Sunday, June 28, 2009

Christine Elliott and the (Alleged) Nadir of Red Toryism

Despite Elliott's leadership setback, red toryism will survive

If politics were merely about being nice, Christine Elliott probably would have won the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership hands-down.

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal's endorsement of Elliott reinforces this. Segal has often focused on praising the humanity and civility of political leaders. To Seal, these are important values.

Of course, politics is not merely about being nice. Few Canadians, inside or outside of Ontario, would pretend that former Premier Mike Harris is an implicitly nice individual. Yet his endorsement of now-PC leader Tim Hudak certainly went a long way toward establishing his credentials as a "common sense conservative".

Mike Harris won two majority governments in Ontario. Hugh Segal wound up runner-up to former Prime Minister Joe Clark in the 1998 federal Progressive Conservative leadership contest.

Perhaps the lesson is that perhaps, in politics, nice guys really do finish last -- or at least that in politics, as in life, people who are too nice invariably finish last.

In the wake of Elliott's defeat in the Progressive Conservative leadership contest, many people -- like the Globe and Mail's Adam Radwanski --- are wondering if conservatism in Ontario, formerly a bastion of Canadian red toryism, has irrevocably taken what Brooke Jeffrey once referred to as a hard right turn.

(Jeffrey, for her own part, actually seemed perplexed by her inability to win election by labelling all of her would-be constituents in a riding she was parachuted into as racists, so maybe one should carefully consider the source.)

Hudak's ascension to the leadership of the Ontario Conservative party has many people wondering if perhaps speculation that harder forms of conservatism are needed to prevail in Ontario.

In recent years, the failures of leaders such as John Tory have largely spoken for themselves. There's a real question regarding whether or not red toryism can flourish in Ontario -- or Canada -- any longer, or if it's simply become too "Liberal-lite" to be palatable to conservative voters.

Yet those reputed to be red tories who have gotten closest to the Liberal party have shown their true political colours. In the case of Garth Turner, those colours turned out to be red. In the end however, it turned out that he wasn't a Tory.

When the former Halton MP joined the Liberal party in 2007, then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion crowed that "Tories were becoming Liberals".

Yet, as it turned out, Turner was far from a proper red tory. He lacked that key combination of fiscal conservatism and social principle that has forever properly characterized the red tory. When he finally got his first opportunity to campaign against the Harper Conservatives he chose to embrace divisive fear-based campaigning.

Prior to that, Turner attempted to divide Canadians by attempting to invent a separatist threat in Alberta.

Red toryism has forever held at its core an organic conceptualization of society -- one wherein social tradition is balanced against the public good.

Fear mongering and the creation of artificial -- and largely non-existent -- enemies is as great an insult to the principles of red toryism as one can possibly manage.

Turner had been preceded in joining the Liberal ranks by David Orchard, who had his nomination in a Saskatchewan riding overturned by Dion in favour of a hand-picked candidate who subsequently lost to Conservative Rob Clarke. When Orchard finally got his own turn in 2008, he lost as well -- and lost amidst his own fear-based attempts to campaign against the RCMP.

David Orchard, as many may recall, conceded the federal PC leadership to Peter MacKay only under the condition that MacKay wouldn't discuss unification of that party with the then-Canadian Alliance.

Orchard, for his own part, failed to recognize the value in allowing an organic political bond to develop between Canada's conservatives, and would have rather allowed the Liberal party to govern Canada in perpetuity than be caught dead dealing with the "wrong" conservatives.

If Canadian red toryism has truly reached its nadir it isn't in the defeat of Christine Elliott. Rather, it reached that nadir when those who consider themselves red tories failed to put their political principles ahead of their political vanity.

Whether or not Elliott will turn the tide of this unfortunate trend by working together with her party's new leader, and whether the hard conservatism of Tim Hudak and Mike Harris can lead the Ontario Progressive Conservative party to victory in the next election has yet to be seen.

If Hudak possesses the wisdom to make Elliott a part of his leadership plans for the party, and if Elliott can, in turn, soften the hard conservatism of Hudak and company also has yet to be seen. But it will be interesting to see.

Politics may not necessarily be merely about being nice. But it couldn't hurt to have a nice guy -- or gal -- on side, either.

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