Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
Changing Politics for a Changed CountryChanging Politics for a Changed Country

Changing Politics for a Changed Country

Saying “government should not” is as simplistic as saying “government should” if there is nothing else that follows. Yes, conservatives believe in limited government. But this requires more than arithmetic requiring the size of government. What government should do, it should do well and enough resources need to be dedicated to those tasks.

Michael Van Pelt
6 minute read
Co-authored by Michael Van Pelt (President), and Ray Pennings (Executive Vice-President) of Cardus, a Canadian think tank engaged in renewal of North American social architecture.

Political conventions are key markers in the trajectories of political movements. Leaders are elected, given votes of confidence or handed their marching papers. Lesser-known party office-holders are elected. Key policy directions are determined. In the next few months, each of the federal NDP, Liberal, and Conservative parties will hold such conventions, and their import should not be underestimated. However, it is perhaps lower profile “movement” conventions that have become the forum for testing Canadian political ideas. They are the events to which more attention needs to be paid. The Manning conference, which self-identifies as conservative, has just finished. Later this month, Canada2020 and the Broadbent Institute, which both self-identify as progressive, will hold conferences where front line politicos interact with think-tankers, cause-activists, and academics. They will be forums that are largely freed from the talking points of partisan politics. If the Manning conference was an accurate barometer of the state of the conservative movement in Canada today, it would appear self-pity over the lost federal election has ended, but positive energy towards renewal has yet to seriously hit the “fresh new idea” stage. Ironically, the focus on process and training seemed more prominent than getting at the basics of what the movement stood for and where ideas might fit into building a successful electoral coalition. Of course, with a four, possibly even an eight, year window before regaining office from the governing Liberals becomes a realistic prospect, sure and steady is a fitting approach for conservatives and Conservatives. What that allows for is some deep digging into policies and, above all, principles in the time available. Electoral preparedness and training? Of course. In our Westminster system, Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition must always be ready to assume government on a moment’s notice. But at the moment, the largest expenditure of energy must be on what a three-day event such as the Manning Conference can’t logistically provide, and isn’t by its nature meant to anyway. The focus must be on breaking down the habit, naturally ingrained during a decade’s political dominance, of conservatives and Conservatives simply talking among themselves. The lesson of the last federal election is really a reminder of what all politics teaches at all times: to compete you must get beyond the core constituency, and not simply rely indefinitely on tactical vote splitting. Conservatives must, absolutely must, build coalitions that address real needs and experiences. They must commit to a broad politics based on lived reality: the things that truly matter in the lives of ordinary Canadians. In the age of celebrity populism, labels no longer matter. With that in mind, we offer 10 too often avoided topics that need to be considered if a well-rounded agenda of renewal will be offered to Canadians in the next election.

  1. Saying “government should not” is as simplistic as saying “government should” if there is nothing else that follows. Yes, conservatives believe in limited government. But this requires more than arithmetic requiring the size of government. What government should do, it should do well and enough resources need to be dedicated to those tasks. Efficiency, yes, but that doesn’t mean fewer soldiers or policeman are required. Nor, for that matter, does it mean that fewer bureaucrats in key departments are always better. If the argument is that government shouldn’t do it (and in many cases that is true), then there needs to be an argument as to who can or should do it. There need to be policies that ensure the necessary institutions are healthy and equipped to take up their tasks.
  2. Economics is more than GDP, just as jobs are more than a paycheque. There is an inherent morality within our economic system that suggests some dollars spent are more prudently spent than others. Legalizing drugs and prostitution and counting them as GDP would cause numbers to rise, but it may not make for a better society. Conservatives need to distinguish between a market economy, for which there are compelling arguments, and a market society, where every aspect of life is measured by markets.
  3. Religion is a big deal for a lot of people, around the globe but also in Canada. Ignoring it won’t make it go away. Figuring out how to respect diversity and to have people live alongside each other with their deeply held differences must be part of the conversation. Structural pluralism must be added to the list of critical things to talk about.
  4. Governments are an even more important institution for a vibrant economy – whether it’s sophisticated patent regulations, public roads as extensions of the factory line, the mixing of public goods in economic production such as water, and the airwaves. It is too easy rant at government rather than exploring the power of the free market in a more complicated world. And let’s not be shy about calling out the crony capitalists, those who in the name of economic freedom promote practices that are neither economic nor free.
  5. For any society to last, it needs to replace itself. Immigration can be only part of the equation. We can tinker with family definitions and structures and experiment as much as we want, but the consequences of these experiments are generational and take time to understand. The institution of the family might be much more resilient than we think, and that has to be considered in principle and as policy.
  6. Kids need to be educated and the decline of our education system in international rankings isn’t just the fault of teachers unions or poor spending decisions. Perhaps a one-size-fits-all monopoly assumption when it comes to delivering education through a single public education system needs to be rethought. Maybe a diversity of educational delivery systems will foster a similar advancement as healthy competition does in other social spheres.
  7. Most of our citizens end up living in cities, and conservatives don’t do as well politically in urban as in rural settings. More time needs to be taken to understand the social and cultural needs of urban dwellers. The ingredients of a healthy city are more than efficiently built physical infrastructure. There needs to be accompanying healthy social infrastructure.
  8. Conservatives can’t leave compassion and care for neighbours as issues for the left to monopolize. Rethinking charity, ensuring capacity for social institutions, and finding ways for fewer to rely on government for their essential needs are policies that need to be developed robustly.
  9. The environment might be politically charged, but conservation has the same root as conservatism. The economy and the natural environment are both systems of balance, and imprudence with regard to both should be matters of hot concern for conservatives, large of small ‘c’.
  10. The rule of law is an essential part of the social order. When political correctness and climbing on the social issue bandwagons of the day cause even law societies to ignore the rule of law, it is time for some to look in the mirror.

There’s been a lot of talk about the challenges of building a coalition between social and fiscal conservatives. But to frame it that way is a false dichotomy. Social conservatism isn’t about a few hot-button issues on which the culture is divided. It is about recognizing that people are simultaneously citizens, family members, community members, economic participants, and neighbours. It is not that they need to choose between these loves and responsibilities, but that they need to order them appropriately. Government simply doesn’t always come first. Fiscal conservatives also need to recognize that a healthy balance sheet does not automatically equal a healthy society. Yes, the books need to balance and economic freedom is usually a key ingredient in the recipe for economic growth. But character traits like thrift, honesty, and hard work are also essential economic ingredients and they are beyond what markets by themselves, or governments, can achieve. Fiscal conservatism also requires the full participation of social institutions. The challenge for a renewed conservatism that will have the authenticity and robustness to appeal again to the electorate will have the courage to avoid simplistic talking points and recognize that a healthy society requires a full range of social institutions to play their roles. The country may be changing, demographically and in terms of political identities. But at their core, people remain the same and a political framework that reflects the diversity of human experience is capable of commanding the support of the electorate and a renewed conservatism.