Conservative-oriented political parties in Canada are now out of office federally and in eight of the 10 provinces. This has generated much hand-wringing on the right and a flood of advice from pundits and Monday-morning quarterbacks.
Political parties that are out of office will find it much more productive to spend less time lamenting and instead look on the bright side: Being temporarily relieved of the burdens of governing is an opportunity to renew ideologically, policy-wise and organizationally.
As Henry Kissinger once observed, politicians in office use up their intellectual, human and organizational capital rather than adding to it. Time out of office, wisely employed, can be used to restock the cupboard.
At the 2016 Manning Centre Conference, to be held next month in Ottawa, conservatives from all walks of life – grassroots volunteers, think-tank experts, candidates – will be putting forth their proposals for “recharging the right” in Canada. My personal recommendations will include these six:
1. Greater recognition of the character traits that Canadians want to see in their elected officials – openness, honesty, transparency, integrity, compassion, humility – and making the possession of such traits a much more important factor in recruiting candidates, leaders and staff.
2. More clearly embracing those Canadian values – such as freedom, responsibility, equality of opportunity, stewardship, respect for life, democratic accountability – that conservatives want to strengthen and apply more rigorously to public policy. In other words, more clearly define what it means to be positively and constructively “conservative” from a Canadian perspective.
3. Continue to strongly communicate the importance of trade liberalization, public-spending constraints, balanced budgets, debt reduction and tax relief, all of which are increasingly necessary to counter the weaknesses and irresponsibility of left-of-centre parties and governments in these areas.
4. Undertake a fresh round of policy development to strengthen the creative application of conservative values and principles to those areas where conservatives are, rightly or wrongly, seen to be weak or disinterested, such as poverty, inequality, health care, education, environment, science and culture.
5. Investing heavily in training conservative-oriented Canadians for more effective participation in the country’s political processes; providing more and better training for volunteers, constituency executives, campaign managers and candidates. It is sad but true that Starbucks invests more time and money in training its baristas than our political parties invest in training their own front-line people.
6. With respect to all of the above, consulting and involving ordinary Canadians at every stage – not just party insiders and elites – so that a renewed Canadian conservatism is ultimately rooted in that greatest of all political resources, the people themselves.
In revitalizing any political movement or out-of-office party, there will always be those who argue that none of the above is really necessary. They will argue that in this age of media- and image-dominated politics, the shortest and easiest route back into power is to simply recruit a next-generation, charismatic leader with excellent communications skills, a pleasing personality, and an army of social-media activists.
This was the route taken by U.S. Democrats when they chose Barack Obama as their presidential candidate, after years of losing to the Republicans under George W. Bush. It is the route taken by Canadian Liberals in putting forward Justin Trudeau after two false starts down “the-leader-is-the-whole-answer” road with Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.
This is not to say that personal attractiveness and communications capabilities should be ignored in the recruitment of the next generation of political leaders. But if the aim of conservatives is not only to recharge the right politically, but also to be better able to govern the country as a result, putting all the renewal eggs in the charismatic leader basket would be a mistake for both conservatism and the country.
Ultimately, the next generation of Canadian political leaders, including the next generation of conservative leaders, needs the capacity and resources to be able to govern ably and wisely, not just communicate and entertain.