April 26, 2017 2:27 pm
Updated: May 24, 2017 11:00 am

COMMENTARY: A few modest proposals for how Canada’s Conservatives can come back and win

Deepak Obhrai, Michael Chong, Kevin O'Leary and Andrew Scheer participate in a Conservative Party leadership debate at the Manning Centre conference, on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017 in Ottawa.

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In a recent column for Maclean’s magazine, Scott Gilmore, a former Canadian diplomat and self-identified Conservative, spoke of his frustration with his party.

“The Conservative leadership race has been hard to watch … I am left wondering how I ended up in a party seemingly dominated by xenophobic, economically illiterate, populist buffoons,” he wrote.

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He argued that the merger of the Reform/Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties wasn’t working out (for many) in the long term and that breaking up the party might be required. He launched a series of dinner events across Canada, where conservatives interested in his idea could come together, have a meal and a few beers, and talk.

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On Tuesday, what’s become known as The New Conservative Dinners came to Toronto. I asked Scott if I could crash his party as an observer. He invited me to talk instead.

I agreed, but I made it clear I’d be there neutrally, and offered the same disclaimers in person as I do here, in this column that is distilled from my remarks: though my personal politics are decidedly right-of-centre, I am not a member of any political party, nor am I politically active beyond commentary and actually voting. I invoke my own personal “prime directive” on the matter of whether the Conservative Party should fragment. That’s up to the Conservative Party membership.

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That’s the boilerplate. Let’s get to the matter at hand.

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The main point I made in Toronto on Tuesday, as I’ve made often before, is that I’m a conservative mostly because I’m an optimist on most things. Most people, I think, left to their own devices, will do OK. Not all — there are always exceptions, and they have to be accounted for.

I see a role for government, but it should be a limited one — collecting the least amount of taxes necessary to provide only those services that can’t be provided any other way.

Though they dress it up in “sunny ways” verbiage, the progressive message of the NDP or Liberals is a fundamentally grim one: to varying degrees at varying times, the message is: “things are bad, but we can fix them for you.”

They don’t put it so bluntly as that, but government (with them running it) is offered up as a solution to a problem you can’t otherwise solve.

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Conservatives have, in recent years, been afraid to make bold proposals. They seem to have bought into the notion that Canada is a fundamentally Liberal country, and even the Tories seem to believe they can only win elections by tip-toeing very quietly into power.

I disagree.

I think the Conservatives should loudly make the counter-argument that things are actually pretty good, and they have some ideas to make them even better by empowering the voters even more. Rather than a government that does many things badly, aim for one that does a few things well. And, above all else, be clear that the Conservatives trust the voters to run their own affairs.

That’s all very vague, I know. In my defence, the big picture ideas often are. But to illustrate what an optimistic Canadian conservatism looks like, I chose five areas where actual right-wing, small-government proposals could be made, and I think win, in the next Canadian election.

Tax reform

I confess I’m perhaps motivated here by the awful three days I spent this month collecting receipts and putting together the taxes for my wife and I, but I genuinely believe tax reform could be a gigantic winner. A campaign based on the notion of “fair, simple taxes” would be hard to argue against.

It would mean eliminating most of the current tax credits and exemptions in favour of a dramatically lower and much flatter income tax system. This is the utter opposite direction the Tories took since 2006, where they sought to win tiny little voter groups with tiny little, targeted credits.

The Fraser Institute already did the legwork on this in a 2015 report, identifying 68 tax credits you could eliminate for a government “savings” of $20 billion, which could, in turn, be immediately used to give virtually everyone a tax cut. The exception would be high-income earners, who’d pay roughly the same.

It’s an incredibly attractive proposal that the Conservatives are best placed to make: government doesn’t lose, the rich don’t lose, most Canadians win, and everyone gets a much simpler, more efficient tax system. Again, not sexy. But good, conservative policy, just waiting to be adopted.

Legal reform

This category is something of a catch-all but can be summarized, mainly, as a pivot toward being “smart on crime,” rather than tough on crime. (I do apologize for the slogan.) Or, more specifically, in being tough on violent and dangerous criminals, but seeking alternative means of dealing with non-violent criminals.

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Canada needs to get tougher on rapists, murderers, repeat drunk drivers and the like. It doesn’t need to warehouse, at incredible annual expense, white collar criminals in jails and prisons, and it should certainly end the war on drugs (I know any such process would be gradual, but I believe Conservatives should embrace the notion of near-total legalization of drugs, on ground that prohibition is a failed policy that only expands government while not fixing the problem).

I’d like to see a Conservative Party acknowledge the good news that’s clear to everyone who does the research: crime is less common in Canada than almost ever before. Crack down on the truly dangerous, put them away forever, and make the justice system smaller and less expensive. What’s not to like about living in a safe country where the power of the police and courts are focused most strongly on the small minority of criminals who’ll do the worst harm? That’s the story to tell.

National defence

This is a pet issue of mine but I truly believe that Canadians would support a stronger, better-funded military and security agencies. Again, you don’t need to sell this by portraying us as a nation under siege. You instead sell it as nothing more than what our blessed country owes a troubled world — the ability for Canada to contribute meaningfully and effectively abroad, whether to save the lives of victims of disaster, famine and genocide, or to the collective security of democracies and the protection of the vulnerable.

There are tons of other terrific benefits to having a sizeable, properly-funded military, including national unity, education and obvious benefits on the home front, in case of urgent crisis here. But, in short, I believe Canadians love their military, even if they don’t think about it much. A more prominent, capable military, I suggest, would be embraced by the public all that much more.

Infrastructure

There is nothing a truly conservative party should do better or with more pleasure than just building stuff people need and taking proper care of it. It is the best possible use of taxpayer money — properly and efficiently constructing and then keeping up the common items we need to thrive economically. Yet Canadian governments are terrible at this, right across the country.

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Conservatives should make erasing our infrastructure deficits — for both new and existing assets — not just a top priority. They should make it a calling card. We may not be fancy, they can argue, but your roads will get built, your bridges will be repaired, and we’ll keep up with population growth. (No “making the trains run on time” jokes, please.)

Trade

This is the big one, I think. Any Conservative Party should move heaven and Earth to ensure that Canadian consumers and companies have the maximum access possible to the greatest number of markets possible. That means pursing free trade deals (which the Tories, under Stephen Harper, certainly did). It means being willing to open up our own markets — dairy, for instance — to foreign competition, in order to show good faith with our negotiating partners (which the Tories, under Stephen Harper, certainly did not).

And it means using every available political and legislative tool to finally break down the barriers that complicate and impede trade within Canada — why form a federation if not to create a larger market? Canadian protectionism is a bad habit we can’t quite kick. It’s time for someone to make it a priority in every way, not just those most convenient.

These are just a few disjointed thoughts from one man. Any can be critiqued and the list is not in any way intended to be final or complete. But the above points would be, I think, the rough bones of a platform that conservatives of all kind could rally behind. And I think a lot of other Canadians could get behind it, too.

Matt Gurney is host of The Morning Show on Toronto’s Talk Radio AM640 and a columnist for Global News.

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