In search of a manifesto for the Conservative Party of Canada

Evan Solomon on the staying power of Stephen Harper’s early vision

Stephen Harper on the campaign trail in Laval, Que., August 3, 2015. (Mario Beauregard/CP)

Stephen Harper on the campaign trail in Laval, Que., August 3, 2015. (Mario Beauregard/CP)

Do Conservatives have manifesto envy? In the lead-up to this week’s party convention in Vancouver, Conservatives are talking about renewal, transformation and post-Harper change. Early leadership candidates like Michael Chong, Maxime Bernier and Kellie Leitch all have ideas, but most are still nascent and vague—nothing like the furious ideological debate going on inside the NDP, provoked by the controversial Leap Manifesto. That may come as a relief to some Conservatives, who see the NDP melting into a tiny puddle of irrelevance, but others believe something radical is needed if the Liberals are to be defeated.

The truth is, Conservatives already have their own version of the Leap Manifesto. It was delivered to them back in April 2003 by a young Stephen Harper in a speech to the Civitas group. Harper was just a year into his term as leader of the Canadian Alliance party and facing not only a fractured Conservative movement but also what many believed to be an unbeatable Liberal dynasty. “Do we actually stand for something, or don’t we?” Harper asked the crowd, confronting what he perceived to be electoral pandering by the Conservatives. “Conferences were held to create and sell a new ‘vision,’ ” Harper said, draping the word with disdain. “In practice, this amounted largely to making existing policy stands vague or simply invisible.”

In contrast, Harper proposed hard policies grounded in classic small-l liberalism and Burkean conservatism. While individual freedom, limited government and rule of law were still core conservative ideals, Harper believed the battle with the deficit-slaying, free-trade embracing, budget-balancing Liberals would be won and lost on values.

Related: The NDP’s hard left turn into an existential crisis

“While retaining a focus on economic issues, we must give greater place to social values and social conservatism,” Harper argued, suggesting the new enemies of conservatism were the left’s “system of moral relativism, moral neutrality and moral equivalency.” He viewed the fight against terror and his tough stance on crime as essential to a new conservative future.

Hard to say if this really won him power, or if the sponsorship scandal finally ended the Liberal era, but give the man credit. Harper thought deeply about these ideas and they united his party in a new West-East coalition of economic conservatives, bringing him to power for almost a decade. Almost all the roots of his policies—the good ones and the most destructive—can be found in that speech. The irony is, Harper ended up abandoning many of the principles he once championed.

Instead of unleashing social conservatives, Harper muzzled them, delivering them nothing on key issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. He never reformed the Senate as promised. His old Reform party commitments to direct democracy disappeared. In fact, he spent the vast majority of his time in office practising the same Kenysian economics of big government and deficit-stimulus that he once so openly derided. So while the party will celebrate the Harper years—and why not, he did win three elections—it’s hard to see just what kind of conservatism Harper actually practised. Even more difficult, still, is to define what a conservative in 2016 really is.

Enter businessman and reality-TV star Kevin O’Leary, who has ordained himself the new, disruptive force in the conservative movement. O’Leary comes with some momentum, sure, but he has no manifesto, no ideological framework beyond focusing on the economy. As he has told me on numerous occasions, he doesn’t “give a damn” about the Conservatives’ past and he’s labelled members who won’t ditch past ideas “losers.”

Related: Kevin O’Leary and the politics of disruption

The problem is, parties don’t erase their past like chalk on a board. They evolve. It has been evident for years that O’Leary has three very valuable talents: making money, making news and making enemies. In the U.S., Donald Trump has transformed this combination into a formula for populist political success. O’Leary campaigns from the same spreadsheet, albeit with a less volatile currency. It could tap into frustration. But it’s a long shot.

The hard truth is, Justin Trudeau’s success at co-opting the middle is what is really confounding Conservatives. Like Harper, Trudeau united the left, only he didn’t bother to go through official channels. Instead, Trudeau just co-opted their ideas and watched as NDP Leader Tom Mulcair helplessly obliged, ceding all the progressive ground on issues like deficits, immigration, the environment, First Nations and the war on drugs. Suddenly the middle ground, which used to be described as mushy and irrelevant, is the political place to be.

Conservatives have to figure out if they want to battle Liberals for the political centre, or revert to the 2003 Harper manifesto and fight on values. A party that turns the page on the Harper years, and then runs on his original manifesto? Now wouldn’t that be the biggest irony of all.


In search of a manifesto for the Conservative Party of Canada

  1. You need to be aware of one simple fact, Evan. There exists a substantial number of us, and we all pay taxes (in fact the bulk of all taxes paid come from us), who regard Ottawa’s regulatory excess, fiscal imprudence, intellectual vacuity, and outright dishonesty, with a disdain that borders on visceral hatred. Many of us despise Harper for his abject failure to shrink Ottawa fast enough or far enough. Don’t ever let yourself believe that the hatred of Washington’s elites that powers Trump is not capable of forming a critical mass up here.
    The federal government is only a few steps away from being the single greatest problem Canadians face on a daily basis, and the LPC is running as hard as it can towards that spot.

    • Fact: If there was a ‘substantial number;’of you…..Cons would still be in power.

      Once people realized you were fFundie Libertarians……you got tossed.

  2. I don’t know why the conservatives don’t just split- into their progressive & reform components again.
    Even with the demise of the FPTP system (which they think is their only hope), they would get to pick each other as a second choice.

    As far as Harper- and his legacy of hatred , secrecy and divisiveness- hope we never have to see that again.

  3. Steve Harper the pied piper of a party of Male Curmudgeons and racists(Jason Kenny, Pierre P. and Peter Van Loan, Chris Alexander, Kellie Leitch, Candice Bergen, and of course the Master of ceremony himself, Steve Harper. Steve, here is my send off to you, may the fleas of 10 thousands camels infest your certain body part for using tax policy in order to distract Canadians from your real agenda, by taking Canada back to draconian times from a progressive society with your hidden agenda, biblical ideology. They should pick out a site in Dino country in Alberta and place a monument on it. Maybe that could be a little too extreme for Harper knowingly he doesn’t believe in evolution.

    • So, here’s my challenge to you, the self-professed fan of progressivism. What benefits do you see yourself deriving from a government that is bigger and more powerful? What do you gain from a “progressive” regime? Then, answer us this: At what point might you consider government to be too big, too intrusive and regulatory, and too confiscatory for even you? What steps would YOU take to prevent government from becoming too big and brutish for even your tastes?
      Or has the thought even occurred to you that the only thing that separates a Trudeau government from a Chavez or Castro government is time?

      • Easy buddy – you’re projecting. He didn’t say anything in support of Trudeau, progressivism, or intrusive or confiscatory government. You’re assuming that because he didn’t like Harper’s actions he must be a rabid Trudeau enthusiast AND address all of your fears.

        “the only thing that separates a Trudeau government from a Chavez or Castro government is time”

        You should open a window, sounds like you’ve been breathing fumes.

      • Benefits: Hospitals, nursing homes, roads, airports, universities, public education, medical research, science research, police, courts, jails, etc. You say but why so big? Because we live in a very diverse complex society. We could go back to farms, and fields, hunting, gathering, fishing, planting harvesting. But stuff happened. Big stuff like cars, guns, airplanes, surgery, drugs etc and it got very complicated. The government you would like, currency, armies, and minimum judicial interference, a few cops, but private everything else. Like toll roads, pay as go medicine, little local cattle markets, just wasn’t enough. We have big government because we need and demand it.
        You can read books about life in England a couple hundred years ago. You’ll love them.

        • Of the things you listed, only roads, police, courts, and jails need to be publicly funded. If you take the top ten advancements in medicine, engineering, or transportation of the last century, you’ll find they’re the products of private enterprise. We don’t need public education, or publicly funded universities. Nor do we need publicly funded medical and scientific research. There’s simply no evidence to support the idea that government research yields anything of value.
          If we want publicly funded education, then every taxpayer should have the right to spend those tax dollars at the school of their choice. Post-secondary education should be wholly self-funding via tuition and fund-raising. But, I digress.
          In the less than eight years of the Obama admin, the American people have been saddled with eight new federal regulations per day. Canada is not far behind. Much of it is wasteful, most of it is wholly unnecessary. Even less of it results in an actual, tangible benefit for the citizenry. Every new regulation is a barrier to economic growth. Every new regulation is a barrier to someone being able to advance themselves economically. Every new regulation is a barrier to someone creating a job for someone else. Every new regulation has a cost that has to be borne by someone in some way, shape or form.
          It’s a simple question: Where does it stop? When do we stop adding regulations? It’s only time and effort that separates us from Venezuela or Cuba. It seems beyond the grasp of progressives that over-regulation will bring you to an economic tipping point very, very quickly. Lightly regulated systems can chug along nicely forever. But, an over-regulated system will collapse almost overnight, and once the collapse starts, it cannot be stopped.
          The simple question is still: How much is enough? I want to know so that I can decide if I want to take my money and run. I don’t NEED to pay the taxes other people want me to pay.

          • You’re wrong. Roads would be fine using only a private enterprise toll system.
            You seemed to have missed the world class medical research at our university research facilities and teaching hospitals.
            And have you heard about the University of Waterloo?

          • The govt isn’t forcing these things on us, Bill

            We want it….and in our Canadian democracy… we can have whatever the hell we want

            If YOU don’t want it……well, there’s always Somalia.

          • Please run! But when you get shot or your life is cut short by polluted and toxic food and water you just might realize we have it pretty good in Canada.

      • You have no credibility when you go that far. Most will tune you out. You have some decent thoughts but to compare to Castro etc. is just basically crazy. It is very subjective how big and intrusive government should be and if you asked 10 people you would probably get 10 answers. But I do believe we could cut back marginally and still have the social benefits we have now but still be safe and environmentally responsible.

        • When I compare us to a more sanely regulated state, I’m not comparing us to Somalia. I’m comparing us to England, circa 1915. The typical Englishman in 1915 could expect to go his entire life without encountering an agent of the Crown bent on imposing some diktat of the state upon him. He lived in the wealthiest, most powerful, and arguably most free nation on earth. Poverty was at a rate that has been unchanged by a century progressivism, and income mobility was at a level not seen since in the UK.
          Or, an American or Canadian circa 1950. Income mobility peaked in North America about then. Decades of excess taxation and over-regulation have created greater disparities in wealth, and all but eliminated income mobility. Wealth is increasingly concentrated close to seats of political power, indicating that political influence, not ingenuity and innovation, are increasingly the keys to wealth.
          In 1950 America (or Canada) one could routinely expect to retain the bulk of one’s earnings. It was a rarity for businesses to be visited by any kind of “regulator”, although almost any grocer in any big city was familiar with health inspectors who routinely expected some form of payola. Interestingly, a greater percentage of black American families sent their kids to college in 1950 than today, and fewer blacks lived in relative poverty compared to today.
          Again, income disparity was lower and income mobility was at its peak mid-20th century.
          The point is that by virtually all metrics, we are worse off having regulated ourselves nearly to death.

          • Ahh yes, the glorious past

            There is always some ‘golden age’ in the past people yearn for

            Except it was non-existent.

            The 20th century had 2 world wars and a Depression

            White people fighting amongst themselves over the resources for the most part.

    • Re: Carpet Bomber’s flea-infested camel on Steve Harper “for using tax policy in order to distract Canadians from [his] real agenda, by taking Canada back to draconian times from a progressive society with your real agenda, biblical ideology.”

      Actually, the infestation might have already happened long ago to other people, and it’s now being spread among and between humans. The 10 thousand camels are all the variants of biblical ideology (deliberate or not) and the fleas have diverged to Galapagos effect. However, it is hopeful, because if humans share their camels, the fleas might equalize out, like the way polar bears are mating with grizzly bears due to climate change.

      Progressives also have biblical ideologies, and my riff on your fleas and camels is to add this point to the conversation.

  4. The Conservatives can try to run on values again, and maybe they’ll win. I doubt it, because the country will be reminded of a very divisive former leader and pick from the anyone-but-Conservatives party.

    If they retooled and ran as a socially-liberal, fiscally-conservative party, there are a lot of people in the middle that would jump on board. Trudeau’s comically large deficit plans paved the way. I voted for the guy, but I didn’t vote for that.

  5. Here’s how we know that our regulatory system is out to lunch. Go buy a new car with a cost of around $25,000. Of that $25K, over one-third is simply the cost of meeting federal regulations on safety and emissions.
    Here’s where it gets kinky. Meeting certain safety requirements adds weight, at the expense of fuel economy and exhaust emissions. Because of emissions constraints, it’s not always possible to take advantage of proven methods of increasing efficiency and fuel economy. Three regulatory aims are working at cross purposes to each other. Would it not be simpler to allow consumers to choose certain aspects of safety over fuel economy, or fuel economy over emissions? Most progressives claim to be pro choice, although it’s apparent that some choices should not be left to the electorate.
    Or, we could make it simple. We have hundreds of people toiling on our behalf in Ottawa, maybe thousands, whose job it is to ensure that all vehicles sold in Canada meet Canadian safety and emissions standards. Every one of those vehicles already meets US (including California) safety and emissions standards. Canadian and US safety and emissions standards are line for line identical. The people we pay to monitor compliance are literally being paid to do nothing. We could fire them all, and not a single, solitary thing will change regarding the manufacture of automobiles for the Canadian market. They will all continue to meet California emissions and US DOT safety standards.
    Think about how wasteful that is. Now, expand that level of stupidity to any sector of the economy that you can imagine, and you might- MIGHT- begin to get a sense of the scale of complete waste and potential for fraud and malfeasance.
    I was in a Mom & Pop meat shop this AM. Again, the sheer stupidity and costs associated with over-regulation are mind-boggling. I’m pretty sure these people wouldn’t want to kill any of their customers, so the complete and utter absence of a federal inspector from their premises would have abolutely no consequences to society, other than taking another useless fed off the feed trough.

    • U.S. Regs are usually more stringent than ours. Those bureaucrats are actually protecting us from more regs, forced by Nafta under Brian M. Drop those bureaucrats and we just use U.S. Regs on cars, pharma, food, and many more. Now you have to decide with your guy Cruz gone, looking forward to Trump?

    • Have you heard of Walkerton or Flint Michigan? PLEASE RUN!!

Sign in to comment.