Ontario PCs floundering on conservative policy

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The Ontario PCs seem to have avoided their habit of blasting away at their own feet in opting for a fair transparent leadership contest with several plausible candidates.  But it remains an open question whether the party knows its left from its right foot.

Watching the candidates in action, including at the just-concluded 2018 Manning Networking Conference, it’s clear that the party elite contains a strong faction who believe the purpose of conservative parties is to prevent the airing of conservative options.  And that many insiders favour Caroline Mulroney or Christine Elliot primarily for that reason.

Elliot, for instance, vehemently denounced the drastic minimum wage hike in Ontario.  But when asked if she would repeal it she said no, she would simply delay the final increase.  So she hates Liberal policy without disagreeing with it.  As, indeed, they all seem to hate big government without disagreeing with it.

They all denounce a carbon tax with passion borrowed from the grassroots.  But they have no idea how to pay for various tax cuts and spending pledges Patrick Brown’s “People’s Guarantee” would have funded using billions in carbon tax revenue.

Caroline Mulroney fell back on the old chestnut about waste.  But as Kelly McParland tartly observed in the National Post, “’Everyone knows that they’ve been wasting money,’ she said, which is true.  But everyone also knows that every other politician of the past eon or so has made the same promise, and few ever succeed.  Because wasted money is usually devoted to programs that make people happy, and cancelling or curbing them is a sure way to drive away votes.”

The dilemma is legitimate.  But many readers will be familiar with the “Overton window”, an analytic tool where you list all the options in a given situation then create a smaller box or “window” around the choices currently considered fit for polite company.  And where Canada’s federal NDP has been amazingly successful in implementing its agenda over 75 years without ever holding power, moving the Overton window through fearless and consistent advocacy, it is something Tories mostly fear to attempt.

Partly the provincial Tories have a weakness for hapless lunges at the brass ring that leave them even worse off next time, their views discredited without having been advanced.  But there is also a lingering suspicion that Red Tories are viscerally hostile to conservatism.

Doug Ford is a different kettle of fish.  He is certainly not PC or apologetic.  But does populism override conservatism with him?  Ultimately any political order must rest on the consent of the governed, but one that thinks vox populi vox dei on any given issue, immediately, cannot restrain voters’ appetite for subsidies.  And can he avoid the bitter, sneering tone that too often accompanies genuine sympathy for the little guy?

Progressives are surprisingly often bitter and divisive beneath a tattered cloak of compassion.  But life is not a race to the bottom, and conservatism needs someone to argue for smaller government in a generous way, including stressing that elites, not the little guy and gal, can navigate and manipulate the complex massive state apparatus to their advantage.

Tax breaks are invariably touted as benefiting the ordinary person.  But you are being played for a fool or by one with that argument.  And Doug Ford, at Manning, declared to enthusiastic applause that he opposed business subsidy cheques but favoured tax incentives to come to Ontario, a difference that makes no difference.  He also had much praise for public programs, and no recommendations for cuts.

There is another candidate, Tanya Granic Allen, a parents’ rights advocate I met for the first time at the Manning Conference.  As Adam Radwanski just wrote in the Globe and Mail, “Her chances of winning are extremely low and there is considerable doubt about whether she’ll even be able to raise enough money to stand as a candidate.  But it almost doesn’t matter whether Ms. Granic Allen – president of Parents as First Educators, which lobbies against Ontario’s new sex-ed curriculum – officially enters.  What matters is that she is currently selling memberships to like-minded conservatives… The potential for thousands of so-cons to be sent their way helps explain why other candidates are talking lots about hot-button social issues.”

So she’s at least trying to move the Overton window.  And the others don’t have to like her views.  One can conceive of a conservative party that is essentially libertarian, on policy and metaphysics.  But if candidates who shun social conservatism also seek to stifle discussion of smaller government, presenting as “Me too” Liberals with a “Yes but” platform in Truman’s classic formulation, voters will have trouble understanding what they’re there for except to prevent conservatism from getting a hearing.

More from John Robson.    Follow John on Twitter at @thejohnrobson

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