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Conservative MP Erin O'Toole listens during the Conservative caucus retreat on Parliament Hill on Jan. 24, 2020.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

It would be charitable to say the Conservative leadership race – now in its sixth great month! – has failed to light a fire under Canadians. A more accurate statement would be that it has barely registered with them.

But there are signs of life. The two leading candidates, Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, have both released policy statements of varying degrees of scope and substance. They, along with the two other candidates, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan, will debate their differences on television next week.

And while the campaign may not have produced the sort of fundamental rethinking of the party’s position it might have – a recognition of how far it has lagged behind the times, and how little its policies, such as they are, have to say about many current issues – it is as notable for what else has not happened.

Most significantly, there has been no lurch to the populist-nationalist right, of the kind that has taken over conservative parties in other countries. Neither have the party’s social conservatives taken disproportionate hold on the proceedings. For all its failings, this remains a mainstream conservative party, squarely in the liberal-democratic tradition.

What is more, the first faint stirrings of ideological differentiation are emerging between the O’Toole and MacKay campaigns, notwithstanding both candidates’ history of what-he-said centrism. Mr. O’Toole’s platform, in particular, released this week, is something of a revelation.

If not quite visionary, it is not mush, either. If it panders in places to certain constituencies – gun owners, faith groups, Quebec nationalists, people who want to “take back Canada” – it does so relatively harmlessly: in the main, by promising to retain the status quo. Even on the hot-button topic of immigration, always a target for politicians on the make, it promises no more than to keep admission levels “steady.”

Neither, in the pursuit of novelty, does it stray into ill-considered efforts to remake conservatism as something it is not – for example, the sort of warmed-over industrial policy urged upon the party in some quarters. Rather, it is distinguished mostly by a willingness to apply traditional conservative principles in a coherent way to contemporary issues, especially on the economy. For Canadian Conservatives, that’s newsworthy.

Some of these are vague (“end corporate welfare”) or aspirational (“work towards making Canada the world’s freest economy”). But others show an encouraging sense of the fiscal and economic challenges before the country, not only in the present crisis but even more so in the long run, given the aging of the population. There’s a call for sweeping reform of the tax system, lacking details but with all the right emphases (“reduce, flatten and considerably simplify”).

There’s an intriguing plan to advance the cause of interprovincial free trade, even in the face of adverse judicial rulings, by way of legislation “clarifying” the intent of Section 121 of the Constitution (the one that was supposed to establish a common market among the provinces) to “provide modern context for the Supreme Court to consider.” There’s a proposal for “pay-as-you-go” legislation, which would require any new spending to be financed out of cuts in current spending.

Best of all are two proposals to shift power to consumers and away from corporate interests, public or private. Mr. O’Toole would open up the telecom and airline sectors to foreign competition – the only way to bring down Canada’s notoriously high prices in both. And he would make a start, at least, on desubsidizing the media, cutting funding for CBC English TV by 50 per cent and repealing (hallelujah!) the Liberal bailout for the newspaper industry.

How disappointing, then, to find that Mr. O’Toole does not apply the same logic to supply management, the system of government-sponsored price-fixing in agriculture. Likewise, his professed enthusiasm for applying “market mechanisms” to the problem of climate change does not prevent him from parroting Conservative dogma on the carbon tax. And the pandering reaches its nadir with a vow to invoke the notwithstanding clause to preserve mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes – a gratuitous poke at the judiciary.

Still, it’s an impressively forthright document, measured but substantial, with at least some sense of a principled underpinning. How one wishes one could say the same of what Mr. MacKay has put out. To be fair, Mr. MacKay has yet to release a full platform. But comparing his “jobs plan” with Mr. O’Toole’s economic proposals, the relative lack of ambition or coherence is striking.

To be sure, the two have much in common. Both are for tax reform and interprovincial free trade. Both would balance the budget, although neither will say when. Both would repeal Liberal legislation viewed as “anti-pipeline” or “anti-tanker” in the oil patch. Both would scrap the carbon tax, in each case without a serious plan to meet our emissions targets in its absence. Both favour higher defence spending, more high-speed internet and other good things.

But Mr. MacKay shows a disturbing eagerness to monkey around with the economy, substituting his own hunches and premonitions for the the judgment of consumers and investors. Much of this, to be fair, is windy sloganeering without much practical meaning. He’d “bring advanced manufacturing jobs to Canada.” He’d “make Canada a technology powerhouse of the north,” and the like.

But it gives an indication of his thinking. And the policy details, where supplied, are not encouraging. He’d give manufacturers accelerated write-offs for machinery purchases. He’d give GST breaks to certain industries but not others. He’d make unspecified changes to the capital gains tax to “spur investment decisions.” He’d intervene to “bring our supply chains home to Canada.” He’d “strategically target our research investments into areas that will deliver the high-paying jobs of the future.”

Attention strategic targeters: No one knows where “the high-paying jobs of the future” will be. If past experience is any guide, they will be in industries that do not yet exist, or have not even been thought of. It will be interesting to see whether Mr. O’Toole takes him up on this in the debates, and if so, how Mr. MacKay defends it.

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