As the campaign heads into its final stretch, an election that just a month ago looked like a Liberal romp has instead become the nearest thing to a dead heat. While the odds still favour a Liberal government, probably a minority, there is a sporting prospect of the Conservatives taking power.
Though the positions of the two parties appear to mirror the results of the previous election, with the Tories ahead in the polls but behind in the seat projections, the Conservative vote is more efficiently distributed this time, with fewer votes wasted on huge majorities in Western Canada and more support where they need it, in suburban Ontario.
So close are many of the races in Ontario that a shift of a mere two or three percentage points in the polls would flip another 10 or 12 seats into the Conservative column. At around 150 seats, the Tories would have a decent shot at power, needing only the support of either the NDP or the Bloc to govern, while the Liberals, at around 130 seats, would need the support of both.
So it’s worth considering just what sort of governing philosophy Erin O’Toole would bring to the job of prime minister. This may seem a pointless exercise, given the Conservative Leader’s tendency to trade in his old convictions for new ones every few weeks.
But assume for a minute that the promises outlined in the Conservative platform mean something, and would not be discarded the minute the Tories took office. Is there, as some have claimed, evidence of a new conservatism in its pages? Is it possible to speak of O’Tooleism (Erinomics?) as a coherent whole?
Not really. Mostly the platform is made up of a mix of sops to the old Tory coalition (repealing the assault weapons ban – whoops, I mean keeping it! But “reviewing” it!) and ostentatious bows to groups the party would like to add to it, notably workers.
But here and there are glimmers, faint stirrings of something that, given some encouragement, might blossom into a 21st-century conservatism: one that might be both relevant and saleable, where so much conservatism has of late been neither.
In its core beliefs, conservatism remains a valid proposition, a vital counterweight to the (also valid!) reforming enthusiasms of the left. In a nutshell, the role of conservatism is to save liberalism from the liberals. It retains, where many liberals have forgotten, the Enlightenment’s mistrust of concentrations of power, together with a faith in the ability of individual people to make choices in their own best interests.
Notably, it favours market-based exchange over state regulation – co-operation rather than coercion – as the organizing principle of economic activity. Competition puts consumers in charge, rather than producers; prices give consumers the information they need to make wise use of scarce resources.
Where governments intervene, therefore, it should be in ways that work with markets rather than against them: putting more money in the hands of the poor, allowing them to purchase the goods and services they prefer, rather than providing them with benefits directly; correcting prices, where they fail to reflect social costs, rather than supplanting them with regulations; and so on.
As I say, you can see glimmers of this in the Conservative platform, most notably in the party’s daycare plan: a refundable tax credit, targeted at families on low income, in place of the Liberal proposal to subsidize provinces to subsidize daycare centres. In the same vein, doubling the Canada Workers Benefit – by far the most expensive proposal in the platform – is a more effective way of helping the working poor than increasing the minimum wage, which is of no benefit to those put out of work by it.
So, too, there is a whiff of concern for the consumer interest in the proposal to open Canada’s wireless and internet market to competitors from other countries – spoiled only by a rider making this conditional on those countries opening their markets to ours. The party would also support “open banking,” making it easier for bank customers to port their financial data to online competitors. Plus there’s a vague promise to break down interprovincial trade barriers.
But no party that had any genuine concern for consumers, especially poor consumers, would continue to support supply management, a complex system of tariffs and quotas – talking of interprovincial trade barriers – that forces consumers to pay two and three times the market price for such staple foods as milk, eggs and poultry. And yet support it the Tories do.
The platform’s tilt toward economic nationalism is equally misguided: a “reformed” net benefits test for foreign takeovers that promises to be even more of a deterrent to investment than the existing one; a buy-Canadian requirement for federal infrastructure projects; even a tariff on imports of personal protective equipment – just the thing to make future pandemic preparation more costly and uncertain.
And of course the Conservatives still don’t get it on carbon pricing, notwithstanding the much-hyped Personal Low Carbon Savings Accounts. While better than nothing, they still leave the Tories promoting a less market-friendly, more regulatory-heavy approach to fighting climate change than the Liberals.
Much has been made of the platform’s newfound interest in workers’ rights. That’s welcome, as far as it goes. Pro-consumer does not mean anti-worker, any more than to be pro-worker requires that one be anti-consumer; they’re the same people, after all.
It’s particularly encouraging to see Conservatives taking an interest in employee share ownership: like employee pension plans, these give labour a stake in the interests of capital and vice versa, rather than leaving each to regard the other as implacable adversaries.
But a truly pro-worker platform would be concerned, not just with protecting the right of workers to join a union, but also the rights of workers who do not wish to join one (or to pay dues to it). And it would put the interests of unemployed workers, the “outsiders” in the labour market, ahead of those of the insiders, those who already have jobs.
That’s critical, since so much current policy is aimed in the other direction, securing the privileges of the employed at the expense of the unemployed. One reason we have seen such rapid growth in part-time and gig employment, relative to full-time, is that it is so prohibitively expensive for a company to add a full-time employee to its payroll – expenses, in the form of mandated benefits and job security, it is required to assume by law.
Yet rather than lower this effective tariff on full-time hiring, the Tories would raise new barriers to gig employment, in the form of portable Employee Savings Accounts to which employers would be obliged to contribute – a payroll tax, by another name.
“You’ll probably notice ideas that you haven’t heard from Conservatives like me before,” Mr. O’Toole says in his introduction to the platform. That’s true enough. Sometimes that’s to the party’s credit. Sometimes less so.