By DAVID JOHNSON
IT’S STARTING TO LOOK like Erin O’Toole’s run for PM is a test for a certain theory of Canadian conservatism; water it down, wins the horse race.
O’Toole’s quest for rebranding conservatism, and himself as a vastly more moderate standard-bearer than other Tory leaders we have seen recently, reflects the Conservative Party’s sensitivity to orthodox conservatism’s popularity deficit as the general election approaches on Sept. 20.
Tories are fond of complaining that Canada’s Liberal Party has successfully rebuilt much of the Canadian identity in the Liberal Party’s own image, making patriotism and citizenship synonymous with allegiance to their progressive political agenda.
Liberals like to respond that they merely understand Canadian people better, hence they’ve won 10 of the country’s last 16 elections … and it seems that O’Toole thinks the Liberals may have a point.
He has been quicker and louder than any Conservative leader in living memory, to express disinterest in reopening any policy battle that has concluded on Liberal terms: abortion, LGBT rights, immigration, carbon taxes, safe injection sites and many more.
It’s as if they have accepted that within the folds of supporters of all these issues, are just too many votes that might go Conservative, as long as they ‘leave my issue well enough alone’.
Recent Liberal attacks over past statements O’Toole has made about the role of the private sector in the Canadian public healthcare system earned outrage from his campaign for daring to question his loyalty to the status quo. An interesting angle coming from the Conservative Party — defending itself as the victim of propaganda, when accused of being for privatization.
More subtle has been an abandonment of the traditional conservative bend toward subsidiarity, local, provincial or non federal control, and towards the progressive idea that the federal government should actually have a role in issues like child care, homelessness, housing and the addiction crisis, which are constitutionally supposed to be the business of cities and provinces.
Polls show these kinds of issues are at the forefront for voters, and actually proposing programs and cooperative initiatives at the very least puts them on the federal periscope politically.
It may be even to the point that regarding some issues, it can be argued that O’Toole is running to the left of the Liberals, most notably with a suite of policies designed to entrench and strengthen unionization, including a proposal to demand worker representation on corporate boards. NDP eyebrows must be twitching with a nervous tick.
Although we could interpret an agenda like this as esoteric or a nouveau cuisine kind of conservatism, albeit blue collar conservatism that’s less individualistic, and flavoured more as community oriented and comfortable with the language of solidarity, it’s equally possible to see it it as opportunism vis-a-vie abandoning historical ideology, which leaves the question — has pure ideology in politics had its day in Canada?
The problem assumes conservatism as traditionally understood, has become so broadly disliked by the Canadian public that Conservatives are losing elections trying to explain it, so it makes lots of strategic sense for the party to just push safe, non-contrarian ideas that require little effort to defend.
The O’Toole circle likely figured that most hardcore conservative voters hate Trudeau enough to support anyone with a realistic chance of unseating him, and scooping up moderate Conservatives and fence sitters as they go, by way of a reluctance to provide any reason not to get those votes.
This smacks of running a cod troll net along the sea floor, catching everything, edible or not. A common pre-election goal.
The question becomes whether O’Toole’s and the Conservative thinktank approach is thus a carefully controlled experiment to test the oft-asserted claim that what Canada’s broad middle-class electorate really wants, deep down, is just two parties that aren’t all that different in goals and objectives … but can occasionally be rotated for committing non-ideological offenses, such as corruption or bad behaviour.
Does this simplify the voting choice to being one of … “if the ‘other party’ can simply run government for a couple years, does it really matter which one it is?” Is this the beginning of the letting go of ideological party politics in Canada?
That’s a stretch, but even generally, is that what we really want?
Maybe it is. Maybe we really want the party that manages to win an election to be close enough in ideology to the one they beat out, so we don’t really notice. Less turmoil, less tearing apart and reconstruction of government services … more stable long term social funding.
It’s an attractive idea. But will the Conservative system be able to go this far, or is this a massive fake, and a turncoat platform towards deep state conservative views? Unknown at this point, but we can look at what we do know.
For a long time now, whenever a Conservative loses an election in Canada, people say he was ‘too far to the right,’ or ‘failed to alleviate’ concerns, or running on a right-wing ‘hidden agenda.’
O’Toole invited some of this himself, comparing various historic and recent private healthcare comments he has made. Even though he pitched himself to Conservatives a year ago with a more historically conservative approach, the wider audience he seeks to persuade today is hearing a more centrist or even a clearly left view.
It looks like he is trying to absorb enough liberal issues as his own, aiming to sidestep stereotypes of Conservatives as scary weirdo extremism, and the consequence may be about leaving it to the Liberals to see if they could wind up looking crazed and out of touch, using outdated arguments to caricature a Conservative leader.
How nimble is the Trudeau campaign to pick up on this and pivot from the expected auto-talking points on the fly?
We will have to sit back for a week or two, and get through the debates to see if any of this starts to become clear but, more importantly, what we don’t know is how voters will respond to it.
Obviously the reality is, Conservatives have not completely abandoned all of its ideals, but if this plays out, it may believe itself to be a Liberal 2.0 with blue paint. It seems that at the least they see votes in appearing to be more centrist, to attract a wider reach of voters.
Which leaves one question: Exactly what is a Conservative government or a Conservative Party for, if it is no longer really conservative?
David Johnson is a Kamloops resident, community volunteer and self described maven of all things Canadian.