratic left-and appeal directly to citizens who have demonstrated consistent individual and anti-state preferences. That such people exist is evidenced by Quebec polls showing high support for private health care as well as massive support for free trade. Quebec has shown a willingness to embrace free-market ideas, they say. It now needs a massive dose of exposure for them to displace the popularity of socialism.
As Kheiriddin and Daifallah see it, even social conservatives need not be alienated by a new brand of conservatism. The Conservative Party could still be pro-family, though in the broad sense. That means endorsing gay marriage, which studies show are just as stable as heterosexual marriages. The general decline in the marriage rate also threatens the traditional family. Say the authors: Conservatives shouldnt worry that gay Canadians want to get married, rather they should be concerned that straight Canadians dont wish to marry or stay married.
A successful conservative movement needs young people. But Canadian conservatism has failed to connect with the younger generation, the authors write. At its last convention the Conservative Party even jettisoned its youth wing. Kheiriddin and Daifallah say modern conservatism should shed its old-fogy image and make it cool to be conservative. This means addressing young peoples concerns-on campuses, with new organizations to challenge traditional left-wing groups-regarding the environment, jobs, or poverty, for example. The party could take a page from left groups like labour unions and create youth training sessions and summer camps to explain and promote conservative values.
Kheiriddin and Daifallahs book is long overdue, and they are on the mark with many of the problems they identify as undermining contemporary conservatism-the absence of a broad vision and an intellectual infrastructure, and a willingness to implement policies resembling the initiatives of the Grits with respect to taxes, expansion of Crown corporations, or the creation of major subsidies in the form of corporate welfare to big business.
Generally, the authors produce substantial arguments, but some sections of the book could have offered more. In the chapters on a conservative vision for the family and the environment, for example, the list of free-market solutions is relatively slim. As well, their denunciation of the Liberals Kyoto environmental policy might make a reader think trading pollution credits itself is bad, whereas the concept is actually based on free market economics.
I take exception to a few specific points. In advocating a policy that will make Canada a more appealing country for Quebeckers while strengthening national unity, the authors call for a rebalancing of federal-provincial responsibilities for all provinces that want them. This is a strategy for fracturing the federation, not strengthening it. The authors also take on a conspiratorial tone when talking about policies affecting the family: Since economic independence translates into political independence, leftists- including todays NDP-favour high inheritance taxes to prevent such accumulation of money. Really? Or is it simply that the NDP believes in taxing wealthier segments of society?
More broadly, would Canadians actually support the values Kheiriddin and Daifallah endorse? They write, Some say the general Canadian attitude of mind, as a whole, is not now, and has never been, conservative. Perhaps. Rugged individualists may have settled the nation and there are still wide swathes of the country-rural people, the West, and small entrepreneurs-who tend to have a more conservative outlook. But the broad majority of the population has had a comfortable life under Canadas welfare state. Its hard to argue with the points Paul Martin made during the last election campaign: inflation and interest rates are low, unemployment is at its lowest level in 30 years, the government has had eight straight surpluses, and 400,000 jobs have been created since the beginning of 2004.
The problem for conservatives might be that Canadians, under state-centred Liberalism (and to a lesser extent under the Progressive Conservative Party), have had it so good for so long that, despite corruption, the threat of separatism, dysfunctional health care, and the chronic irritant of high taxes, they may be justified in their reluctance to tamper with a good thing. The problem in Canada is that the welfare state just might have been too successful. Ron Stang
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada