Vancouver Sun

A dilemma for Char­lie Brown Con­ser­va­tives

You can’t win till you think you can

- Politics · Elections · Tories · New Democratic Party (Canada) · Ontario · Conservative Party (UK)

an­drew Coyne Com­ment

There is an im­bal­ance in Cana­dian pol­i­tics. It takes most ob­vi­ous form in the pres­ence, fed­er­ally and in some prov­inces, of two par­ties on the left to only one on the right. But its essence is not in­sti­tu­tional but psy­cho­log­i­cal. It is the crip­pling in­se­cu­rity of the right, a cri­sis of con­fi­dence in stark con­trast to the ro­bust, and grow­ing, self-as­sur­ance of the left.

Part of this is sim­ply the ac­cu­mu­lated le­gacy of elec­toral de­feat. When you have lost as many elec­tions as the fed­eral Con­ser­va­tives have — two in ev­ery three, over the last hun­dred years — it is bound to do funny things to your psy­che. But the self-doubt of Cana­dian con­ser­va­tives is seem­ingly in­bred, out of all pro­por­tion to ex­ter­nal events.

Even when they are in power — es­pe­cially when they are in power — their ev­ery thought is to deny and dis­sem­ble, to pre­tend they hold no views on pol­icy or the good so­ci­ety, or none that would dis­tin­guish them from their op­po­nents. The Harper era came and went, 10 years of it, with­out much to show for it, other than another $150 bil­lion added to the debt. They were in power, to be sure, but the poli­cies they pur­sued — cer­tainly the poli­cies they were pre­pared to ad­vo­cate openly — were broadly in­dis­tin­guish­able from those of a mod­er­ate Lib­eral gov­ern­ment.

In­deed, they largely con­sisted of tend­ing to the sta­tus quo, ex post Grit. On any num­ber of fronts — on eco­nomic pol­icy, on so­cial pol­icy, on fed­er­al­ism, on for­eign pol­icy — the To­ries, where they acted at all, con­tented them­selves with mi­crop­oli­cies, sym­bolic baubles aimed at grat­i­fy­ing this or that tar­geted in­ter­est group, or in­dulged in de­lib­er­ately provoca­tive but ul­ti­mately triv­ial wedge is­sues such as the wear­ing of the niqab at cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­monies.

But on the big ques­tions, the kinds of am­bi­tious, mar­ket-ori­ented changes that con­ser­va­tive par­ties in other coun­tries and at other times might have tack­led — tax re­form, dereg­u­la­tion, pri­va­ti­za­tion and so on — the To­ries were and are mute.

I say again, this was while they were in power. The ab­ject ter­ror with which con­ser­va­tive par­ties in op­po­si­tion, fed­er­ally or provin­cially, view the prospect of tak­ing a po­si­tion at odds with the pre­vail­ing Lib­eral/NDP con­sen­sus is even more strik­ing. Wit­ness the tim­o­rous apol­ogy of a plat­form on which the On­tario Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tives in­tend to fight the com­ing elec­tion, which ac­cepts and em­braces nearly ev­ery one of the Wynne gov­ern­ment’s poli­cies, no mat­ter how fool­ish or how re­cent.

Con­ser­vatism in Canada now amounts to, at best, op­por­tunism. They are in favour of what­ever is unas­sail­ably pop­u­lar, op­posed to what­ever is in­de­fen­si­bly un­pop­u­lar, at any given mo­ment: just so long as no one asks them to take a risk, a stand, or a de­ci­sion, to out­line a co­her­ent gov­ern­ing phi­los­o­phy or ex­plain how it dif­fers from the left’s. The one thing they are in­dis­putably for is tax cuts: tax cuts, what­ever the weather; tax cuts, with­out off­set­ting cuts in spend­ing; tax cuts, even where these are not tax cuts but tax cred­its, which is to say spend­ing pro­grams by another name. And of course, that sine qua non of mod­ern con­ser­vatism, blind op­po­si­tion to car­bon pric­ing of any kind, in place of which our con­ser­va­tives of­fer 1970sstyle reg­u­la­tory regimes.

By con­trast, con­sider the self-con­fi­dence, not to say hubris, of the mod­ern left. And why not? They have been run­ning the ta­ble with the right, not only on the cul­ture wars, or the doc­tri­naire ob­ses­sions of iden­tity pol­i­tics, but gen­er­ally, even on the eco­nomic is­sues that con­ser­va­tives thought they had set­tled in the 1990s. The fed­eral Lib­er­als made more than 200 prom­ises in the 2015 elec­tion plat­form, many of them no­tably rad­i­cal: deficit spend­ing, elec­toral re­form, mar­i­juana lib­er­al­iza­tion, and on and on. That many of these were ill-con­sid­ered, or lies, or both, is not the point. The point is that the Lib­er­als did not fear to pro­pose them, even when they were told they were po­lit­i­cal sui­cide.

The re­cent fra­cas over fund­ing for char­i­ties that op­pose abor­tion is telling com­men­tary on the state of both par­ties. For their part, the Lib­er­als re­vealed them­selves as both in­tol­er­ant and fa­nat­i­cal, seem­ingly un­aware that any rea­son­able per­son could hold a po­si­tion on abor­tion other than the one they them­selves hold: abor­tion on de­mand, with­out le­gal re­stric­tion at any stage of the preg­nancy, a leg­isla­tive void unique in the demo­cratic world. But why shouldn’t they be­lieve that? When have Con­ser­va­tives ever sug­gested the con­trary? Not only do the Con­ser­va­tives refuse to take a po­si­tion on the is­sue, though it is one that is com­monly de­bated in ev­ery other demo­cratic coun­try, but they ac­tively dis­cour­age any­one in the party from do­ing so.

The fragility of Cana­dian con­ser­va­tives — how many times has one been told “this is a Lib­eral coun­try,” not by boast­ing Lib­er­als, but by Con­ser­va­tives? — has many knock-on ef­fects: the sub­sti­tu­tion of blind par­ti­san­ship for ide­o­log­i­cal sub­stance; a sus­pi­cion of aca­demics, and civil ser­vants, though any party with am­bi­tions of gov­ern­ing must have re­course to both; a hos­til­ity to the me­dia and the courts, as if the judg­ments of ei­ther could sim­ply be ig­nored; a broader dis­con­nect from the ed­u­cated classes, whose sup­port the Lib­er­als are only too will­ing to ac­cept in their stead; and, of late, a vul­ner­a­bil­ity to pop­ulist in­sur­gen­cies, which as boor­ish and para­noid as they may be, at least of­fer some sort of al­ter­na­tive to the lib­eral con­sen­sus.

None of this will change un­til con­ser­va­tives de­cide, first, what they be­lieve, and sec­ond, to state their be­liefs openly, boldly, with­out apol­ogy — not with the in­tent to shock, or an­tag­o­nize, but to per­suade, to con­vince oth­ers not al­ready favourably dis­posed to­ward them. Only when Con­ser­va­tives ac­quire suf­fi­cient con­fi­dence in them­selves will they be able to reach out to oth­ers. Only when they know why they want to win elec­tions will they start do­ing so.

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