This happens regularly: I pick up my phone and hear “Mr. Gilmore, thank you for your previous donations to the Conservative Party of Canada…” Before they can continue, I respond: “You picked the wrong day for this” and hang up. Because, inevitably, I will have just watched Brad Trost deny climate change, or heard Maxime Bernier’s plan to send troops to the border, or read anything that plopped out of the mouth of Kevin O’Leary.
The Conservative leadership race has been hard to watch, unless you support the Liberals or any other political party in Canada —in which case it’s been a laugh a minute. But for people like me, I am left wondering how I ended up in a party seemingly dominated by xenophobic, economically illiterate, populist buffoons.
After the improbable drubbing the Conservatives received at the hands of Trudeau, I had hoped the party would pull itself together. Understandably, voters ran from Harper’s vision of a Canada with more jails, fewer refugees and less pot. This country has become far more cosmopolitan, multicultural, tolerant and socially liberal than it was a generation ago. And these social and demographic shifts can’t be undone.
Which is why I had expected the Conservatives would recognize they needed to catch up with the rest of us. But if the bulk of its leadership candidates reflect the future of the party, Trudeau will be in power until the NDP finally gets its act together (i.e. forever).
The problem is that two different ideologies have been shoehorned into the husk of the Conservative Party of Canada. The old Reform/Progressive Conservative definitions are not entirely accurate— but roughly speaking one group is socially conservative and economically populist, and the other is focused on individual liberty and free markets. If we have learned anything useful from this leadership race it is that these two conservative philosophies cannot be reconciled.
While the majority of naturally conservative voters welcome refugees, believe in climate change, and don’t care if the neighbour smokes weed, the majority of leadership candidates are actively opposed to all those things. And because this latter group dominates the CPC, and has for some time, we ended up here. The Liberals are sitting safely in power, espousing whatever patchwork ideology works best for them this year, while most Conservative leaders inexplicably race each other to the right, abandoning the center entirely. This leaves voters like me cringing as they are forced to make the ridiculous choice between Trudeau or Trost.
I have a proposal to change this.
Maybe it’s time we just give O’Leary and Bernier and Pierre Lemieux and Ezra Levant what they want: a populist, nationalist, socially conservative party that focuses on older, rural, white, male, voters. There is a legitimate place for a party like that in Parliament, and they’re welcome to own it.
And maybe it’s time the rest of us conservatives acknowledged the merger worked in the short term, but eventually it exposed irreconcilable bedrock differences. And “uniting the right” is worth nothing if you must abandon your ideological values in the process. Maybe it’s time we considered starting something new: a right of centre party that genuinely believes in individual liberty, that the state has no right to tell us who we can love, what we can smoke or what we can say—a party that doesn’t want to put more people in jail, but rather believes citizens should be given every opportunity possible to defend themselves before the law.
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This could be a party that believes in science and recognizes ideology should never trump facts—a party that acknowledges the reality of climate change. And a party that genuinely believes in markets and understands free trade can lift all boats, that economies evolve and while individual workers should be helped, industries should be allowed to die to make room for new ones. This would be a party that understands governments are lousy investors, voters should not be bribed with their own money, and a carbon price (not regulation) is the market solution to climate change.
Canada needs a party that wants to play a substantive role in the world, and is also willing to pay the entrance fee by spending more on our military, our diplomats and aid. This party would recognize that almost all of us descend from immigrants, that immigration built this country, and it should continue. We would acknowledge that all people are born equal, but not into equal circumstances. We would not tolerate that a child born onto reserves is less than half as likely to graduate high school as a white child born in the city, any more than we would tolerate open racism or sexism.
This would be a conservative party that believes in equality for all regardless of race, creed, language, sexual orientation, or gender —a party that doesn’t see feminism as a left-wing plot, that doesn’t worry if we don’t share the same values, and is not frightened of everyone and everything.
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Imagine a national party that believes we are obligated to take advantage of our strong economy and unparalleled good fortune by aspiring towards ambitious national projects, and not just tax cuts for the “struggling middle class”. Imagine a party that recognizes government should not always be the solution of first resort for every problem that ails us, but also understands only the government can level the playing field before it gets out of the way.
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All signs suggest the Conservative party is about to choose a leader who either doesn’t champion these ideas, or actively opposes them. When that happens, those of us who do should finally consider building ourselves a new home.
I will do this: The week after the new leader is chosen, I will host three dinners for whoever wants to discuss this idea, in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. The goal will be simple: Let’s talk about whether Canada needs a new conservative party, and if so, how would we build it?
If you are also unhappy with what the Conservative Party has turned into, join me. Maybe no one else shows up. Maybe they do but no one agrees. Maybe we agree, but nothing happens. I admit, the odds of this succeeding are very small, but they are not zero. I believe it’s worth trying. And, besides, I’m buying the first round of drinks.
UPDATE: Due to the sudden and overwhelming response to this column, Scott has set up a page where you can sign up to join one of these dinners here.
Scott Gilmore is a member of the Conservative Party, and married to a Liberal Cabinet member