A couple of things caught my eye over the Christmas week:
- There were several stories about Kevin O’Leary being surrounded by advisors including such Conservative heavyweights “former Ontario premier Mike Harris [and] former Conservative Sen. Marjory LeBreton,” who will help him to decide how, and even if, to seek the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada; and
- A bit of an ode to the public library by Elizabeth Renzetti in the Globe and Mail.
Well, if you put leadership and public libraries together you cannot, I think, fail to focus on the great Scots-American industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Now, Kevin O’Leary tells us that he’s rich and powerful, as if the two are, necessarily, connected, but he is, of course, a very, very poor and even weak man when compared to the enormous wealth and influence that Carnegie amassed and wielded. Andrew Carnegie was fabulously rich (his personal fortune was over $350 Billion when measured in US dollars in 2015) even when compared to Henry Ford or the Vanderbilts, and he set about giving about 90% of it away … very focused giving which included establishing 0ver 3,000 public libraries in several English speaking countries including Canada, including the Ottawa Public Library.
Carnegie was one of those who understood the link between peace and prosperity and the “virtuous circle” that can result from the interactions of both. He was, also, a bit of a utilitarian who sought to provide a bit more equality of opportunity for more people. A quote which sums up Carnegie’s leadership for me is:
Take away my people, but leave my factories and soon grass will grow on the factory floors……Take away my factories, but leave my people and soon we will have a new and better factory.
Somehow I doubt that Kevin O’Leary, or several other would-be Conservative leaders, would say such a thing. It speaks to true, classical, liberal values which put the individual ahead of the collectives.
I have often said that I think our next Conservative leader should look like an old-time Liberal: Prime Minister Louis St Laurent. (It is my belief that M St Laurent, had he been alive to see all that Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien did and what Justin Trudeau is doing to Canada and to the Liberal Party, he would have no choice but to be a Conservative, today.) I am of the opinion that Prime Minister St Laurent gave us the best, most trouble-free government of any Canadian prime minister, including Sir John A Macdonald, Robert Borden and Stephen Harper. I would wish that we might seek a leader with some mix of Louis St Laurent’s personal probity and Andrew Carnegie’s spirit and vision.
Both were unrepentant liberals, who believed in the worth of the sovereign individual over that of any and all collectives. Both were equally unrepentant capitalists who believed in the sanctity of private property and its use to solve the world’s major problems.
It was in the latter aspect that Carnegie and St Laurent set an important example for modern political leaders. Both were suspicious of the capacity and capability of the state to help people. Both believed that private “charity” was more likely to provide better, more effective and efficient (cost-effective) social services than could government bureaucracies. Prime Minister St Laurent ushered in many of the elements of the modern
welfare nanny state but each benefit was strictly “means-tested” to ensure that we did not end up sending taxpayers’ hard-earned money to people who didn’t need it. Means testing was one of the ways Prime Minister St Laurent reassured working Canadians that their taxes were being spent wisely and that our social safety net was something other than wealth distribution from working families to others. It was only in the 1970s that Pierre Trudeau upset M St Laurent’s carefully balanced system with the notion that everyone was “entitled” to suck at the public teat.
Quite frankly I don’t care that Kevin O’Leary a self-described “Mr Wonderful” can sabre a bottle of Champagne, it’s not an especially difficult trick, and I’ve done with a highland dirk. What I worry about is what policies Mr O’Leary might bring to a leadership campaign. We’ve heard him, twice, once back in February 2016 and again just a week or so ago, on foreign and defence policy and the military and I remain convinced, as I was in February, that he’s a bloody fool, an intellectual lightweight, à la Justin Trudeau, with no place in government. But if he’s going to run then he has to have a whole suite of policies and while I’ve read some of his criticisms I have not heard any concrete proposals about e.g. health care or social programme spending.
Whoever is going to lead the Conservative Party, and I think there are many and probably better choices than Mr O’Leary, needs to come up with a suite of policies that go from helping Aboriginal Canadians to succeed through to containing the Zebra Mussels. David Krayden, writing in the Ottawa Sun, is too simplistic when he says that “It has become a tired cliché to insist that someone has changed the political landscape, but Trump has actually done so. He has forced the Conservative party — in the midst of a leadership campaign — to both analyze its ideology in the light of Trump’s volatile mixture of populism and conservatism and to consider the potential electoral implications of the Republican victory. On given days, Trump is a curious synthesis of a Goldwater Republican and Roosevelt New Dealer — as long as he is leading and being decisive. Though few Tories had the courage to admit they quietly admired Trump and his movement, his presence now has energized the Conservative party and made it believe that it can win again and defeat Trudeau.” It will take more than just energy to defeat Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. They began, in late 2016, to defeat themselves ~ as Liberals always do ~ by letting the mask slip and showing Canadians that they are only here for the “power and the glory,” the perks and the entitlements of high office, not to serve Canada. But Canada is not America, we have not endured the same traumas nor the same heady triumphs, either … we are a more modest, more moderate people and less inclined to revolution than to evolution. Prime Minister Harper left Canada in good shape; good enough to give Canadians the confidence they needed to throw his party out and usher in another era of big spending. But I think that many Canadians can see that the spending is not going where they wanted or expected. We can expect the drip, drip, drip of broken promises and misplaced priorities to continue, but they, in and of themselves, will not defeat Justin Trudeau ~ only programmes and policies that Canadians understand and support will do that. The drips of Liberal false promises must be accompanied by those made by broadly and generally popular Conservative promises in order to persuade Canadians that they should, once again, entrust their country and their pocketbooks to the CPC.
I think that we, Conservatives, can count on some of the “anti-elites” emotions that helped propel the Brexit and Donald Trump to un-forecasted victories, but those emotions will not be enough: we must have a leader and a platform that will, simultaneously, excite and reassure Canadians. Mr O’Leary may be better than some others at the “excite” part but, thus far anyway, he hasn’t said much that will reassure Canadians that their beloved social safety net, for example, is safe.
Remember the bell curve, please …
… and remember, also, that our Conservative “big tent” has room for a broad range of opinions …
…. but, finally, only one sort of Conservative can gain useful power: one who is an exemplary leader, who, along with her or his moderate platform and diverse team, appeals to 40% or more of Canadians:
A moderate platform does not have to mean that we accept that everything put in place by Mackenzie-King, Louis St Laurent, John Diefenbaker, Mike Pearson, Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, John Turner, Brian Mulroney, Kim Campbell, Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper must remain in place, unaltered, forever. A moderate, 21st century Conservative programme can be filled with new ideas for managing (and paying for) the social safety net using new ideas, new technology and old approaches pioneered by the likes of Andrew Carnegie. What moderate, modern Conservatives must not do is to become the party that threatens to dismantle the social safety net and fire tens of thousands of civil servants (and teachers) in an orgy of cost-cutting. Canadians are, by and large, a moderate, pragmatic people who want things to work better ~ more effectively and more efficiently ~ and are willing to consider change when it, fairly clearly, is to their benefit. With Justin Trudeau, they voted, thus far, mostly for a change in style, and one lesson is that style matters, too. But I would argue that Conservatives can, honestly and comfortably, occupy more than just the right side of the political spectrum. Our party has pioneered parts of the public social safety net because we understood that in each time and place, in each era, there are things that governments can do, or pay for, better than anyone else … but, equally, in every time and place there are things that the private sector can, and should provide better than government and how something is funded is far less important than is ensuring that a service is provided to those who need it in a cost-effective manner.
Conservatives must have a national vision that goes beyond just tax cuts and individual liberty. That vision must be comprehensive, demonstrating to almost all Canadians that the CPC is, also, a “natural governing party” because it speaks, confidently and competently, to the issues that matter to most of the 80%+ of Canadians who sit right across the political spectrum, but somewhere to the right of the NDP and the Liberals‘ left-wing. Conservatives must not be seen as a single-issue party, especially not as a mean spirited bunch of grey-haired religious fanatics who want to impose the Christian equivalent of medieval Sharia law on Canada.