Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Missing the Balance

Conservative party not as "balanced" as Hugh Segal insists

Writing in an op/ed in today's Globe and Mail, Conservative Senator Hugh Segal suggests that the Conservative Party of Canada is immune to the identity crisis plaguing many conservatives -- particularly in the United States -- by virtue of its history:
"While some on the left and in the punditocracy assume conservatives have been put under water by Wall Street's collapse and the seeming core incompetence or dishonesty of American financial market players, the opposing truth is that Canadian conservatives have a heritage much richer and more diverse than simple free-market devotion."
Certainly, this may be true.

But it's one thing to have such a heritage. It's entirely another to remain true to it. Segal effectively articulates the nature of that heritage:
"First, our heritage embraces the populist and pro-humanity legacy of Disraeli's 'one nation' Tory democracy - which worked at bridging the gap between the wealthy and the poor. We also can call on the Québécois 'bleu' tradition that is all about communitarian concern for the community and the culture our history reflects. Sir John A.'s 'progressive' conservatism, which sought to move beyond the anti-reform landed gentry to a more dynamic embrace of what the state can and should do in nation-building times is at the core of the Canadian conservative political story."
The problem, unfortunately, is that the Conservative party has failed to maintain that heritage.

Canadians may find it interesting to remember that John A MacDonald -- the father of Canadian Confederation, and long considered the prototypical Canadian conservative -- built the country on the basis of a railroad-building project.

Meanwhile, the Conservative party has never since taken on a national project of the scope of MacDonald's rail-building enterprise. Instead, most of Canada's great national projects -- our healthcare system being foremost among them -- have been undertaken instead by the Liberal party, with the support of the NDP.

While the Conservative party has proven extremely reluctant to follow in MacDonald's footsteps, it has proven itself quite eager to abort other parties' national projects -- such as the Liberal/NDP national daycare program.

What Canadian conservatives have long forgotten is that these national projects don't merely serve the interests of utopian socialism. National projects reinforce these very bleu conservative principles of communitarianism. They unite people and remind them what can be accomplished when an entire country buys in to an initiative and works together to accomplish it.
"That supports, as a foundation does a home, the social outreach, however belated, of R. B. Bennett in response to the Depression; George Drew's progressive social and economic development in Ontario; and the post-Depression social humanity and pro-working people and seniors reforms of prairie populists such 'Bible' Bill Aberhart, Ernest Manning, John Bracken and John Diefenbaker. Leaders such as Bob Stanfield, Joe Clark, Peter Lougheed, Preston Manning, Bill Davis or Richard Hatfield made a series of progressive and populist changes and proposals on income security, human rights, education, lifting seniors out of poverty, workplace safety and agricultural support that enrich the Tory part of the Conservative Party of today."
Many conservatives had high hopes that the merger of the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties to form the modern Conservative Pary of Canada would merge the institutions of the PCs with the populism on which the Reform party was founded.

Instead, what has emerged has been very different. No one who witnessed Bill Casey's expulsion from the Conservative caucus as retaliation for him voting against the Conservative budget -- an act he considered to be in the best interests of his constituents -- could believe that Preston Manning's vision of Canadian politics, conservative or otherwise, is alive and will within the Conservative party.
"And that Tory base is actually strengthened by the anti-establishment Reform tradition of enhanced accountability.

Only for the hard-bitten left ideologue is the credit meltdown an indictment of Tory principles around thrift, prudence, informed risk-taking and earned profit.
Indeed, despite the magnitude of the Conservatives' planned stimulus package, thrift, prudence and informed risk-taking very much do remain at the heart of the plan.

Liberal and NDP politicians would likely be rushing to roll out billions of dollars in grants and loans to the automotive sector, for example, as opposed to requiring them to look in-house for potential solutions and reengineer their business model before recieving any government aid.

But the planned stimulus package has yet to offer anything in terms of a cohesive vision. The kind of deficit spending the government will embark upon over the next couple of years (at least) provides the Conservative party with a splendid opportunity to lead the Canadian people on another national project.
"The fact that our economy is taking on water because a reckless American speedboat produced a 90-foot wave and a hugely destabilizing wake, forcing Canada to take emergency action, neither discredits nor diminishes the solid Tory balance between a private economy that generates employment and wealth for hardworking farmers and business people, along with support for social and public programs, and a coherent elected public authority that pursues an enlightened and modest role for government."
Certainly, this is true.

But few of those taking pleasure in the Conservative party's misfortune -- governing at a time of an externally-caused recession -- are ever going to admit that the source of this recession lies below the 49th parallel. The most dishonest among them will even insist that the American policies that led to this economic collapse are Prime Minister Stephen Harper's own policies despite the lack of mass deregulation of financial markets in Canada.

It doesn't help that the Conservative party is lacking the balance that Segal insists is its greatest virtue. Even if the Conservative party hasn't wholeheartedly embraced the American conservative movement's economic policies, it certainly has embraced economics as the uniting element of conservative philosophies, just as the American conservative movement did.
"This balance is part of our Canadian Tory history. It embraces tradition, supports social and economic progress that is mutually reinforcing and builds legitimacy around the core value of equality of opportunity. Keeping this latter mission front and centre when tackling unemployment, poverty, economic growth and prosperity is not only the right Conservative mission, but the right course for Canada.

Tories are anxious about rapid-fire government intervention that seems more slapdash than well-considered. Moderation, even in the face of crisis, is a Tory virtue. Consulting with cities and provinces before dispatching funds for job-creating projects, as is now being done, makes sense.
It certainly does make sense to consult with provinces, cities and municipalities does make sense.

But the government must be certain to design a stimulus program that refutes parochial interests and embraces initiatives that will bring Canadians closer together.

Upgrading Canada's communication or transportation infrastructure could be just such a project. Public/private partnerships to extend DSL internet into remote parts of the country or start building high-speed rail -- a long-neglected initiative in all of North America -- would make an excellent conservative national project.
"After Bennett's famous radio address in 1935 announcing a series of radical measures to help the poor and the dispossessed, Arthur Meighen, a signal personality of Tory rectitude and continuity, commented that while he was untroubled by the content of the message, he worried that the urgency of radio and its use might itself be unsettling to the public in unsettling times.

Stability and 'steady as you go' determined government, with a tilt toward the practical, humane and visionary, has always typified the Tory brand at its most successful. It is this legacy option that is still very much available to all conservatives - whether they seek to manage an energy-rich province, a national government facing gargantuan pressures or even to retake government in the next Ontario election.
If the Conservative party wants to successfully do any of these things, it will need to embrace the very balance that Segal alludes to, look beyond narrow economic ideology and do what no party in Canada has bothered to do for more than 20 years: formulate a coherent, inspiring vision for the future.

Segal should not count on notions of historical "balance" to see his party through the tough times -- for both itself and the country -- ahead.

When the Conservative party was elected in 2006, it was viewed by many Canadians as a good option amongst poor alternatives. Now it's increasingly being seen as the least worst option amoung uninspiring alternatives.

Under the leadership of Michael Ignatieff, the Liberal party will recieve a second look from many Canadians. Many of them will like what they see.

If Hugh Segal and the Conservative party want to continue governing federally -- let alone defeat the Dalton McGuinty Liberals in Ontario -- they need to come up with a vision that Canadians will be inspired by and buy into.

The "historic balance" of the Conservative party will not be enough.


  1. Patrick,

    Fat Arse here (sorry - I logged in under my other alias by mistake!)

    Damn good post.

    Ironies of Ironies. Seems it doesn't matter if one leans towards the right-wing or left-wing in this country - neither of us is happy with the present state of our respective standard bearers. Your call for the Conservatives to: "... do what no party in Canada has bothered to do for more than 20 years: formulate a coherent, inspiring vision for the future." echoes the very same sentiments I have towards the NDP. Only tonight I wrote: "Today's NDP cannot continue to try to be everything to every poor 'anti-this/pro-that' soul 24/7. It must first redefine its core guiding principles. It must stop jumping on every peripheral opportunistic news-cycle driven bandwagon. It must offer up a narrative that speaks to its core values and openly eschews crass opportunism. It must conserve its energies, stay on message, and dedicate itself to changing the Canadian mindset (yes, I do mean consciousness). Even if most Canadians disagree with this new message, it must be seen to be an honest broker whose subsequent actions ring true with dissenters as a faithful representation of the party's real goals. Finally, and here's the kicker - it must stop making false claims that it will soon form the government. Instead, it must seek to position itself, as did Woodsworth, as the legitimate conscience of Parliament - and really mean it! Even if it means it will lose some of its seats. Come hell or high water, it must accept these initial losses as the price of speaking social truth to political power.

    Patience and focus is needed. But I fear the present NDP exhibits none of the former and, regarding the latter, that it has ADHD. Until the NDP can settle on who it is [a third voice?], what it represents [pragmatic socialism?] and why it exists [to agitate for true reform?]; it is doomed to keep pissing in the wind."

    Funny how our political leanings may differ - yet our respective criticism of the two parties on each side of the spectrum both call for the same thing: VISION.

    What an odd and funny polity we dwell in!

  2. That's one side of the coin.

    The other side of the coin is that no one wants the other parties to do so either, even though that would be just as constructive.

    A funny polity indeed.

  3. A fantastic post, Patrick, and a great reply by Fat Arse.

    Sadly, it seems like most political parties and their supporters are more concerned with trying to kneecap their opponents and pandering to their bases than reaching out to one another and cooperating for the good of the country.

    Harper spent two years bullying Stéphane Dion with attack ads, even as he declared almost every bill to be a confidence motion, forcing Dion to either support or abstain the bills and making him look ineffective. Now, again, there's talk of running attack ads against Ignatieff.

    Meanwhile, Layton and the NDP indignantly refuse to work with the Conservatives or the Liberals on any bills, and refuse to moderate their message to broaden their appeal beyond their traditional base, which isn't enough to form a government on its own. Pragmatic leaders like Douglas, Woodsworth and David Lewis may not have formed the government, but they used their positions in Parliament to actively influence the government's agenda.

    This isn't just limited to actual politicians, either. Whenever I make the mistake of looking at the comments section of the National Post or similar forums, I see people who espouse the radical right ideas of Mike Harris and his ilk, and condemn anyone who dares to disagree, saying that they're not "real" conservatives.

    Similarly, how many average folks are inclined to listen to protesters and other hardcore activists who condemn anyone who gets off message, or of otherwise "selling out" in wanting to work with industry, businesses, or other groups that might have an active interest in whatever it is they're protesting?

    It's all about tearing down your opponent and making yourself look good. Instead of moderation and cooperation, so many of these groups preach to their choirs and condemn anyone who doesn't toe the line, or who otherwise dares to question them.

    For instance, if you hold conservative, individualistic views, then to some people you're un-Canadian. If you have liberal, progressive views, then to some people (like Craig Chandler, for instance), you're un-Albertan.

    And yet, when I meet people face to face, whether left- or right-leaning, who I might not otherwise agree with, I've always found them to be civil and polite. We disagree on things, but we're just shooting the breeze and otherwise killing time. It doesn't alter the mutual respect or even friendship that we share.

    It's funny how there are two sides of the coin-the angry ideologues on one side, and the polite, friendly people on the other who respect each others' differences and get a lot of the good bread-and-butter work done. People like Edmonton-Meadowview MLA Dr. Raj Sherman, Edmonton-Leduc MP James Rajotte, or former Edmonton-St. Albert MP John Williams, guys who all did very good work on the stuff that doesn't usually make the news but is otherwise essential to keep things running.

  4. Here's a news item I think you'll find interesting, Patrick: National Post columnist Terrence Corcoran is pretty hot under the collar about Segal's comments. His recommendation is to steer back towards the right, and relentlessly advocate deep government cutbacks, tax cuts, a primary reliance on markets, and otherwise a scaling back in the supposed size of government.

    Too bad most Canadians, even many Albertans, don't have much of an appetite for such policies. If the Conservatives followed through on Corcoran's recommendations, they'd be slaughtered come election day.


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