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Conservatives warmly welcome U.S. libertarian Ron Paul in Ottawa

Ron Paul, left, former U.S. Republican primary candidate, speaks at a press conference with Preston Manning, former leader of the Reform Party, at the Manning Conference in Ottawa on March 8, 2013.

Patrick Doyle/The Canadian Press

America's foremost libertarian, Ron Paul, received a standing ovation Friday from Canadian conservatives gathered for an annual conference, after a speech that advocated the abolition of central banks, income tax and social programs.

But on the sidelines of the networking conference, sponsored by the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, some Tories noted that Mr. Paul's views were disconnected from the more moderate Canadian conservative movement and the nation in general.

A survey released at the conference indicated Canadians still count on government to handle the economy.

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"We're not Americans in that sense – [Canadians] regard government as a positive force," said longtime conservative pollster Andre Turcotte, adding that the public is looking for more innovative ways of service delivery.

Few Conservative parliamentarians attended Mr. Paul's morning speech, in which he encapsulated his views on the primacy of individual liberty and the problems with current economic models – all centred on the concept of government getting out of the way of people's lives and the free market.

Mr. Paul – formerly a Republican leadership candidate and congressman – is an opponent of centralized monetary policy, government support for industry, federal social programs and the regulation of illicit drugs. At home, he has advocated for the abolition of the federal Health and Education departments.

"Wouldn't it be correct to assume that the fruits of your labour are also yours to keep?" Mr. Paul said, interrupted by applause.

"My goodness, that would be a challenging thought. What does that mean? There wouldn't be any income tax? That's right, we wouldn't have income taxes, because it would be your money. Then everyone would start worrying then how would you pay for the government? Well, why don't we have a lot less government and we wouldn't have to worry about that. That's what I'd like."

Preston Manning, the former Reform party leader and host of the conference, later asked Mr. Paul questions but did not challenge his views. Much of the conference agenda was dominated by guests associated with the more libertarian Reform party-Canadian Alliance side of the Tory family.

But the current Conservative government under Stephen Harper has heavily branded its stimulus project – the Economic Action Plan – as the cornerstone of the government's agenda. Its skills programs, funding for seniors and snowmobile clubs, and various industrial subsidies would appear antithetical to Mr. Paul's non-interventionist policies.

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Alberta Premier Alison Redford won last year's provincial election with a firmly progressive conservative approach, defeating the favourite of the Reform-Alliance camp, the Wildrose Party's Danielle Smith.

Mr. Harper himself, at a speech to the conference in 2009, explored the weaknesses of dogmatic allegiance to libertarianism, and ignoring the "realities of real people."

"The libertarian says, 'Let individuals exercise full freedom and take full responsibility for their actions.' The problem with this notion is that people who act irresponsibly in the name of freedom are almost never willing to take responsibility for their actions," Mr. Harper said at the time.

Mr. Manning attributed the exuberant response to Mr. Paul's speech as evidence that conservatives are willing to explore tough questions.

"What you should observe from this conference is that conservatives are not afraid of self-examination," Mr. Manning said. "We don't just have conferences to self-congratulate ourselves on previously established positions, which I would argue is the dominant characteristic of the Liberal leadership conference right now."

Former cabinet minister Chuck Strahl said another conference panel that featured a debate between a "red" and "blue" Tory over degrees of government intervention was more relevant than Mr. Paul's speech.

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"I always love that people are allowed to speak their mind. That doesn't mean I have to agree with it, and I don't," Mr. Strahl said. "It's nice to hear how he thinks and how that segment of the American population puts their ideas together, but … we fish in a pond that's really narrow. It's centre left and centre right."

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