Hugh Segal is master of Massey College at the University of Toronto and a former Conservative senator.
When British Tories selected Theresa May as Prime Minister, it reflected the centrist type of conservatism that has been most successful for both the party and the U.K. And it differed dramatically from the uber-populist histrionics that went into the selection of the U.S. Republican presidential nominee. Canadian Conservatives, on their way to choosing a new federal leader, can learn a few lessons from their conservative cousins.
In the aftermath of the upset Brexit vote, which saw David Cameron quit as prime minister, Britain's Tories quickly winnowed through the Boris Johnsons and Michael Goves to make a sensible centrist choice that typifies level-headed politics at its best. While the challenges of managing an exit from the European Union remain, the choice of a steady hand on the tiller of state is the beginning of wisdom. Ms. May will be in a good position to negotiate Britain's exit without anti-EU rhetoric adding to the complexity.
In sharp contrast, we witness the Republican Party's total inability to predict, in any substantive way, what Donald Trump's trajectory will be on issues as diverse as health care, defence, foreign relations, national security and international trade.
In Canada, meanwhile, the decent group of federal Tory leadership candidates now in the field, and those on the periphery considering whether to run, have yet to impart what a steady hand on the tiller might produce for their party. Candidates who look in the mirror and see only the best person to lead their party and the country (full disclosure: I made that mistake 18 years ago) instead obsess about how to gather as many votes in as many constituencies as possible. This is an unavoidable conceit, driven by campaign tactics. But it gets in the way of working out the philosophical balance a party needs to be competitive in a time when there is a generational shift toward inclusiveness, evidence-based decision-making, and respect for a broad framework of economic and social opportunity.
The results of last October's election and the Conservative defeat tend to obscure the issues of harsh Tory policies and mean-spirited choices that helped Justin Trudeau and his Liberals go from third place to first, in a show of engaged, friendly, "we can do better" politics. The election campaign was not just about tone. It was also about policy.
The core Tory balance that has led to victory in the past – a balance between the progressive and conservative traditions reflected in leaders such as Bill Davis, Peter Lougheed, Brian Mulroney and even the ebullient but progressive conservatism of Danny Williams – seems largely absent from the current federal leadership race.
Whether it is the harm to the Tory brand that was caused by cancelling the long-form census, the sad invocation of "barbaric cultural practices or the folly of hard-right philosophic excess, there is no clear indication from the leadership contenders that these were, and remain, evidence of a fundamental imbalance and costly self-indulgence. And the notion, advanced by the sole candidate from Quebec, that a hard-right, small-government libertarian tack is politically relevant and attractive in that province is a fanciful idea without any roots in Quebec, or elsewhere. Big, wasteful, bureaucratic government is not the preference of Canadian voters anywhere. But focused, modern, open and smart government is what Tories champion when they win.
Having a steady hand on the tiller does not mean denying or refusing to apologize for past excesses. Whatever the future holds for the high-flying Trudeau government, an alternative party that is unable to acknowledge or get beyond its own past errors isn't much of an alternative.
Striking the right balance between east and west, economic and social progress, federal and provincial jurisdiction, foreign and domestic priorities, environmental and economic success, promises and delivery, is still the key for an Official Opposition to cross the aisle to government. Sadly, the only major Tory voice inching toward that balance is the articulate and engaging interim leader, Rona Ambrose, who is barred from the race under party rules.
None of the current contenders seem to be interested in finding that balance. If that doesn't change by the time the Conservatives select their new leader next May, the Liberal hegemony in government may well be numbered in decades, rather than years.