Very occasionally a party leadership race will turn on some burning question of policy. More often, they are brute contests of organizational muscle and name recognition, with little in the way of substantive issues at stake.
But this Conservative leadership campaign is something else again, one that appears to be about neither the leadership – the party gives every sign of having made up its mind already – nor policy. Rather, at least to judge by last week’s candidates’ debate, the only issue is who can take the most unhinged positions on the fringiest topics.
I’m not talking here about the “combative,” that is, vicious tone of the debate, the personal attacks and what not, the subject of much commentary afterward. It would be nice if politicians would occasionally take the high road, but let’s be serious: it’s like asking a death metal band to sing La Traviata.
Neither is my complaint that the candidates are not centrist enough, or too ideologically conservative. Those, such as current interim leader Candice Bergen, who advise the party to avoid attempting to pass itself off as “Liberal-lite” are right, not so much because it can’t win that way – stranger things have happened – but because it wouldn’t much matter if it did.
It’s precisely the opposite: the campaign, like the party, is not nearly ideological enough. This has been a problem for many years. In the Harper years, the party renounced most serious ideological differences with the Liberals in favour of mindless partisanship.
In its current incarnation, it leans more to out and out wackjobbery: conspiracy theories of various kinds – is it George Soros who is secretly controlling our lives, or is it the World Economic Forum? – vaccine denialism, and cheering on the lawless mob that took over Ottawa earlier this year.
Oh yes, and shilling for bitcoin, as an alternative to the dollar.
Three of the five candidates on the podium last Thursday represented some hue of this sort of thinking. When Leslyn Lewis took Pierre Poilievre to task for his support of the illegal blockade, which paralyzed the city centre and terrorized many of its residents for weeks on end, it was only to rebuke him for not being early or enthusiastic enough in his endorsement.
Meanwhile Roman Baber’s main claim to fame seemed to be that he was turfed from the caucus of Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford last year over his opposition to the province’s lockdown policy, to which he has since added opposition to mask and vaccine mandates: the denialist trifecta.
What will be noted about all this is how little it has to do with conservatism. There is nothing conservative about endorsing massive and sustained breakdowns of law and order, especially where these are coupled with assaults on the public: quite the contrary. Neither is a conservative doctrinally obliged to sign onto bizarre theories that an annual celebrity talking shop in the Swiss Alps is somehow ruling the world.
There is a libertarian streak of conservatism that would reflexively question the need for lockdowns or vaccine mandates – but having indulged the reflex, a thinking libertarian would take into account the exceptional circumstances that compelled such extraordinary measures: a lethal pandemic that has killed in excess of 15 million people worldwide, and would have killed many times that number in their absence.
By contrast, consider the conservative issues and policies that have gone all but ignored through the campaign to date. There has been next to no discussion of the federal deficit and debt, at least in terms of concrete measures to address either. No serious proposals have been advanced, likewise, for improving Canada’s anemic productivity growth – whether by reforming our sclerotic tax laws, or opening the protected sectors of our economy to competitive stimulus.
In the face of a Liberal government that, for all its talk of carbon pricing, depends on costly and ineffective subsidies and regulations for two-thirds of its emissions reductions, the Conservatives say only that they will lean even more heavily on subs and regs. In the midst of the worst international security crisis since the Second World War, is even one of the candidates talking about reform of our disgraceful military procurement program – not just to spend more, but to spend better?
There is a constituency for conservative thinking on these and other issues; there is another constituency that would be willing to try any responsible alternative to the Liberals. But neither of these are being addressed while the candidates focus on the 7 per cent of the adult population who remain unvaccinated, or the smaller minorities still who buy bitcoin or worry about the World Economic Forum.
But perhaps the candidates are just getting warmed up. There are still weeks to go until the cutoff for membership sales. There’s another debate Wednesday night. Maybe things will turn around. Maybe. But why do I think they won’t?
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