Here’s who should be Canada’s next Conservative leader.
Kenney, Ford and Co. stepped up their game
The prevailing view that Andrew Scheer and the Conservative party have performed poorly in the COVID-19 crisis is mostly unjustified but the problem with conventional wisdom is that it ultimately becomes convention. Recent polls show that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has completely rebounded from his “blackface” scandal and would now win a major election victory if one were held today.
These developments have produced a lot of negative commentary about the state of conservative politics in Canada and the future of the Conservative party. But as everyone fights over what the federal Conservatives are doing that’s right and wrong, we risk overlooking how conservatives at the provincial level have performed admirably over the crisis.
Premiers from Jason Kenney to Blaine Higgs and virtually every conservative leader in between has stepped up to provide good conservative governance during this extraordinary time. Their strong performances proffer lessons for conservative statecraft in general and the Conservative party’s renewal in particular.
Start with the political context. Conservative governments now lead six of 10 provinces. This is double the number from the past global recession in 2008-09. It’s no coincidence, by the way, that we’ve seen a spike in centre-right governments at the provincial level while the federal party has struggled to find its voice in Opposition.
A common trope is that this represents a calculated choice on the part of voters to elect different political parties at the federal and provincial levels in order to create an intergovernmental balance of power. It’s a neat idea but it’s a good example of confusing correlation with causation.
The more persuasive explanation is that there’s a zero-sum dynamic within political parties. There’s a scarcity of candidates, dollars, staff and energy, and these finite resources flow up and down based on political circumstances. Conservatives are currently strong provincially in large part because they’re weak federally.
Provincial conservatives have another distinct advantage over the federal party in the current crisis: there’s no substitute for holding the levers of power. Opposition parties can raise issues and ask questions but ultimately only the government can act to protect the public or provide financial support to affected businesses and households.
These observations may explain why provincial conservatives have been thrust into the spotlight during the COVID-19 crisis but they don’t tell us why or how they’ve risen to the challenge. There are five reasons, in my view.
First, conservative premiers have eschewed slogans and talking points and instead communicated clear, fact-based messages to their populations. This has been particularly important in a crisis but it’s something that conservative politicians should aspire to in all circumstances. The public responds positively to politicians who are authentic and have enough respect to speak to them like adults.
Second, unlike the Trudeau government’s scattershot profligacy, provincial conservatives have targeted their emergency spending in key areas and sought more generally to balance immediate-term needs with a longer-term eye to fiscal sustainability. This pragmatic and disciplined approach to budgeting will be even more crucial in the coming years as we struggle to restore the country’s public finances.
Third, provincial conservatives haven’t merely relied on government to respond to the crisis but instead have leveraged the resources, expertise and capacity of the private sector, charities and citizens. Initiatives such as the Ford government’s Ontario Together and the Kenney government’s Northern Lights Awards are concrete examples of the conservative preference for civil society in action. These temporary experiences should spawn a
THE PUBLIC RESPONDS POSITIVELY TO POLITICIANS WHO ARE AUTHENTIC.
more ambitious and durable commitment from conservatives to cede state activities to civil society institutions.
Fourth, these conservative governments have drawn on the inherent benefits of federalism by implementing plans that reflect their own unique needs and circumstances. The relatively positive outcomes thus far are a rebuttal to the Canadian left’s centralizing tendency. Conservatives should become champions for even more subsidiarity and the necessary fiscal and governmental reforms to achieve it.
And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, conservative premiers have been consistently empathetic and positive. They’ve followed U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence’s dictum, “I’m a conservative but I’m not in a bad mood about it.” It’s a good reminder that conservatives are most successful when they’re cheerful, happy warriors.
As the immediate crisis subsides, federal Conservatives shouldn’t expect to beat the Trudeau government using lame attack ads that appeal to a narrow base. They must put forward a positive, aspirational vision that enables voters to affirmatively choose them.
There’s a lot of negativity about the state of Canadian conservatism these days including from conservatives. Introspection is healthy but conservatives shouldn’t be fatalistic. Provincial conservatives are providing a useful blueprint for good conservative governance. The next Conservative party leader should follow it.