Hugh Segal insists Canadian conservatism is unique
When most people think about conservatism they think about Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan or Dwight Eisenhower.
Conservative Senator Hugh Segal would like to add a few figures to the iconography of conservatism -- a few Canadians like sir John A MacDonald, John Diefenbaker or Bill Davis.
In order to do this, Segal understands that he must make the case that Canadian conservatism is unique.
"Canadian conservatism is about Canadian values, not about American values or British values," Segal explained during a recent speech in Regina. "It's shaped by our feeling for community and the rights of local groups to do things in their own way. It's shaped by our strong belief in the Crown as a strong constitution structure that protects our democracy and as such, it's one of the reasons that we have a separate identity in this country from the United States who are such a powerful cultural force."
Unlike in the United States, where conservative politicians can build quick electoral coalitions then drift away from them while in office, Canadian conservatives must keep in touch with the conservative movement.
"The Conservative government in any province or the Conservative government in Ottawa is only successful when it reaches out to embrace all the brands of conservatism," Segal continued. "They all are welcome in the Tory family and this Prime Minister is doing a pretty good job of that in difficult economic times."
Intriguingly, this may have a lot to do with the never-ending American election cycles. In the United States, one third of all Senators -- the more powerful house of the American Congress -- are elected every two years.
This means that American conservative Senators are effectively granted political cover by another looming election. Even if they fail to make good on promises to conservative voters, odds are that there will quickly be another election to distract them. This allows them to quickly rebuild an electoral coalition under the guise of being a conservative.
In order to be successful, Canadian conservatives need to actually govern as conservatives.
But embracing all of the various camps of the conservative movement -- from deep blue conservatives, libertarians, reformers and progressive conservatives -- can sometimes lead to policies that don't appear conservative to people with simplistic views on the concept.
Therein lies the dilemma.
Stephen Harper's gradual program of tax reform -- a program Tom Flanagan has described as "tightening the screws" on government -- is clearly a Conservative policy, even if the stimulus-spending produced deficit obscures this considerably.
Once one gets into the issue of social policy, the matter becomes even more obscure.
"That's really the message. We have a unique brand of conservatism that those people who think that it's all simply American-brand George (W.) Bush conservatism I think got a lesson or got a different view of the kind of moderate brand of conservatism," added Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy director Ken Rasumussen.
"I think there is a debate within conservatism about what it is and of course, Senator Segal represents a strain, certainly the traditional strain, about the moderate brand of conservatism that's necessary to appeal to Canadians and I think that's the message he gave," Rasmussen continued.
Of course, the importance of the moderate, progressive strain of conservatism goes deeper than simply appealing to Canadians. It reflects the importance of respecting Canadian values, which have always been moderate and progressive in nature.
That's the ultimate litmus test for Canadian conservatism: it must be progressive in order to survive. Even if John Diefenbaker didn't fully understand this when he opposed renaming the Conservative party as the Progressive Conservatives, his understanding of this was demonstrated by his policies.