Unexpected ideas pop up as conservatives gather

On unions, climate change, Hong Kong, poverty

(CP Photo)

(CP Photo)

As a gathering of conservatives, the annual Manning Network Conference delivers its share of predictable messages—cut taxes, shrink government, etc.—that elicit a lot of companionable head-nodding and reflective smatterings of applause from the right-wingers in attendance. But there’s enough variety at this annual Ottawa gathering to produce a few stray moments when unfamiliar themes and even unwelcome ideas intrude. Here are a four that caught my ear:

Unions aren’t so bad. Slamming public sector unions ranks among the easiest crowd-pleasing themes at this event, and some key members of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet enjoy serving up the lines. But B.C. Premier Christy Clark, in her speech here yesterday, told the room that government unions are not implacable foes of free enterprise.

“In our province we’ve been lucky in the last few years in a public service that has been very willing to help us make sure we balance [the budget]. We’ve done some things with them. We’ve gotten them 5.5 per cent over five years … But built into that contract is an incentive for economic growth. We said to them, look, if our economy grows at a rate faster than predicted, you and your union members will get a piece of that, because we can never forget that people who work in the public sector are the people who help economic growth. They are the people who give out the permits. They are the people who do the environmental assessments. They are the ones that are every day making the decisions that govern whether or not private sector economic growth is going to be able to proceed. So why not give them a stake in that?”

Climate change can’t be ignored. A core bit of message discipline for the Harper Conservatives is to denounce the notion of a carbon tax at every opportunity. But Bob Inglis—a six-term, staunchly conservative Republican congressman from South Carolina, who was pushed out by the Tea Party in 2010 for asserting that climate change is real and demands action—came to the Manning conference to tell Canadian Tories they’re wrong, and if a market-based solutions like a carbon tax are not adopted, anti-market regulations will be:

“Experience is an effective teacher but often a harsh teacher. So we are being taught about climate change and eventually we will decide to act. It may be that it’s after some really unfortunate experiences, though. But they think we will act. It would be a huge loss to the conservative movement if the action is the regulatory state expansion that you and I don’t want. If the science is right, we are being taught about climate change, and there will come a day when people want to act. And if the only solution is regulatory, they’ll take it.”

Deng Xiaoping had a good idea. It’s safe to say that Canadian conservatives don’t have much good to say about China, except maybe to concede that there’s some money to be made there for Canadian exporters. However, Martin Lee—long the most respected voice of Hong Kong’s push for democracy and autonomy—invoked the vision of the late Deng Xiaoping in proposing the way forward. It was Deng who came up with the so-called “One Country, Two Systems” policy for China and Hong Kong. But it was also Deng who ordered the brutal 1989 crackdown on Tianamen Square protestors. So Lee’s positive spin on Deng’s Hong Kong policy must have been hard for many here to process:

“I suggest that when [Deng] came up with this idea of one country, two systems, he was looking at Hong Kong and he liked what he saw there—a Chinese community with prosperity and stability, with freedoms, the rule of law, and all the goodies of capitalism. He wanted Hong Kong to lead the way. That is why we mustn’t change.

Middle-class woes aren’t everything. Federal Conservatives are not alone in tirelessly touting the need to focus policy on supporting the supposedly hard-pressed middle class; Liberals and New Democrats lean that way, too. But the Harper government’s recent moves—especially allowing income splitting, to the tax advantage mainly of well-off couples—leaves it freshly vulnerable to charges of neglecting lower income earners. Ian Duncan Smith, the British secretary of state for work and pension, used his address on British Tory policies to end welfare dependency as an opportunity to argue that conservatives have a particular responsibility to the least fortunate:

 “Above all no one wants to know that they gained at the expense of those worse off than them. That is why it is an historic mission of conservatives to help improve the lot of the working poor, to give them the right to hope and the chance to aspire. That is the human dimension of all surely that we do, that brought us here in the first place and must sustain us through good and bad times. It is that which will allow the voting public, when they look at us, to say, You know, they’re okay.”