As a conservative, it pains me that we aren’t learning from our mistakes Paul Brown Contributed to the Globe and Mail Published February 6, 2022
Paul Brown is a former chief of staff in Brian Mulroney’s government and has worked on numerous provincial and federal Conservative campaigns. He is a principal at Campbell Strategies.
I was bitten by the political bug early watching U.S. conservative commentator William F. Buckley and reading the National Review. I’ve been a conservative ever since but the dominance of the federal Liberal party over the past 66 years has been another constant, both remarkable and depressing. The federal Liberals have been in power for 41 of my 66 years.
Equally remarkable has been the Conservative inability to learn from our mistakes and successes. The bottom line is so painfully obvious that it requires little preamble: Conservatives lose when we move to the extreme and indulge a proclivity for infighting; Conservatives win when we unite and broaden our agenda without sacrificing that which makes us conservatives. The caucus decision to remove a leader elected by our members continues a losing tradition.
If Conservatives need guidance, let’s look at provincial results over the same 66 years in four swing provinces. Ontario’s Conservatives have been in power for 41 years, Nova Scotia’s Conservatives have ruled for 39 years, and New Brunswick’s Conservatives have ruled for 33 years. In British Columbia, where political nomenclature can be confusing, the right-leaning Social Credit ruled for 33 years and the BC Liberals, considered much to the right of the federal Liberals, were in power for an additional 16 years. Clearly Canadians will vote Conservative when given a reasonable choice.
The success of Brian Mulroney, Mike Harris and Stephen Harper is instructive. Mr. Mulroney offered up bold leadership on issues that had calcified much of Liberal-dominated Ottawa. Free trade, the GST, a rights-based foreign policy and privatizing Crown corporations left a lasting legacy. Ontario premier Mike Harris’s “common sense revolution” was an equally bold response to years of Liberal and NDP rule: lowering taxes, cutting the deficit, reducing the size and number of municipal governments and restructuring the education and health sectors. Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered up a conservative agenda that differed sharply with his Liberal predecessors on a range of economic, foreign policy and federal provincial issues. All leaders were sufficiently conservative to make the blood of Liberals curdle. And each leader respected those with socially conservative views without substantially advancing that agenda.
Modern provincial leaders like Ontario premier Bill Davis, New Brunswick premier Richard Hatfield, Nova Scotia premiers Bob Stanfield and John Buchanan, and B.C. premiers Bill Bennett and Gordon Campbell have conservative track records on a range of economic, education and health issues without indulging in the extreme stuff floating around today. Ontario Premier Doug Ford secured the Ontario PC leadership with the support of a social conservative candidate who was quickly jettisoned over offensive comments while he moved forward with a sweeping series of conservative economic reforms and ably managed a pandemic.
Liberals scare the public by painting Conservatives as extremists on social policies. Whether true or not, this works to defeat Conservative candidates. In the 2004 federal election, where Conservatives faced an exhausted Liberal government, the Grits painted Mr. Harper as the anti-abortion candidate. Two years later, when they tried again, Mr. Harper and the party were ready; he wasn’t shy about advancing his conservative agenda but little was done to advance the social conservative cause. Mr. Harper understood how to win, even if some supporters seem to forget.
Now it looks like my fellow Conservatives are back to our favourite pastime – fighting with each other while importing American-style outrage and issues that have little resonance for suburban Canadian voters and our diverse cultural communities. Instead of coming together as we did after 2004, with former PCs supporting Mr. Harper as fervently as they did Mr. Mulroney, the current round of infighting brings back memories of the 10 years when a divided conservative movement guaranteed Liberal dominance.
People like to say that these internal fights are about policy, and to a degree they are. Winning political parties in Canada engage and respect people with a range of views and interests. Debate is what public policy making is all about and attracts people like me. Policy is important when it comes to nation building and responding to real needs and national and international challenges. Getting it wrong has consequences, sometimes even tragic ones.
But a large part of the machinations of party infighting are about power, money and political jobs. In many cases, people who once had it want it back. And, in my view, they will use every means possible, including divisive social issues that will guarantee even more years of federal Liberal rule ahead.
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