Here’s who should be Canada’s next Con­ser­va­tive leader.

Ken­ney, Ford and Co. stepped up their game

National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - SEAN SPEER

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


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.

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