Conservatism is not the issue

Our columnist answers the critics

My recent piece on the federal budget as marking the end point of conservatism in Canada seems to have been the subject of some misinterpretation. Many people have taken it as a lament, as if this were something to be mourned. I rather thought I was just stating a fact.

I hold no particular brief for the Conservative Party of Canada. I was opposed to the party’s formation, preferring that Reform and the Progressive Conservatives should have remained separate parties that formed a strategic alliance — a coalition! — as European  parties do. Nor have I ever been able to see much point in conservatism, as such: why one would want to subscribe to a whole set of unrelated ideas simply because they all fell under the conservative label remains a mystery to me. It’s less an ideology than a grab-bag of habits and emotional leanings, not least the deep nervoses and resentments of a party that has lost too many elections.

The party/movement’s general predisposition towards user fees and private insurance in health care always struck me as simplistic (and not particularly market-oriented, properly understood), its willingness to rent itself out to the provinces in general, and Quebec in particular, has been terribly damaging to the country, and its refusal to deal seriously with global warming was blinkered and counter-productive. Over the years, I’ve had occasion to quarrel with conservatives over gay rights, immigration, drug policy, and the whole tangled archipelago of issues surrounding the Charter of Rights, the notwithstanding clause and judicial review.

But at least these were positions! Conservatives may have been wrong on these things, but anything’s better than a party that is incapable of being right or wrong, because it does not stand for anything. Conservatism may not be my thing, but it is for a lot of other people, and I grieve for their sake that the party they have invested so much of their hopes in has turned to such warm beer. And all Canadians, whatever their leanings, should wish for more balance and diversity in our political choices.

It’s a sad thing, too, that a party that once fiercely defended the rights and prerogatives of ordinary MPs and the party grassroots should have become such pliant captives of its leader — though as I argue in a forthcoming piece, the party has only itelf to blame for that. Harper has utterly had his way with them, abandoned everything the party ever stood for, and no one, not the caucus, not the membership, has uttered so much as a squawk. They have been his enablers.

And yes, I would prefer there were at least one party that understood market economics, that stood for balanced budgets, honest money, and freely set prices, undistorted by subsidies, quotas, tariffs, ceilings, floors, or tax preferences; that had a general preference for competition over monopoly, voluntarism over coercion, open systems over closed, unless a compelling case could be made to the contrary; and that understood their virtues not only in terms of efficiency, but of fairness, freedom and environmental stewardship. And so in that sense I have no party.

But then, I have no party in a lot of wayys — as, in fact, do a lot of Canadians. It isn’t just free marketers who haven’t got a party. Federalists have no party, in the sense of a party willing to defend the national interest against the pull of provincialism and Quebec nationalism. Democratic reformers have no party. Classical liberals (or as Barbara Frum used to call herself, “1950s liberals”), believers in the equal rights of every individual under the Charter — as opposed to group rights advocates, on the one hand, and Charterphobes, on the other — are no less bereft. There’s no party that stands for consumers, against exploitation by producer interests; for the jobless, against restrictive labour laws that prevent them from pricing themselves into work; for taxpayers, against the depredations of rent-seeking special interests; for property owners, against the marauding state. There’s just a vast gap in the Canadian political spectrum, or several of them, while the parties compete to see who can spend the most, devolve powers the fastest, pander most cravenly. Canadians think they live in a liberal, democratic, free-market federation, but there isn’t a party nowadays that believes in any of these things.

I don’t know. I suspect a lot of Canadians might be interested in a party that was all of these things: liberal, democratic, free-market, federalist, with a sensible commitment to equality and environmentalism thrown in for good measure. Yet our political system seems incapable of producing one. That’s worth a lament.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.