COVID-19 and the Conservatives’ Dilemma

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Canada’s conservative politicians, and the federal Conservative Party in particular, are seemingly confronted with a serious philosophical dilemma during this time of big government, big spending and big deficits. If they stick with their well-established positions of the recent past, (for example by emphasizing government retrenchment, deficit reduction, tax cuts and punitive social policies), they have no hope of attracting Canadian voters for the foreseeable future. If, on the other hand, they launch a full scale retreat and reverse policies, they risk being dismissed by voters as merely Liberal lite.

Nowhere has this dilemma been demonstrated more clearly than in Ontario, where premier Doug Ford – the same politician who made serious cuts to government spending little more than a year ago in areas such as health care and education, and would have done more if he had not been confronted with significant public opposition – is now the outspoken champion of government intervention, regulation and massive spending. This is also the same man who was unlikely to pay attention to expert opinion in those days, and now listens respectfully and repeats faithfully what his officials tell him. Not surprisingly the premier’s popularity ratings, (once among the lowest in the country) have risen quite dramatically. Nevertheless the provincial Liberals, who were rejected so conclusively by voters in 2018 and are now saddled with an unknown new leader, are tied with the Conservatives in the latest polls and could well win the next election in 2022. [1]  

Yet the federal Conservative Party does not even appear to have recognized that this dilemma exists, let alone address it in any reasonable or creative fashion.  The party elites are proceeding full steam ahead with their temporarily paused leadership race, evidently content with the slim candidate options on offer. This could prove a huge mistake. There were at least two other routes they could have chosen. First, like the Labour Party in Britain — desperate to rid themselves of the toxic leadership of Jeremy Corbyn — they could have sped up the selection process in light of the pandemic challenge. In Labour’s case, this has quickly produced a far more credible leader in the form of Sir Keir Starmer, and Labour is now continuously visible and credibly part of the pandemic debate. Alternatively, the Conservatives could have cancelled their existing leadership process and started over in light of this extraordinary crisis, hopefully attracting a broader and more credible range of candidates by allowing for more time. This second option has been aggressively promoted by several well-known conservatives outside the party, including columnist Andrew Coyne.[2]    

Instead, with their decision to carry on regardless, the party finds itself in the worst of all possible situations. It is running a race no one cares about, with only two potential winning candidates – the obscure backbench MP Erin O’Toole and the gaffe-prone former Harper minister Peter Mackay — neither of whom are up to the task of presenting a serious alternative to the government. Meanwhile the leader the party is desperate to replace, Andrew Scheer, lurches from one unpopular position to the next, cementing the image of the party as out of touch and out of ideas.

One conservative who appears to recognize the paucity of federal Conservative policy options on offer is Preston Manning, the nearly-forgotten leader of the defunct Reform Party. However his solution to this policy vacuum is hardly helpful. In an article entitled “Let’s Restore Confidence in Our Economy” Manning actually calls for a national economic recovery plan, something that would be philosophical anathema to many of his fellow travellers who dislike both government plans and federal/national control. Nevertheless Manning argues the federal government has been negligent in failing to deliver one by now, entirely ignoring the fact that the federal government has been working assiduously at developing a whole-of-government approach to the pandemic and has already laid out a carefully communicated plan with which most Canadians are familiar. That plan focused first and foremost on containing the virus and protecting the health and safety of citizens, then moved to shore up the financial situation of many of those same citizens, and is now engaged in a slow and cautious re-opening of the economy. Judging from the high levels of popular support for the Trudeau government and its handling of the pandemic, few Canadians think the Liberals have been remiss because they have not yet unveiled a detailed longer-term national economic recovery plan. But most are confident the government will have one ready soon. 

Even more bewildering than Manning’s specious attack on the Liberals is the fact that he fails to point out the federal Conservatives are the ones who have been missing in action on this file. Instead, he proposes that the provinces should step into the breach and develop this national plan.[3] This of course represents the classic conservative decentralist approach to Canadian federalism, but it is not something that even Stephen Harper would condone. While the former prime minister was determined to devolve responsibility for many things to the provinces, the economy most certainly was not one of them. Nor is it at all practicable. (Imagine a meeting where Alberta premier Jason Kenney prioritizes the oil patch while Ontario’s premier focuses on support for technology start-ups and Quebec argues in favour of nationalizing Air Canada and bailing out SNC Lavalin.)

Manning apparently is unable to propose a national plan of his own, in addition to lacking all confidence in the federal party’s ability to do so. No doubt this is due in large measure to his philosophical preference for small government, an unfettered private sector and an emphasis on families and charities rather than social welfare, none of which will fly in the new post-Covid reality. But eschewing the right-wing conservative agenda of the past several decades does not mean there is no alternative to becoming a pseudo-Liberal. Even lifelong Liberals, (such as this author), recognize that strong opposition parties are an essential element of a healthy democracy. Historically the progressive wing of the Conservative party was able to appeal to Canadians on occasion, especially on economic issues. There are undoubtedly realistic alternatives which progressive Conservatives could and should be working on, in the same way that former Conservative senator Hugh Segal has returned to the charge on the concept of a basic annual income. The apparent policy paralysis of the federal Conservatives, and the absence of a credible leader due to their fumbling of the leadership race, are particularly unfortunate given that the next federal election will undoubtedly be both a referendum on the current federal government’s handling of the crisis and its proposed medium and long-term economic recovery plan. If the federal Conservatives are unable to put together a credible alternative to that plan they might as well throw in the towel now. 

[1] Mainstreet Research. March 25, 2020: Conservatives 33%, Liberals 33%, NDP 23%, Greens 7%.

[2] Andrew Coyne. “The World in Which the Conservative Leadership Race Began No Longer Exists: It’s Time to Start Again”. Globe and Mail. May 1, 2020.

[3] Preston Manning. “Let’s restore Confidence in our Economy” Globe and Mail. May 3, 2020.