By Michael Van Pelt
and Ray Pennings
It’s been four months since the Conservative Party was tossed from office. How many old wounds can there be left to lick, tempting as that indulgence is for partisans on the right and left?
The reality is, Canadians chose to end the mandate of Stephen Harper’s government for a variety of reasons. They threw out the bums they knew for the fresh-faced young man they didn’t. They felt sudden disgust at Conservative desperation tactics late in the campaign. They likely reacted, too, against 10 years of hard-nosed “government can’t” messaging from the very government that ran up large deficits proving, in fact, that government could.
The “this is what we aren’t going to do for you” approach remains viable for only so long. At some point, politics demands a coherent vision of a better life and better future for citizens.
If conservatives hope to regain a Conservative government, we observe from our neutral corner, frank conversation is required about how the movement will renew itself. There must be courage to oust ideological shibboleths and replace them with a well-rounded agenda that captures the imagination of the Canadian electorate.
First up must be recognizing what Canadians mean by limited government. Saying “government should not” is as simplistic as saying “government should” if nothing else follows. It requires more than raw arithmetic about mere size of government. It requires qualitative as well as quantitative balancing.
What government does, it should do well, so sufficient resources must be dedicated to those tasks. Efficiency? Yes. But staff nose counts are not an absolute good. Fewer bureaucrats in critical departments can actually do far more harm than good. When conservatives make valid arguments about limiting government’s role, they must identify institutions that can fill the need. They must craft policies to ensure necessary institutions are properly equipped to serve the public good.
It’s also time to get past fetishizing gross domestic product economics. An economy is more than GDP just as a job is more than a paycheque. An inherent moral compass within our economic system shows clearly that some dollars are spent more prudently than others. Legalizing drugs and prostitution, and counting their exchange as GDP, might make the economy look healthier. It can also tear apart our social fabric. Conservatives must distinguish between strong arguments for a market economy and the transformation of Canada into a market society.
Across the spectrum of the right, it is time to stop leaving compassion and caring to the left. Rethinking charity, ensuring effective capacity for social institutions, and finding authentically caring ways in which fewer rely on the state are all high-priority policy areas.
Bootstraps long ago went the way of buggy whips and bustles – so should the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” as a pseudo-prescription for Canadians in need.
If there is anywhere that arrogant individualist phrase needs to be overcome by conservatives, it is with regard to the environment. Conservation, of course, has the same root as conservatism. By the very nature of its commitment to stewardship, a conservative movement must advocate for careful tending of the elemental world. Conservatives should be as appalled by rapacious waste of earth, water, air and resources as failures of government thrift.
These are, obviously, but a few of the conversations that need to begin. There is time for them to play out by the next election. There is, though, not a moment to lose in acrimony or longing.
Michael Van Pelt is the president and Ray Pennings is the executive vice-president of Cardus, a Canadian think tank engaged in renewal of North American social architecture.