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Hugh Segal

Hugh Segal

Hugh Segal

Conservatives need a moderate, humane agenda Add to ...

There is no conflict between moderation in public policy, both foreign and domestic, and modern conservatism. The need to make this point underlines how far Canadian conservatives have drifted from their successful, more moderate roots. From Sir John A. Macdonald to Stephen Harper, moderation and balance almost always predicted electoral victory. When set aside for the self-indulgent extreme and ideological, defeat often ensued.

John Diefenbaker’s surprise defeat of Louis St. Laurent in 1957 reflected Progressive Conservative equilibrium on preserving the role of Parliament, opposing closure and championing of low-income seniors’ real needs. The 1958 Tory sweep was the largest majority in Canadian history and emerged largely because of the arrogance of the Liberals, who moved a non-confidence motion to bring down the Diefenbaker minority government. The Liberals believed that the 1957 Conservative win was simply a mistake by the voters.

Bob Stanfield’s near-victory over the unbeatable Liberal icon of Pierre Trudeau in 1972 (Mr. Stanfield lost by a handful of votes and just two seats) reflected a huge step forward for Mr. Stanfield’s moderation, integrity and concern for the disadvantaged. This surge, which produced a win for Mr. Stanfield in English-speaking Canada, was seen as a victory over the apparent arrogance and condescension of then-prime-minister Trudeau.

Brian Mulroney’s victory in 1984 over the Trudeau legacy championed by then-prime-minister John Turner was more about a moderate position on Canada-U.S. relations, less “my way or the highway” federalism, a stout defence of francophone minorities and a rejigging of Ottawa’s economic and social levers toward the centre from the bureaucratic centre-left.

Stephen Harper’s victory in 2006, after holding the Paul Martin government to a minority in 2004, reflected the moderation in policies that the new Conservative Party offered to voters in 2006. Governing with that respectful moderation produced a Conservative majority in 2011. But the ideological excesses of shutting down Statscan’s long-form census, extreme rhetoric on Israel, slashing the CBC budget, closing Veterans Affairs offices, tightening Employment Insurance conditions, avoiding federal/provincial discussions of substance, closing prison farms and a tin ear on refugees, tinged with an apparent racist overtone on cultural practices, contributed to Justin Trudeau’s 2015 victory.

These excesses overwhelmed what should have been the positive effect of stable and increased health funding, coping with the United States-spawned global credit crunch, preserving provincial transfers throughout a period of austerity and increased support for the materiel needs of the Canadian Forces. This speaks to how the symbolic impact of ideological indulgence outweighs the good of competent public policy.

Conservatives are entering a year when a new leader will be chosen. The lessons of history seem, so far, to have had little impact. Canadians haven’t heard from any candidate about those living beneath the poverty line, the next stage of reconciliation with First Nations, a creative 21st-century federalism, a real-world foreign and defence policy, the inequities of unemployment for younger Canadians, the precariousness of areas of employment or the need for a national strategy for seniors.

Each leadership candidate brings qualities. Cartoon nativist nationalism, railing against fictional elites, hard-right libertarian solutions to less-than-real problems or the radical gutting of government may feel good for some Conservative Party members who believe Canadians were misinformed when the Liberals were elected in 2015. But the same arrogance and sense of entitlement of the 1957/58 Liberals produced a similar delusion. The lessons of 1958 are unequivocal.

Conservatives need a moderate, fiscally prudent and humane agenda of efficient social policy, smarter, not “slash and burn” government, an approach to foreign and defence policy that is reality-based, investment in young people and a clear repurposing of government between progressive and conservative policy paths.

Canadian voters have a keen sense of when the machine of government becomes too self-reverential, too captive of the left or right, too much about hopeful aspiration and too detached from day-to-day street-level reality.

The duty of every Official Opposition is to put down the rose-coloured mirror and take up the magnifying glass to see and understand what modern society needs to encourage enterprise, productivity and genuine equality of opportunity – and binoculars to understand the proximate tomorrow that a truly national and balanced political party should be preparing to serve.

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