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For more than a decade, Canadian conservatism has been defined by one man. So suffocatingly taut has been Stephen Harper's grip on the Canadian right and the party that incarnated it that conservatives who differed could only bite their tongue or bide their time.

Now is their moment. As the Conservative Party embarks on what promises to be a long phase of introspection in its search for a leader and platform that can offer a countervailing vision to the second Trudeau age, the Canadian right is poised for a healthy hashing out of ideas.

It has time to indulge.

Prime-minister-designate Justin Trudeau has earned an extended honeymoon with voters. Even Canadians who did not vote for the Liberal Party will find Mr. Trudeau's move to channel Wilfrid Laurier's "sunny ways" an inspiring break from Darth Vader.

But appealing to the "better angels of our nature" – a poetic formulation from Abraham Lincoln that U.S. President Barack Obama appropriated during his political rise and Mr. Trudeau has recycled for himself – will eventually wear thin when the prosaic realities of governing a complicated, cleavage-ridden land sink in.

Mr. Trudeau gets an A-plus for style. Conservatives learned the hard way that positive always beats negative because human beings are an aspirational species. Potential Tory leadership candidate Jason Kenney remarked after Monday's defeat that the party got its policies right but the tone wrong. "We need a conservatism that is sunnier and more optimistic than what we have sometimes conveyed," he said.

Conservatives, of all people, should know this. Theirs is supposed to be the party of strivers, the party that celebrates hard work and entrepreneurship and sees the state as a referee that protects individual freedoms, not the "solution to all problems" that Liberals and New Democrats often pretend it to be.

True conservatives don't denigrate government. In power, Mr. Harper had no time for libertarian fantasies of a minimalist state that leaves individuals to fend for themselves regardless of circumstances or systemic imbalances of power and wealth in society. "The problem with this notion is, as conservatives know from experience, that people who act irresponsibly in the name of freedom are almost never willing to take responsibility for their actions," he said in 2009, singling out the Wall Street banks for their role in the financial crash.

The Conservative government's legacy on tax reform, as the Parliamentary Budget Officer noted last year, is "progressive overall" with changes to the tax system greatly favouring low- and middle-class earners. But when Liberals proclaim that tax rates nearing 55 per cent or more on income of $200,000 are "fair," Conservatives have a compelling case to make against such confiscation as counterproductive.

Mr. Harper's self-proclaimed belief in a "well-regulated private marketplace" apparently did not extend to comprehensive regulations to reduce greenhouse gases, his most significant and fatal blind spot as prime minister. Granted, he despised phonies, including several provincial premiers, who wrapped themselves in green for political gain but whose measures to combat climate change amounted more to hype than transformative action.

Still, it was an odd omission for a conservative who proclaimed to believe in society – or "family," as he called it. "We honour and build upon those who came before us and … we hope and look out for the future of those who will come after us," Mr. Harper said in the same 2009 speech at the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. He delivered on that by keeping federal finances in good shape, an invaluable legacy for future generations, provided that the incoming government does not squander it. But, had he thought like a true conservative, Mr. Harper would have seen combatting climate change as a conservative imperative.

The biggest debate confronting Conservatives will be about how much they should open up the tent. Former prime minister Joe Clark has already signalled that he would sign up if the party becomes "more like the Progressive Conservative Party." Compassion has been sadly lacking from the Conservative lexicon. And contemplating a leader such as former Quebec premier Jean Charest would signal that the party can once again be a home for Red Tories, who, by all accounts, voted in droves for Mr. Trudeau's Liberals.

But people like Mr. Charest are also one reason the Reform Party was created in 1987. Could these factions ever cohabitate again?

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