Across the free world, the rise of populism and the decline of open debate has stressed our traditional democratic and societal institutions. New parties and movements are emerging to represent constituencies that have little connection to the political ideologies of the past. In an ongoing series, the National Post asks: What does conservatism mean in Canada today? Is there a set of principles that self-identified conservatives could agree on, and that political parties running on right-of-centre platforms would embrace? Would the country’s historical conservative thinkers recognize the movement as it stands today? To contribute, please send pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org. In today’s instalment, Adam Daifallah writes that Canada’s Conservatives must put forward bold new proposals in the realms of social policy, tax policy and federalism.
Adam Daifallah: Wanted: a refreshed vision for how conservatism can excite a population obsessed with short-termism and social media
Let’s cut right to the chase, shall we? Conservatism as a political force in Canada is hanging on the edge of a cliff. To be sure, uninspiring leadership in Ottawa is a big part of the problem — perhaps the biggest. If we’ve learned one thing about politics in the contemporary era, it’s how much of a difference strong leadership can make.
But we have equally failed to modernize our ideas, and we must put forward bold new proposals in the realms of social policy, tax policy and federalism.
The foundational underpinnings of the conservative worldview are timeless. Large swaths of Canadians continue to believe in our principles: the inherent value of the merit principle (favouring equality of opportunity over equality of outcome) and the basic notions of individual freedom, personal responsibility and respect for tradition.
Our failure has been not updating and articulating how those principles can apply to help make modern life better and fix societal problems. We need a refreshed vision for how conservatism can excite a populace obsessed with short-termism, social media and instant gratification — especially young people, who are being conditioned to believe that the government has all the answers.
First, a coherent conservative vision for what the country should look like is sorely lacking. This will require a big change in both style and substance. Bromides such as “We’re not as a bad as the other guys and we’ll refund the bill for your kid’s hockey skates” won’t work anymore. The Conservative party must stop putting short-term electability ahead of big ideas and coherent principles. This game plan demoralizes the base and fails to inspire swing voters.
Conservatism does well when it is optimistic, hopeful and patriotic. We are too often seen as negative and nasty. We need our own “sunny ways” and the ideas need to be daring. We’re living in a moment where a good number of people are craving bold, articulate defences of strong ideas (see Jordan Peterson) and no one on the political side seems able to replicate that.
The first order of business is to renew and redefine social policy. And it’s urgent. This isn’t just about same-sex marriage and abortion, but the starting point from which social policy begins. The tensions between so-called social conservatives and social liberals have always been present and debates around these issues have plagued the Tories for at least six consecutive elections. Going forward, Canadian conservatism should reposition itself as the champion of strong families — regardless of their makeup. This means taking the same-sex marriage debate off the table and focusing on promoting the value of getting married, staying married and raising children. It also means leaving more decision-making power to families themselves. When it comes to school choice, parental leave, and health care (to name just a few) parents are in a better position to make the right choices for their children. We must encourage all people who want to mutually care for each other and formalize bonds. Family units are the most basic bulwark against a big, expensive state and the most important tool a society has in community building. Policy should be built around doing everything we can to support and encourage them.
Then there’s fiscal policy. Is there not a compelling case to be made to the public, based purely on moral grounds, that the state confiscating half or more of an individual’s earned income is incompatible with a free and democratic society? Surely that would resonate — yet I’ve not heard it articulated. The time has also come to shout from the mountaintops that the never-ending drive to continue raising the basic personal income tax exemption, which leads to more and more Canadians not paying any federal tax at all, is bad policy. Removing more people from the tax rolls is not a tax cut — it merely shifts the burden of paying for the government’s ever-growing spending to those who do have to pay taxes. It creates a problem where those not paying any tax don’t have a tangible connection to the concept that running a government and social services costs a lot money. They are thus desensitized to the true costs of the state and are led to believe things like health care are “free.”
It’s also time to accept that we need to get more innovative on tax policy. For example, conservatives could posit that taxation will be calculated by family, not by individual (a radical extrapolation of the income-splitting concept introduced by Stephen Harper and gutted by Justin Trudeau). Or introduce the concept of lifetime taxation, where income tax rates would be calculated based on where you are in your lifetime of earning income rather than as a 12-month snapshot in time. This would lighten the tax burden for young Canadians at the beginning of their careers when they tend to earn less and shift the burden toward the higher-earning years when older. Variations of this concept have been championed in the past by as diverse a group as former Rotman business school dean Roger Martin to Tony Clement to Scott Brison.
Lastly, there’s renewed federalism. With the tensions in the West at a fever pitch and a nationalist (but non-separatist) government in Quebec, the timing could not be better. The conservative movement as an electoral force works in Canada only when the so-called “three sisters” (to use Tom Flanagan and Stephen Harper’s term) are united: conservatives and populists in the West, traditional Tories in Ontario and nationalists in Quebec. That alliance worked for Macdonald, Diefenbaker, Mulroney and Harper and seems to be, for better or for worse, the only way to piece together a voting coalition large enough to win government for the non-Liberal alternative. This means not only openly advocating for a renewal of the Canadian federation, which would include reforming equalization and more autonomy for provinces — but also recommitting to respect of the constitutionally-delineated division of powers between the federal government and the provinces.
Contrary to popular belief, conservatism is not a political ideology. Russell Kirk, the great American conservative writer, described it as “a state of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order.” To make conservatism a winning political force again, we must apply our way of looking at the civil social order in a way that fits with the reality of life in 2019.
Adam Daifallah is the co-founder and managing partner of HATLEY Strategy Advisors, a Montreal-based public affairs firm and was co-author, with Tasha Kheiriddin, of the 2005 book Rescuing Canada’s Right: Blueprint for a Conservative Revolution. He is a former member of the National Post editorial board.