Step Back to the Right

The conservative authors of Rescuing Canada’s Right update the blueprint for the party—and the movement

Photograph by François Bianco
Parliament Hill, Ottawa. (Photograph by François Bianco)

Members, friends, and assorted sympathisers of the Conservative Party of Canada will gather this Thursday night at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel for a dinner featuring a speech by Brian Mulroney. The event, benefiting the Albany Club, is the first big gathering of Tories since the October 19 election defeat.

Ten years ago this month, we were at the Albany Club for the launch party of our just-published book, Rescuing Canada’s Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution. The book was intended as a sort of how-to guide for Canadian conservatism to become a winning political force.

The situation at the time was grim. The Liberal Party had been in power for twelve years, thanks mainly to the split between the old Progressive Conservative and Reform–Canadian Alliance parties. The new Conservative Party had been founded less than two years prior, and had already unsuccessfully contested one election. No one seemed to have much hope for the party or its leader, Stephen Harper.

Little did we know that, after more than a decade in the wilderness, the Tories were about to regain power in a few months and govern for nine years.

Canada has changed a lot in the intervening decade. If you think people hate the political right in 2015, you mustn’t have been around in 2005. Back then, conservatism was a dirty word in Canada, similar to liberal in the United States. “Out yourself as a conservative at many a Toronto cocktail party,” we observed, “and you can feel the air grow thinner, as if you’re being sucked into a giant social vacuum tube. Otherwise sensible people will exhibit one of two reactions: either back away and make for the bar, or start berating you for taking bread from the mouths of single mothers.” (This type of social experience would still occasionally occur during the Harper years, though usually related to the muzzling of scientists.)

Our advice to Canadian conservatives ten years ago was to fight back by replicating the strategy of the American right since the 1960s: build a genuine conservative movement for the country and make changes to the policies and makeup of the Conservative Party.

It is important to note that the Conservative Party (with a capital C) and the conservative movement (with a small c) are two distinct things. The conservative movement is the network of people and organizations working to advance right-of-centre political ideas in Canada—advocating lower taxes, smaller government, and so forth. The Conservative Party is the partisan electoral vehicle that is supposed to draw on these ideas and implement them at the governing level. These separate entities are too often conflated. Many “movement conservatives”—including us—are not members of any political party.

The recommendations our book advanced were both operational and policy-oriented. On the practical side, we advocated building a stronger conservative infrastructure, composed of more and better-funded think tanks to generate and disseminate ideas. We advised conservatives to make better use of the media (including new media) and to start new conservative media outlets. We urged a rebalancing of the judicial system through the defunding of programs that we believe promote a statist interpretation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the appointment of more conservative judges. We wrote of engaging the next generation of voters on campuses to do an end-run around left-wing academia. And we told the Tories to recruit new Canadians by connecting with them on topics such as family, entrepreneurship, and hard work.

On the policy front, we emphasized the need for a conservative vision that would go beyond the mantra of tax cuts toward the promise of opportunity—policies, for instance, that allow for more choice in child care. We wrote of health-care reforms that would allow more private options to exist alongside an efficient public system. We discussed green conservatism, advancing potential free-market solutions to environmental problems. And we advocated a decentralized approach to federalism that respected constitutional jurisdictions, with the goal of marginalizing the Bloc Québécois and the sovereignist movement.

Much of the above has happened—and not because of us. Many people were thinking along the same lines as we were, and we cheered their success. In many respects, the country today is a more conservative place than it was a decade ago.

Conversely, we believe there were many opportunities missed—ideas we suggested that did not come to fruition, or that were executed in ways that defeated their original intent and set conservatism back. And now that the Tories have returned to opposition, the soul searching has begun in earnest. So we returned to our book to ponder the extent to which Canada’s right was revived during the Harper years and to think about next steps. We focused on three key areas: political culture, governance, and communications.

The fundamental problem for Canadian conservatives is that, despite a decade of right-of-centre rule and efforts by the Harper government to shift the goalposts, Canada’s political culture remains, in our view, statist. Under Harper, the federal government regularly positioned itself as the solution to society’s problems. In many ways, the party was actually at war with itself: while the Tories cut the GST by 2 percent, they trumpeted the role of the state in kick-starting the economy, through a ceaseless barrage of taxpayer-funded advertisements vaunting Canada’s Economic Action Plan. They cut taxes to allow greater individual choice, but in a micromanaging way, through boutique incentives, tax refunds, and mailed cheques that reinforced government’s role as the funder of your kids’ sports activities and the local legion’s membership rolls. They bailed out General Motors, tossed money at regional development schemes, and continued along the merry corporate welfare path trod by legions of governments before them.

So when Justin Trudeau’s Liberals came along with their message of change—a bigger government as the solution to people’s problems, with money raised through deficits—Canadians bought in. The NDP, paradoxically, saw its vote collapse—in part, we believe, because it promised balanced budgets and less state intervention.

Conservatives tend to believe that government can be part of the solution to some problems but not the answer to all. But the Harper government sometimes drew that line in a way that made it seem unfeelingly parsimonious. Take the cuts to veteran services. Closing regional offices might have been sensible policy, but obliging veterans (many of them elderly) to deal with faceless Service Canada caseworkers who did not specialize in their issues was not. Preaching the importance of Canada’s military while doing so was doubly bad. Holding back billions of dollars in unspent funds that had been budgeted to Veterans Affairs, triply bad. When veterans, traditionally a conservative constituency, organize and register a third-party lobby group to campaign against the Conservatives, you know it’s bad.

How could this have been avoided? By recognizing that citizens have a responsibility to the military and acknowledging that this responsibility is best exercised by government, which is the only actor in a realistic position to do so. That responsibility entails costs measured not only in dollars, but also in human feelings. You cannot ascribe an economic value to feelings, in the same way that you cannot quantify the value of patriotism. But both are essential to inspire Canadians to serve in the military and to value its services to the country. Ignore them—or worse, insult them—and you create a backlash with negative political consequences.

This brings us to the key element that has been missing from Conservative governance, and much of small-c conservative discourse, for the past decade: empathy.

Conservatives still haven’t convinced their fellow Canadians that over the long term, encouraging personal responsibility is the caring thing to do. The conservative ideal is to provide equality of opportunity, not outcome—yet while this idea is aimed at encouraging citizens to strive, it is nevertheless presented harshly.

Consequently, our book advocated the implementation of what we called “Opportunity Conservatism,” in which every government policy was geared toward an increase in Canadians’ ability to achieve success themselves. The Harper government implemented several of these ideas, particularly in the area of taxes: reducing business taxes to stimulate job creation and growth; implementing family-friendly tax changes; building community by calling on what Edmund Burke dubbed society’s “little platoons” to help alleviate social problems such as poverty; and encouraging national pride, through events such as the Olympics and the elaborate public commemoration of Canadian military contributions.

What was missing, however, was a crucial element, one that the Liberals successfully seized on in the campaign: positivity. Instead of simply governing conservatively with a smile, the Tories did a slew of other things that made them look angry, mean, nasty, or worse. And those other things undid what goodwill they earned through their successes. The Liberals were acutely aware of this weakness. In the 2015 campaign, Trudeau exuded optimism and hope, cleverly appropriating Wilfrid Laurier’s “sunny ways” line from more than a century ago. In this regard, he couldn’t have presented a clearer contrast to Harper.

Good governance is also predicated on respect for the democratic process. We didn’t talk much about democracy in our book; at the time, the Liberals were mired in the sponsorship scandal, and the Tories looked angelic by comparison. When they were elected in 2006, the Conservatives brought in the Accountability Act and promised to clean up Ottawa. The notion of transparency helped them retain power in 2008 and 2011.

At the same time, public perception was that they were constantly gaming the system. Proroguing Parliament, ramming omnibus bills through the House, the Robocalls affair, limiting committee hearings and debate on bills such as C-51: even when the Tories had a majority, they constantly pushed the envelope to gain tactical advantage. To many Canadians, that’s inside-baseball stuff. But after a while, the accumulation starts to grate. It smacks of desperation. It doesn’t matter if such moves are legal; they make you look sneaky, and no one likes a sneak. Add to this the Tories’ own scandal in the Senate, which eroded the Harper’s credibility, and you have big problems.

The Conservative campaign didn’t help matters. Of course, a big part of their defeat was due to voters’ desire for change after ten years of Harper. Still, the party dropped the ball on the things that were within their control. They called an eleven-week campaign instead of the traditional five, attempting to silence third-party critics and spend their opponents into the ground. It backfired. The Tory path to victory was based on an assumption that the campaign remained a close three-way Tory–Liberal–NDP fight, paving the way for at least a minority. When the NDP tanked, the Tories were sunk with them.

Another problem was a lack of focus. The Tories were spitting out different messages every day of the campaign, forgetting the lesson of Mike Harris in Ontario and Harper’s own 2006 successful campaign: a simple platform with no more than five key messages, repeated over and over again, wins elections. Paul Wells of Maclean’s went as far as to call the normally tightly scripted Harper a “message-discipline catastrophe” on the hustings.

Which brings us to the third issue: communications. Over time, the Harper government’s obsession with message control turned its ministers into minions. Every government needs discipline, but that discipline cannot fetter people so much that they lose all semblance of individuality. The Conservatives became the borg, headed by Harper. Problem was, 70 percent of voters wanted a change from Harper. Breeding a slew of miniatures (such as Paul Calandra) did the party no favours. Instead of nurturing talent, message control squelched it. Instead of attracting new big name candidates to the 2015 ballot, existing names such as Peter MacKay, John Baird, and James Moore dropped off.

Then there was the party’s relationship with the media. When they assumed office, Harper and the PMO were understandably leery of the perceived leftward tilt of much of the press, including the CBC, despite the fact they were relatively helpful in the 2006 campaign. But as we wrote in the book, there is no point in treating the press with contempt, because it will only make things worse.

Throughout the party’s tenure, the PMO adopted a “stick it” attitude to the media, particularly the Ottawa press corps. Harper refused to hold press conferences in the Parliamentary press gallery; access-to-information requests were routinely stymied, and interviews with national outlets dried up in favour of local-media appearances. In August 2014, the party even sent out a fundraising email with the subject line “Just disgusting.” The message blamed “the urban media elite” for “mobilizing against us” by publishing favourable coverage of Justin Trudeau.

During the 2015 election campaign, the Tories did everything possible to make the press feel unwelcome. Media and their gear were subjected to RCMP sniffer dogs, were refused entry if they showed up even a few minutes late to events, and were limited to five questions—which you wouldn’t be allowed to ask unless you were officially on the leader’s tour. After CTV reporter Laurie Graham asked about the Duffy affair at a Tory rally, she was berated by a Conservative supporter who called her a “lying piece of shit” on national television.

From the top on down, it seemed, Conservatives had nothing but contempt for the press—who were happy to return the favour. This state of affairs was unhelpful and completely unnecessary. As we wrote in 2005, all the media really want is two things: to be treated with respect, and to be given stories. If they don’t get them from you, they’ll take them from someone else. Those stories may well be about you, in ways you don’t want. By the end of the election, many outlets appeared to be gleeful at the prospect of a change in government, if only because it would give them a chance to do their jobs without being made to feel like pariahs.

Conservatives dominate in some media, such as talk radio and editorial pages, but are often outgunned by left-leaning publications. Instead of declaring war on the latter, the Tories should have taken a page from Ronald Reagan: Early on in his presidency, he decided to befriend Washington’s liberal media, starting with the publisher of the Washington Post, Katharine Graham. He knew that having personal relationships with the people covering him would make them less likely to report negatively.

The conservative movement should also have taken more action to become the media in the last decade—getting conservative-minded people working in news-gathering and reporting functions and encouraging young conservatives to pursue careers in mainstream outlets. They should concentrated more effort into creating media outlets that present a conservative point of view. One such station did come and go: Sun News Network. But that was another missed opportunity. It offered poor production values, boring interviews, and a spot high on the dial, and the public came quickly to perceive it as a shill for the Harper government.

From a policy perspective, the Tories have a lot to be proud of. Harper’s majority term was the most conservative in modern Canadian history. Taxes as a percentage of GDP are now the lowest they’ve been since the 1950s. No new permanent national social programs were introduced, even during the trying days of the financial crisis. Some conservative-minded judges were appointed to high courts. The Conservative Party retains decent support in Quebec. Yet it missed several opportunities to strengthen the conservative movement and advance Harper’s goal of making the Tories the new Natural Governing Party.

Chief among these was the environment. The Harper government basically ignored the main issue—climate change—by continually saying that emissions reductions couldn’t be achieved until other countries (especially China) joined in. Though he might have been correct, his bull-in-a-china-shop approach rubbed the international community, and many Canadians, the wrong way. Instead of simply opposing Kyoto and other efforts, Harper should have proposed market alternatives and creative solutions. It would even have been better to make ambitious promises on greenhouse gases and neglect to achieve them. People would rather see their government strive to do something and fail than to do nothing at all.

Harper’s neglect of climate change and other environmental issues backfired, helping sink the Conservatives’ most important legacy project, oil-pipeline construction. Barack Obama chose to placate green voters and create his own legacy as the “environmental president” by nixing TransCanada’s Keystone XL, which had the ripple effect of emboldening anti-pipeline activists against TransCanada’s Energy East and other projects by Kinder Morgan and Enbridge. Harper gave Obama no cover for approving Keystone: the president could hardly tell Democrats, You can trust the Canadians, to counter Darryl Hannah chaining herself to the White House fence. While the oil patch’s woes cannot be pinned solely on Harper—particularly the sharp decline in the price of crude—the fact remains that not a single new pipeline has been built since he assumed office.

Another, smaller, but still significant, oversight was the missed opportunity to liberalize Canadian charities laws, which would have allowed think tanks and other tax-receipt granting organizations to be more political, and thus, might have paved the way for a thousand more conservative flowers to bloom in the court of public opinion. Current law on charitable status in Canada stipulates that charitable organizations cannot use more than 10 percent of their resources for political activities, and that they must be non-partisan. This is why certain non-profits with political bent, be it left or right, are not charities and cannot issue tax receipts to donors.

The government should have removed the 10 percent cap completely. Instead, there were countless media stories on the Canada Revenue Agency and its army of auditors, whom the Conservatives were pressuring to run around the country and audit left-wing foundations, threatening to take away their charitable status for engaging in political activities. The claim was disingenuous—conservative-minded think-tanks were also threatened for being “too political”—but the problem could have been entirely avoided. (The Liberals are now promising to remedy the situation, having pledged in their platform to “clarify the rules governing ‘political activity,’ with an understanding that charities make an important contribution to public debate and public policy.” That’s one promise we hope Trudeau will keep.)

Ultimately, by the end of the Harper era, the Conservative Party and the conservative movement had become too conflated. In fact, you could hardly tell them apart. This became increasingly apparent at the annual Manning Networking Conference, in Ottawa. The event, always well attended by grassroots activists, elected officials, and Parliament Hill staff, became more and more like a party event with each passing year—compromising its ability to hold the Conservative government to account and “think outside the box.”

The conservative movement is an extra-partisan collection of individuals and groups; part of its job is to take the Conservative Party to task when it veers off course. If anything, the movement can help the party when it is in office by attacking them from the right and making controversial conservative policy proposals look more centrist. The movement did not perform that function well in the latter part of the Harper era.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment, however, was the way in which other Conservatives were treated under Harper. Loyalty, which was a hallmark of previous Progressive Conservative governments such as Brian Mulroney’s, was forgotten. As columnist Chantal Hébert euphemistically put it in her election post-mortem, Harper’s tenure “was marked by a higher-than-average number of estrangements from formerly close friends and associates.” In other words, Harper too often threw allies under the bus.

The most egregious example was that of former chief of staff Nigel Wright, who took a hiatus from a lucrative private-equity career to serve Canadians generally and Harper personally, only to have his reputation shredded when he covered Mike Duffy’s expenses with a personal cheque. In retrospect, it was not a wise decision, but neither were those that followed. Under fire in the House of Commons, Harper claimed he dismissed Wright, when it was clear that Wright had resigned from the job. Harper’s treatment of Wright infuriated many in the party, as well as politicos of all stripes who held Wright in high regard. (Full disclosure: Wright is a friend of both authors.)

Now the Conservative Party has at least four (more likely eight) years to rebuild and rebrand. There is nearly a consensus that the next Tory leader must put forward a more hopeful and optimistic vision for the party. But he or she mustn’t rush this choice. Now that the shackles of the Harper era are off, the Tories need to ensure that a full slate of candidates have the time to come into their own, and prepare serious and credible bids. The party would be well advised to go through the same exercise the Liberal Party did under Trudeau, and that the Ontario Tories did under Mike Harris in the early 1990s: conduct a bottom-up rebuild. Structurally, the Tories should look at whether their current Reform Party–like structure—powerful leader, weak party executive, no direct election of party president by members, no distinct youth wing—serves them well, particularly when out of power. On policy, only two questions need to be asked and answered: First, what does the party stand for? And second, what do Canadians want it to stand for? Reconcile the two and you likely have a solid platform.

Outside the confines of the party, the conservative movement should take this moment to shine. Canada’s conservative think tanks, non-profit activist groups, and media need to batten down the hatches and build new infrastructure. They need to advance arguments to fight tax hikes, deficit spending, over-weaning social programs, and weak foreign policy. They need to shape the public discourse around the values of equal opportunity, personal responsibility, greater liberty, and limited government. As the Tories rebuild, they will assume the role of opposition—much like the National Post did in the late 1990s. Both the party and the movement need to muster all their resources to fight Liberal plans for electoral reform—particularly any move to implement proportional representation, which would make it virtually impossible for the Conservative Party to win a majority government.

Conservative-minded Canadians of good will must come forward with money, resources, and time to take the movement to the next level, and feed those ideas to the Conservative Party through its reconstruction. The right may not need as much rescuing as it once did, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Adam Daifallah
Adam Daifallah is an instructor with McGill University’s North American Studies program.
Tasha Kheiriddin
Tasha Kheiriddin is a columnist with the National Post.

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