That ‘Big Tent,’ again … and why Erin O’Toole is the right choice

There is an interesting article in iPolirics by Alan Freeman, who became an Honorary Senior Fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs after serving in the Department of Finance as assistant deputy minister of consultations and communications. He was no fan of Prime Minister Harper nor is he of the Conservative Party, as he makes clear when he concludes that “I thought I’d heard enough from Stephen Harper to last me another lifetime … [but] … On this matter, [tolerance and being open to “others”] I’d like to know what he has to say.

Mr Freeman begins with a timely anecdote:

Harper001_GalleryIn 2006,” he recounts, “several months after becoming prime minister, Stephen Harper traveled to Washington to meet President George W. Bush. At a private dinner hosted by Canada’s newly-appointed ambassador, Michael Wilson, the subject of diversity and immigration came up … [and] … There, in the presence of Bush’s campaign guru Karl Rove and several U.S. cabinet ministers (Bush didn’t attend himself), Harper explained how the Liberal party had traditionally been the party of immigrants in Canada — and that he was determined to change that. He told his American guests that Canada’s immigrant communities had the right-of-centre family values that should make them feel perfectly at home in the Conservative party … [but] … Harper then warned his guests that the Republican Party should be aware of the demographic changes that were sweeping America and made it clear that if they failed to attract the votes of Hispanic Americans, they eventually would pay a heavy electoral price … [and, of course] … We all know what happened since. Rove and Bush, who had been governor of Texas and understood the need for the Republicans to broaden their base, tried to do just that — and failed. Immigration reform died under an onslaught from the Tea Party and the surge of the crackpot alt-right, phenomena that eventually brought Donald Trump to the White House, with plans for a fabulous wall and a Muslim ban.

619993edf4ce771bfbb1bad9a232223b_15-free-circus-tent-clip-art-big-top-clipart-free_778-789Now, I have banged on, since the very beginning of this blog, about Big Tent politics, the reality of the bell curve in politics, and the need to enunciate and live our Main Street values.

In Canada,” Mr Feeman continues, “Harper remained in power for almost a decade, helped by the split in the centre-left and the ferocious control he exercised over the motley coalition of Christian evangelicals, government-destroying libertarians and old-school Tories that constituted the Conservative Party of Canada. Through much of that time, Harper kept the lid on the nasty xenophobic elements in his party and actually made significant inroads in certain communities of new Canadians with the help of Jason Kenney, who continues to argue in favour of open borders and against Trump’s Muslim ban … [and, while] … Stephen Harper may have had plenty of shortcomings, but he was no bigot … [but] … It all came apart in the final desperate days of the 2015 election, of course, when a desperate Conservative party cavorted openly with anti-immigrant voters and launched the ill-fated ‘barbaric cultural practices’ snitch line. Since their defeat, the Conservatives have been flailing around looking for direction. Devoid of attractive alternatives who can actually unify the party and make it a viable centre-right option, the leadership race has devolved into a mosh pit of candidates who will literally say anything to get attention.

There are,” he says, “Conservatives who think they can make short-term gains on this score, maybe even win the party’s leadership. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I don’t think this is a winning electoral strategy for them — except with the die-hard 30 per cent (or less) of voters who don’t like all these foreigners and would like a return to a white, Christian, unilingual Canada.

He names a few names: Chris Alexander, Maxime Bernier, Kellie Leitch, Pierre Lemieux and Michael O’Leary, amongst others and suggests that only Michael Chong is on the right side of this issue.

I don’t like M-103, but we must remember that it is just a private member’s bill, a little less than a resolution, and not a government bill that could or would become “law.”

But, Adam Radwanski, writing in the Globe and Mail, says that “Conservatives were feeling pretty good about themselves in Vancouver last May at their first national convention since they lost power … because] … The open, inclusive and generally harmonious gathering helped assuage fears they would fall apart after the only elected leader their party had ever known made his exit. It turned out they didn’t need Stephen Harper’s rigid discipline to avoid nasty infighting, identity crises or a re-embrace of the fringes that cost them in elections past. Their big tent, welcoming to any small-c hqdefaultconservatives prepared to peaceably co-exist, was built to last …[but] … Less than nine months later, that tent is already being blown over by populist winds from south of the border. An ugly flirtation with the sort of angry, fearful populism that overtook U.S. Republicans threatens to define and divide Conservatives here, and to isolate them and their supporters from other Canadians in a way dangerous for all concerned … [and] … If this week’s debate on the motion was a trap cynically set by Justin Trudeau’s party, the Liberals could not have anticipated how enthusiastically many Tories would fling themselves into it – pandering to hysteria that the motion would curtail non-Muslims’ rights. (To be clear: It’s a motion, which means it would not change any laws whatsoever, and endorses very little other than the idea that fear of Muslims is a problem and along with other forms of discrimination merits further study) … [and] … That it has played out this way, despite the Conservatives voting in favour of a similar motion condemning Islamophobia just last fall, is the culmination of twin factors: A leadership contest crowded with uninspiring and opportunistic candidates, paired with the rise of nativist carnival-barkers hoping to build a Breitbart-aping business empire.

Sadly, I’m afraid that Messers Freeman and Radwanski are right: ill-informed populism is on the rise, and too many politicians are trying to ride the wave.

Leaders should be trying to apply some nuance to the issues, to explain them and to explain why moderation, in all things except, I suppose, integrity, is a good policy. It’s not that the populists are all wrong … there are, indeed, many socio-political problems in 1377303517_tumblr_lgpfc1DfU01qeweuno1_500Canada, beginning with e.g. human rights tribunals, that are slanted too far in one direction or another. But the solution is not to burn the place down. The solution is to moderate our reactions to social and political issues. We can be moderate and reasonably tolerant and respectful and still be good, fiscally prudent, responsible Conservatives. Families and jobs and values and equality of opportunities matter to us and they matter, equally, to many, many Canadians ~ some of whom look like me and my extended family and most of my friends …

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… and others who look and believe, live and even act a bit different …

… but none of skin colour or ethnic background, eye shape or sexual orientation, marital status or religion makes one Conservative or Liberal: all those attributes just make us human and Canadian. It is our values and political commitments that can and should lead many, many Canadians (50%+ of those who bother to vote at all) to support the Conservative Party of Canada and I have seen those values and commitments in small towns, on farms, in the suburbs and in big city centres, too.

Some Conervative leaders, most notably Rona Ambrose, have tried to enunciate a moderate position on M-103, but some others have taken what is, in my opinion, the wrong course. I would prefer that the bill is amended to not include the problematic word Islamophobia, but if that happens then it would be pointless, wouldn’t it? But, if the bill goes to a vote, as is, I will not be bothered by anyone who votes for or against it, but I will be bothered by those who try to make a mountain out of a molehill.

defence2-1Not surprisingly, since I’m a committed supporter, I like Erin O’Toole’s position: he has proposed a principled amendment to remove the overt reference to the e-petition because it might lead to ambiguity in interpretation. Otherwise, Mr O’Toole has refused to engage in the “dog whistle politics” to which others have resorted. That’s the right approach, the moderate, principled approach.

But we must also remember that bell curve. Right now I think, despite the fact that some of our leadership candidates may be falling into an unintentionally set Liberal trap, Justin Trudeau is doing us a favour. The promises he has already broken and the promises that he will have to break in 2017, 2018 and 2019 will alienate many voters. He has, already, I think, lost:

  • The NDP voters who abandoned their party and voted strategically to stop Stephen Harper ~ they are already disillusioned and I doubt that anything the Liberals can promise will keep them from supporting the NDP, as usual, in 2019; and
  • The young voters, who came out in unprecedented numbers in 2015, are still going to favour the Liberals when asked in a poll, but, I suspect, they are going to revert to type and stay home, not vote at all.

I think that Justin Trudeau has managed to reduce the LPC back to pretty much its core support ~ about where we, Conservatives, were (30±%) in 2015, and about where we still are. I believe that 25%+ of the electorate, those in the “mushy middle” if you like, are (or will be)  “up for grabs” in 2019 …

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… and I suspect that many, even most of them can be persuaded to vote Conservative if, and it’s a big IF:

  • We offer a middle class friendly, socially moderate, fiscally responsible programme; and
  • We have a modern, moderate, modest leader ~ like Erin O’Toole.

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