How Manning, Smith and Prentice are all testing the Conservative faith

Posted on in Governance Debates

TheGlobeandMail.com – Globe Debate/Editorials
Dec. 19 2014.   Editorial

Are the following scenes from Canadian conservatism’s crack-up, or its renewal? Consider:

November 19: Preston Manning publishes an op-ed in this newspaper calling for a carbon tax. Mr. Manning, founder of the Reform Party and godfather of modern Canadian conservatism, says the tax would be a “good idea” that he “wholeheartedly supports” as a means of reducing pollution. “It’s the idea behind using carbon pricing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water pricing to conserve water, garbage pricing to deal with waste, and road pricing to reduce traffic congestion,” he writes.

In an university economics department, such statements would be unremarkable – because nearly every economist would agree with them. But for the better part of a decade, the Harper Conservative government has talked little and done less about greenhouse gases. Instead, it has tried to persuade voters that “taxes” and “pollution” are liberal words. (Ditto “global warming”.) The same goes for American conservatives.

Mr Manning’s use of them sounded to many conservatives like intellectual heresy, ideological apostasy and political insanity. Many conservatives seem to believe that if the government asks you to pay for something, you should scream. An outraged Ezra Levant has set up a website called reformmanning.ca, where he urges “true Canadian conservatives” to speak out and cast St. Preston out of the conservative fold. “Promoting a carbon tax,” says the website, “is no different than the ideas the Reform Party was created to stop.”

Is Mr. Manning the true conservative? Or is Mr. Levant?

June 12: Tim Hudak, leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives, leads his party into another humiliating general-election defeat. Facing a Liberal government that has been in power too long and that most voters have grown tired of, Mr. Hudak ends up turning the election into a referendum on his version of conservatism. He promises to cut Ontario’s way to prosperity, led by a flagship pledge to axe 100,000 public-sector jobs. He says he will create 1 million jobs by getting government out of the way. But the math doesn’t add up, and his platform in built on glaring errors of arithmetic.

Did Mr. Hudak lose because he was a “real” conservative? Or did he lose because he was peddling intellectually stunted ideas that give conservatism a bad name?

December 17: In an unprecedented move, nine MLAs from Alberta’s conservative Wildrose Party – two-thirds of the party caucus – defect to the government. Even Leader of the Opposition Danielle Smith goes over. And not only do the Wildrosers cross the floor, they join the Progressive Conservatives. The PCs have been in power in Edmonton since before the last Ice Age, but they’ve never been seen as a particularly conservative party. Thanks to oil, they done the otherwise impossible – namely, running a low-tax, high-spending government, sometimes with deficits to boot. That’s what led to the creation of Wildrose as a more conservative alternative.

But a fight over what exactly is meant by “conservative,” and who gets to call themselves one, has for two years been tearing Wildrose apart. The new party turned out to be an untenable alliance of conservatives who left the PC Party in part because it was insufficiently social-conservative, and other conservatives who left because it wasn’t especially fiscally or economically conservative.

It wasn’t long before a party that had splintered from the PCs was itself splintering; in November, the party membership voted against a policy statement recognizing the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation. Parts of the socially conservative base were no longer comfortable with the more libertarian Ms. Smith – and Ms. Smith and her allies were no longer comfortable leading such a base.

Will the mass floor crossing lead to a better, more competent Alberta government? Did it strengthen Alberta conservatism, or betray it?

Canadian conservatism has enough room to be a big tent. But even the biggest tent walls can only be stretched so far. Mr. Manning is busy promoting environmental ideas that are, for the moment at least, anathema to Conservative parties, and to one wing of the conservative movement. But those ideas are also at the core of an intellectual conservative movement rooted in evidence, reason and honest analysis rather than faith – a movement that wants to figure out what works and what doesn’t, rather than taking it as dogma that certain fundamental beliefs about life, society and the economy must be true.

The question is whether conservatism will settle intellectual battles, such as the challenge launched by Mr. Manning, by empiricism or by faith. Will his opponents try to present evidence that a carbon tax won’t work, or isn’t necessary? Or will they simply say that to advocate tax solutions to pollution problems is to cast yourself outside the conservative fold?

It had better be the former, because only in institutions built on reason is progress possible. People can change their minds, and their policies. But if someone says with absolute certainty that government must always be smaller and taxes are always bad, what discussion is possible? You can’t argue about matters of faith.

Another question: Does conservatism want to be a movement of ideas, or a political movement of tactics and slogans? Do conservatives sometimes mistake slogans for ideas?

Conservative parties, especially the Conservative government in Ottawa, have eagerly capitalized on all of the advances in the sciences of polling, voter analysis and political marketing. They are pure empiricists when it comes to the tactics of politics, and it has made them fearsomely successful campaigners.

But how committed are Conservatives and conservatives to applying the same empirical approach to governing? How interested are they in figuring out which policies work, which do not, and why – thereby governing better and leading to the creation of more successful policies? The argument has been joined.

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