MNC 2013 Keynote Address: State of the Conservative Movement
When I first got into the management consulting business many years ago, my first client was a scrap metal dealer in Edmonton. He had his heart set on buying one of those big machines that crush old car bodies into bales for sale to a steel mill. I did all the analysis and came to the sad conclusion that he would go broke if he bought that machine - news my client did not want to hear. This raised the question that every political candidate and leader must also address: "Do you tell them what they want to hear, or do you tell them what they need to hear?"
Of course, the Canadian answer to such questions is, "Do both."
So today in surveying the State of the Conservative Movement in Canada I want to say some encouraging things that we will want to hear. But I also want to say some things that I feel we need to hear, unpalatable as they may be, if we want to see conservatives continue to win elections and govern successfully by conservative principles once elected.
Before doing so, I want to express a special thank you to each of you for your attendance at this conference, to our much-appreciated sponsors, and to Blair Nixon for his kind introduction.
Blair is typical of the directors of our Foundation and Centre. He is the CFO of a large company and a highly respected lawyer but he devotes hours and hours of unpaid time, as do all our directors, to strengthening the conservative movement in Canada. So let's show our heartfelt appreciation to Blair and his fellow directors for their service to our cause and country.
Intellectual Strengths and Weaknesses
Each year for several years we have surveyed market-oriented opinion leaders about the state of conservative intellectual capital in Canada. Where do they consider conservatives to be strong in terms of ideas and policies and where do they consider us to be weak or disengaged?
One encouraging conclusion from these surveys is that conservatives are consistently considered strong on the economy - the number one issue in the minds of the electorate.
But one disturbing conclusion is that conservatives are generally considered (and this by our friends) to be weak or disinterested on the environment - the issue of greatest concern to many of our children and grandchildren and the policy area where perceived weaknesses in this area have become the number one obstacle to getting Canada's petroleum resources to market. Whether we agree or not, whether it's fair or not, the bad news is that this perceived deficiency on the environmental front has become a political and economic liability. The good news, however, is that this need not be the case.
If you visit the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, one of the most beautiful places on the planet, you will encounter a remarkable breed of Canadians - the eastern slope ranchers. On the one hand they are rock-ribbed fiscal conservatives who want minimal government intervention in their businesses and the economy. But at the same time, embodied in the same individuals and their enterprises is a deep commitment to conserving the landscapes, grasslands, and aquifers of that part of the world.
These people may rightly be called Green Conservatives or grassroots conservationists. They recognize that conservation and conservatism come from the same root and can peacefully co-exist intellectually and politically. They support the principle of "living within our means" which is at the heart of fiscal conservatism. But they recognize that this is actually an ecological principle because inputs and outputs of ecosystems must be kept in balance for them to be sustainable. And so they extend their support for fiscal deficit reduction and budget balancing to reducing the ecological deficit and balancing the ecological budget.
As conservatives they also believe in the efficacy of property rights and markets - institutions which can also be effectively harnessed, if we make the effort, to the task of environmental conservation as an alternative to mass governmental intervention in the marketplace in the name of environmental conservation.
There should be a welcoming place in the Big Conservative Tent for Green Conservatives.
In his recent book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for Environmental Conservatism, Roger Scruton demonstrates that there is a responsible moderate alternative between the polarizing positions of environmental radicals prophesying planetary doom and those who completely deny the seriousness of environmental problems and contend that all the statistics are either wrong or grossly misrepresented.
There are more effective ways of tackling environmental problems â€“ including global warming, proliferation of plastics, urban sprawl, and the loss of biodiversity â€“ than by treaties, top-down regulations, and other approaches offered by big governments and their dependents. These "more effective ways" focus on harnessing a multitude of local and small-scale initiatives to the task - the "little platoons" of civil society that the great conservative Edmund Burke so fondly extolled.
Without denying that some large environmental issues require national action and international cooperation, the conservative focus and starting point for environmental conservation should be at the other end - with individuals, families, communities, and enterprises who are prepared to make sacrifices to improve the quality of their own surrounding environments and neighbourhoods - a focus and starting point which can and should distinguish the conservative approach to environmental conservation from left wing alternatives.
So what does acceptance of this analysis mean for the conservative movement? It means that conservative political strategists and policy makers need no longer treat the environment as a "shield issue" as we have in the past, but begin to treat is as a "sword issue" on which we can take a positive and proactive approaches to selling community and market-based solutions to environmental challenges.
When we classify an issue as a "shield issue" it is usually because we feel that someone else occupies the high ground on that issue. We feel we can't win on that issue and so we adopt a defensive posture. But on the environmental front at the federal level there is no one on the high ground. It's ours for the taking if we resolve to do so.
But to do so also means there is a major job to be done in mobilizing grassroots support for conservative environmentalism. A great starting point is to support the formation of the grassroots coalition movement, Conservation Works Canada, which former minister Monte Solberg proposed earlier in this conference.
"Green conservatives of Canada, unite!" And change the climate of environmental discourse in this country.
Strengths and Weaknesses in the Training of Conservatives for Public Service
As many of you know, the main focus of the Manning Centre and Foundation going forward is to support and expand our School of Practical Politics - to strengthen through training the knowledge, skills, ethical foundations, communications and leadership capacities of our political practitioners - especially those who subscribe to conservative values and principles. For what purpose? So that they can win more elections, yes; but more importantly so that they will govern in accordance with conservative values and principles once elected.
With these objectives in mind, let me now share with you some of the results of our surveying and consultations to determine what the emphases and priorities of our training efforts should be.
In a recent survey we asked Canadians how important they thought it was that their political representatives possess such skills as the ability to analyze, make decisions, and communicate effectively. Predictably, 64% to 70% of respondents ranked these skills as highly important, with communication skills ranking the highest. But when we asked these same respondents to grade our current political class on the extent to which they actually possess these skills, only 15% gave the current political class a ranking of high to excellent. In other words, there is a huge gap between the skill levels that our citizens say they wish our politicians to have in these areas and the actual skill levels we politicians are perceived to possess.
Lots of need and room therefore for skill training - not just for candidates for public office, but also for constituency executives, campaign teams, volunteers, and political staff - all those whose services are needed by politicians to do their jobs better. And as in hockey - if our forwards and defensemen are better trained than those of our opponents; if our goalies are better coached than theirs; we ought to win more games, play-offs, and Stanley Cups.
Even more interesting, I was involved recently in a small focus group in the Lower Mainland of BC which involved some federal, provincial, and municipal politicians - some retired, some still active, but all conservative-oriented. When they were asked "what do you think is the most important reason that voters support you?" surprisingly no one mentioned their political values or ideology. No one mentioned their policy stand on some issue. Instead all mentioned "how we treat people - our constituents, our staff, our opponents, and the media" as the primary basis on which voters determined whether to support them or not.
There is such a thing as "ideological politics" which appeals to people on the basis of right, left, or centre ideological postures. There is also such a thing as "issue politics“ which appeals to people on the basis of whether they support or oppose your policy on a particular issue. But we need to constantly remind ourselves that at the most fundamental level there is always "character/personality politics" in which the primary appeal of the politician to the voter is on the basis of character and personality perceptions.
When we explored this dimension further through our recent national opinion survey, the personal traits which respondents said they most desired in their politicians were strength of character, industriousness, and civilized conduct - with "personal charisma" being much lower on the list of preferred traits.
What all of this suggests is that, besides giving attention in our School of Practical Politics to raising the knowledge and skill levels of conservative political participants, we ought to give even more attention to strengthening those character traits which voters consider fundamental to earning and retaining their trust.
Ideological Strengths and Weaknesses
Now finally, I'd like to say something about the ideological strengths and weaknesses of the Canadian conservative movement. And by the "conservative movement" I mean not just the parties but also the think tanks, the advocacy groups, the conservative volunteers and voters who make up the whole extended conservative family.
As most of you will know, the Canadian conservative movement is not a monolithic entity but is a broad coalition comprising conservatives of various related but distinctive ideological dimensions:
- Libertarians for whom freedom from constraint is the most important dimension.
- Fiscal conservatives for whom budget balancing and living within our means financially is the most important.
- So called "progressive" conservatives whose interests and priorities are more social than fiscal.
- Green conservatives who apply the principle of "living within our means" ecologically as well as fiscally.
- Social or cultural conservatives for whom the strengthening of family and traditional cultural values are most important.
- Democratic conservatives for whom the involvement of rank and file people in choosing and directing their governments is most important.
- Constitutional conservatives for whom subsidiarity and decentralization of power is the most important.
From my perspective, and I hope yours, all of these people who self-identify as some kind of conservative are part of the conservative family. All have something to contribute and the support of all is required to win electoral majorities if our aim is to form governments that can act on conservative values rather than merely talk about them in opposition. Thus the fiscal brother cannot say to the progressive sister "We have no need of you in the familyâ€. Nor can the libertarian uncle say to the social conservative aunt "There is no place for you at the family table" if we want the family as a whole to be united and electorally successful.
But if the breadth and depth of this coalition is its strength, what is its weakness, its Achilles heel, its greatest vulnerability? Is not its greatest weakness intemperate and ill considered remarks by those who hold these positions deeply but in fits of carelessness or zealousness say things that discredit the family as a whole, in particular, conservative governments, parties, and campaigns?
Two recent examples from Alberta:
- A derogatory reference to homosexuals by a social conservative candidate, made in the past but dredged up during the recent provincial election to derail the Wildrose campaign in that province.
- A questionable comment by a prominent libertarian and a good friend of mine, which seemed to imply that the freedom of an individual to view child pornography had no serious consequences for others.
A genuinely free society and the broad conservative movement itself may tolerate such comments out of our commitment to free speech, and employ free speech to qualify, mitigate, counter, or denounce such comments. But at the same time, in an era of intense partisan competition and â"gotcha journalism," conservative governments, parties, and campaigns simply cannot afford to be blindsided and discredited by these incidents when the individuals involved are clearly identified with those governments, parties, and campaigns.
In addition, these incidents provide perverse incentives and opportunities for human rights commissions and the courts - as in the recent Whatcott decision of the Supreme Court of Canada - to further restrict rather than safeguard or expand freedom of speech.
To be honest, I must confess to personally contributing to this problem at one time and not addressing it early or resolutely enough. In the early days of the Reform Party, we were so anxious to allow our members the freedom to express contrary views that we virtually let them do and say as they pleased. But in later years I have come to see the wisdom of Edmund Burke's observation that before we encourage people to do as they please, we ought first to inquire what it may please them to do.
So, three suggestions for reducing these discrediting incidents and their impacts to a minimum:
(1) Expand training efforts to teach our spokespersons and candidates, especially when dealing with value-laden issues, to be "wise as serpents and gracious as doves" not vicious as snakes and stupid as pigeons.
(2) Democratically debate within the conservative movement where the lines in the sand should be drawn when we speak as free individuals and when we purport to speak for conservative governments, parties, campaigns, or organizations. This subject, difficult as it is, is better discussed at conferences like this than at party conventions.
If I am only speaking for myself and I am the primary bearer of the consequences of what I say, the horizons of free speech should be as broad and expansive as the sky. But if in speaking we are identified with a conservative organization made up of many others who will also bear the consequences of what we say, there are limits to what we can say defined by that line in the sand and the responsibility we owe to colleagues.
(3) For the sake of the movement and the maintenance of public trust, conservative organizations should be prepared to swiftly and publicly disassociate themselves from those individuals who cross the line.
This does not mean that we as individual conservatives on a personal level ostracize or disassociate ourselves from those who cross the line. Everyone makes honest mistakes, conservatives believe in second chances, and we need to rally around those who have been lured across the line by opponents rather than "piling on."
The Canadian public, however, has a right to say to any and all aspirants to political office and the rest of us active in the political arena: "If you can't govern your own zeal, if you can't govern your own prejudices, if you can't govern your own tongue - why should we trust you to govern us?" We earn the right to govern others by first learning and practising the government of ourselves.
In conclusion, and on a more uplifting note, let me lastly summarize the "big picture" of the State of the Conservative Movement in Canada:
- Majority conservative-oriented governments in Yukon, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and of course Ottawa.
- Challenges to retain a conservative-oriented government in BC where the NDP threatens and in Manitoba where the NDP is still in power.
- Challenges in Alberta where an aging progressive conservative administration has lost its way both ethically and financially and either needs to be completely overhauled or replaced.
- Great opportunity in Ontario where Tim Hudak, with hard work and help from all of us, is in a good position to replace a discredited Liberal administration.
- An enormous amount of work to be done to apply conservative values and principles at the municipal level right across the country - the level where there are 25,000 elected officials compared to around 800 at the provincial and territorial level, and 308 at the federal level.
- And an enormous amount of work needing to be done to strengthen both conservatism and the economy - the two go hand in hand - almost everywhere east of the Ottawa River.
Are conservative leaders, parties, and candidates up to the task? I believe so, particularly if the conservative movement does its work to strengthen the knowledge, skills, ethical foundations, communications, and leadership capacities of those who participate in Canada's political processes from a conservative perspective.
In pursuing this task, let us take inspiration and resolve from those who have gone before, in particular from Canada's first Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, who faced the daunting task of building both a governing party and a country at the same time.
In stewarding the ideological coalition which is the modern conservative movement, let us take inspiration from his success in creating and managing the Great Coalition that brought Canada into being.
In raising up and training a new generation of leaders, let us take inspiration from his success in turning narrow and unsophisticated colonial politicians into statesmen and Fathers of Confederation.
In shaping and communicating the Big Ideas of this conference, let us take inspiration from his success in shaping and communicating the Big Idea of Canada itself.
 Oxford University Press, 2012.