The biggest questions for Tories aren’t about a new leader

by Hugh Segal

The Globe and Mail
March 21, 2016

Release of the Conservative Party’s rules and spending limits for its leadership race will no doubt elicit much speculation about which candidates, putative or genuine, will take part. However attractive the lure of the “horse race” narrative may be, it is a narrative that is premature and, as is the case with any personality-driven leadership discussion, distressingly shallow. But being premature and shallow may only commend it to those who prefer the horse race to the more challenging debate required on principles and purpose.

If there is to be a viable and modern centre-right set of humane policy choices in a truly competitive election, Conservatives have much work to do that precedes, and is more important than, choosing the next leader.

First, they must sort out exactly what defines the underlying principles and policy framework that express modern conservatism. A publicly funded political party is neither a private organization nor a self-referential debating society. Its first duty is to the public. For example, whatever those who worked on last year’s election campaign may want to believe, the campaign was not serious, constructive or respectful of the Canadian voter.

A campaign in which candidates are barred from attending all-candidates’ meetings, or responding to the media, is not a serious effort to seek and earn public favour as, in a democracy, incumbent governments must do. The respectful tone and thoughtful policy proposals that typified Stephen Harper’s earlier campaigns were absent. The reversion to nativism and the tin ear on humanitarian and human-rights issues were, if intended, shameful; if accidental, then grossly incompetent. Conservatives can and must aspire to more if democracy in Canada is to be about informed choice as opposed to no alternatives, as it was from 1993 to 2004.

Many issues must be discussed and questions answered. How can we encourage a free economy that embraces profit and social responsibility, and what instruments would Conservatives deploy? How is a dynamic federalism for the 21st century and beyond different from, and better than, what has been offered? Is a brighter, more inclusive and dynamic economy about smaller government or smarter government, and what is the difference between the two?

Are we to continue repeating the mutual distrust between First Nations and the rest of Canada, or can we build something more inclusive? What is a real partnership and how would the Conservative view of society, identity, duty and opportunity differ from the present assurances?

Is the previous “promise much but underdeliver” stance on Canada’s military deployability the best we can do? Are there other alternatives to the hopeful and aspirational “sunny ways” now in place, and to the Cold War rhetoric that seemed dominant over the past decade? Is there a solid world view that eschews both pessimism and unbridled optimism for a more nuanced, purpose-driven and pragmatic global stance?

Is the world really about stark choices between growth and energy-driven wealth on the one hand and environmental determinism where the state governs everything (with all the imperfections state monopolies can generate, despite the best of intentions) on the other?

Are labour unions and Conservatives perpetual enemies, or can a new, higher ground be struck between workers, economic investment, collective bargaining and a free economy?

Answers to these questions may emerge when candidates compete against each other for a party’s leadership. But usually the hubris of the focus on personality and a “skim the surface” policy process make it difficult to seek, and find, genuine answers.

Frankly, if opposing those in power because it’s easy, and avoiding tough questions because they are difficult, is what will govern Conservative comportment between now and 2019, then the democratic electoral right to replace an incumbent government will be hollow indeed. The privilege must be earned. And neither complacency about past mistakes nor naiveté about why and how 2015 was a well-deserved defeat will get Conservatives, or their leader, any closer to government in any real or justified way for many years to come.

Hugh Segal is master of Massey College at the University of Toronto and a former Conservative senator. His new book, Two Freedoms: Canada’s Global Future, will be published in April.

Photo credit: Canadian Press/Associated Press

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