Tuesday, May 05, 2009

In Defense of Hyphenated Conservatism

Many strains of conservatism are necessary to build a movement

In an (admittedly) older post on the National Post's Full Comment blog, a speech given by Tom Long sheds some light on some of the deeper conflicts within Canadian conservatism, particularly in Ontario.

As Long explains, this conflict is between the hyphenated progressive conservative strain, and what he describes as an "unhyphenated" strain of pure conservatism.
"What does conservatism mean in a province which is as geographically dispersed, as highly urbanized and as diverse as Ontario? In the political timeline that I have been active, our conservatism has resolved itself into two major streams. One is a progressive strain and the other is an unhyphenated conservatism strain."
Long is very likely underestimating the pluralism within conservatism in Ontario.

It's hard to believe that Ontarian conservatism wouldn't feature libertarians, social conservatives or neo-conservatives. The presence of a Reform party of Ontario suggests that there are more than a few reformers in the province.

Even for the existence of two dominant strains in Ontarian conservatism requires acknowledgment of that pluralism. While social conservatism and neo-conservatism may fold neatly into one stream -- one poorly described as "unhyphenated conservatism" -- libertarianism and red toryism can be folded into another, more progressive stream.

As Long notes, the ideological flexibility of progressive strains of conservatism gives them a significant political advantage over more ideologically rigid strains.
"The progressive strain has been the dominant strain in provincial politics for a long time. For 42 years we conservatives were the government of the province of Ontario and had largely a progressive point of view. Progressives make some fundamental assumptions. The first assumption is that there is going to be an inexorable drift in terms of public policy making to the left. And our job is to inject some prudence into that process. The best example I can give you is before we lost majority government in 1975 and the Stephen Lewis New Democrats held the balance of power.

We were very quick to implement rent controls in Ontario. Privately, the senior members of the Progressive Conservative government were quite clear that they had no faith that rent controls work. But, they said, rent controls are inevitable and it is much better if we are in power and we are the ones implementing them than if we let the other guys do it.
But with that ideological flexibility comes evident risk.

Progressive conservatism can only remain conservatism so long as it continues to stand on conservative values. Rent control policies have proven to fail under any conditions other than the greatest duress, and can be shown to actually reduce the availability of rental housing, and severely harming the ability to find low-cost housing of the people who need it most.

To submit to the inevitability of socialist policies that are doomed to failure is to fail to stand on conservative principles. Principled conservatives would be brave enough to fight an election, if need be, based on rent control. At least then when such policies fail they won't have any conservative fingerprints on them.
"The second assumption progressives have made in our movement in Ontario is that all voters are in the centre and the way to political victory is to tie down the right but then move as quickly as you can to the centre to force the Liberals left. Senator Hugh Segal used to tell the story of how premier Bill Davis, when he got the sense that the right wing was getting a little cranky, used to go out and declare that the monarchy was under attack and then he’d organize a province-wide campaign to defend it."
It's very unlikely that any Conservative would find an abundance of defenders for the monarchy today.

Aside from this, it's very important that Canadian conservatism learn to moderate itself not according to mere pragnatism -- what could be done -- rather than what should be done.

To moderate conservatism merely according to the things that can be done is to risk acting on conservative principles only when it is convenient. Sometimes conservative principles must be observed when it might be politically inconvenient.

One leader who was unafraid to act on conservative principles was former Ontario Premier Mike Harris.
"We saw brief flashes of the other strain of conservatism in Ontario, the unhyphenated conservatism, in the 1980s. But it was really tested from 1990 through 2002 when Mike Harris was leader of the party. The assumptions that this strain of conservatism makes are fundamentally different from the ones the progressive strain of conservatism would make.

In the Harris years, the first assumption we made is that conservative ideas are not only politically viable but they are absolutely necessary to ensure that our province is put on the path to prosperity. There was considerable effort not only to identify policies but to ensure we were prepared to do the heavy lifting necessary to go out and sell them. So the policies that I would highlight would be injecting quality into public education and health care, powerful tax cuts to create economic growth and jobs, an end to unfair hiring quotas, a repeal of Bob Rae’s labour legislation and respect for the institutions of law and order in the province.
Harris proved to be successful in some regards, and unsuccessful in others.

Initially, Harris' Common Sense Revolution was successful in controlling militancy among public sector unions and in bringing provincial spending under control. However, he would later have to increase health care funding in the wake of transfer cuts by the Liberal federal government of the day.

However, Harris' push toward replacing government-funded services with community-based volunteer services turned out to be a failure, mostly because Harris' government never implemented any kind of programming to provide an incentive for volunteerism.

Justin Trudeau's proposed national volunteerism program may ironically provide the infrastructure necessary for conservative reforms such as Harris' to be successful in future, but only if conservative politicians perceive the wisdom of his private members' bill and support it.
"The second assumption that we made is that there is a viable conservative coalition in the province of Ontario that can deliver a majority government and is sustainable over time. That required a realignment of political thinking in Ontario and political identification in Ontario. That meant seizing the agenda. This strain of conservatism believes that specificity is your friend and being bold and clear, and being prepared to stand up and sell these ideas, is the way to political success."
When evaluated according to Ontario's more recent political history, this assumption turns out to be a poor one.

The electoral coalition Mike Harris used to get elected proved not to be sustainable over time. Upon his resignation his successor, Ernie Eves, lost the next election to now-Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

Not only was that coalition not sustainable enough to help the Ontario Tories hold the government, it has yet to be rebuilt in the six years since their defeat in the 2003 election.
"The two strains have typically come together and clashed within our party over the argument of who can make our party relevant in terms of urban voters, female voters and visible minority voters. For 42 years our party has taken tremendous efforts to attract all of these voters. Under Mike Harris we were able to win 45% of the vote in two successful campaigns. In 1995 we won one half of the seats in the '416' area — the core Toronto part of the GTA. In 1999 after four years of government, and after a lot of controversy and a hard fought campaign, Mike Harris held on to one third of the seats. We have won none of those seats since Mike Harris has been premier despite the fact that we have had two leaders from the progressive wing of the party who ran on the idea that only they could make us relevant."
The idea, of course, should not be that these two strains of conservatism clash. Rather, the idea should be that all the strains of conservatism, all of which are hyphenated according to their specific differences, should work together.

Even if it were true that the progressive conservative strain has become dominant within Ontarian politics, the answer certainly is not to push it away as Long seems to think the progressive conservatives have done to his so-called "unhyphenated" conservatives.

Rather the answer is for Ontarian conservatives to come together and do what Preston Manning spent the '90s trying to get federal Progressive Conservatives and Reformers to do -- come together to establish a conservative consensus, consisting of agreement on key conservative goals, and ongoing negotiation regarding what secondary goals Ontarian conservatives will pursue.

The answer for Ontarian conservatism is the same as the answer for Canadian conservatism at the federal level.

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