A version of this article previously appeared on The Future Is Electric.
In the early months of 2021, while COVID-19 had the world locked down, and climate change accelerated, 10 years after leaving the Great Recession, after BLM became the world’s largest mass protest movement and after 6 years out of office, the Conservative Party of Canada held a major policy convention, virtually of course. But you would never know that these major issues existed in reading their adopted constitution and detailed policy documents.
International headlines were devoted to their rejection of acceptance of climate change and the need for action as an element of their policy. But it’s worth looking at the full set of principles and those devils that the headline 22 principles elide. Has their new leader, Erin O’Toole managed to drag the party at least part way into this century?
There are two overlapping frameworks related to the major issues of the century to consider when assessing federal party policies in 2021. To the south, we have Joe Biden’s Four Crises framework which is dominating his initial months in office. The crises are climate change, COVID-19, racism, and the economy. In Canada, we have Mark Carney’s three crises outlined in his new book, Values: Building a Better World for All. Carney’s are climate change, COVID-19, and credit, with that last focused on the lessons from the recent Great Recession. Carney’s exclusion of racism is somewhat reasonable given the lesser impact of BLM in Canada and the UK, where Carney held positions as the Governor of their central banks through the past 13 years, but it is still an interesting exclusion.
So at minimum we would expect a set of principles and policies adopted in 2021 to address climate change, COVID-19, the economy, and discrimination with robust measures. I’ll look at each of the 22 primary principles individually and assess whether it’s viable in the 21st Century based in part on these frameworks and in part on related factors and the party’s actual performance.
To be clear, it’s not that all governmental policies should be focused on these four major themes. Governance is complex and nuanced. But there should be acknowledgement of each of them and substantial sections devoted to conservative thinking around these very real concerns.
The Summary Is Unsurprising
The CPC is virtually silent on climate change, except to say that it refuses a federal carbon tax, wants to pump a lot more oil and gas, and would like to spend a bit of time thinking about adaptation in the far north.
On COVID-19, it is completely silent on principles related to recovering from the pandemic, silent in the top 22 principle statements on public health and pandemic preparedness, and has a couple of paragraphs in the 77-page details document which say that it supports in-Canada PPE and vaccine readiness, despite having been the primary party that substantially diminished Canada’s ability to manufacture vaccines.
On the economy, it’s free-market capitalism, oil and gas exploitation and lower taxes, with zero response to the current economic crisis brought on by COVID. On credit, its principles make it clear that it refuses to learn the lessons of the Great Recession and instead is an unrepentant fiscal ideologue with unnuanced reads of Hayek and Friedman guiding its thinking, such as it is.
On racism, it is almost entirely silent. They give more explicit attention to supporting religious groups freedom to discriminate than anything else.
It’s not a 21st Century statement of principles. It’s barely a set of principles from the second half of the 20th Century. There are many reasons why the vast majority of Canadians have voted Anybody But Conservative in the last two federal elections, and the published principles make it clear what they are.
Free-Market Fundamentalism, Social Conservatism, & Dog Whistles
So what did it accept as principles? We’ll take it mostly from Conservative Party of Canada Constitution, As amended by the delegates to the National Convention on March 18, 2021. I’ll also look at details in the Policy Declaration voted in the next day in some cases.
2.1.1 A belief in a balance between fiscal responsibility, compassionate social policy that empowers the less fortunate by promotion [sic] self reliance and equality of opportunity, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals, families and free associations.
What this principle boils down to is that compassion is expressed best by forcing self reliance on those incapable of it, and putting primacy on individuals and small tribes, not on society or larger concerns. This is in the midst of what Carney refers to as a great global acknowledgment of the value of putting people’s lives and health first, and governments’ rising to the occasion to care for everyone.
It amounts to a repudiation of the lived experience of Canadians over the past 18 months. You’d think that they went into the policy conference and intentionally chose to ignore the context in which their principles would be considered.
That this is a grammatical failure is surprising. All hastily written, massively edited documents written by committees end up with typos and some apparent illiteracy. But you would think that the very first principle of only 22 wouldn’t have been subject to a missing preposition. This is not at the level of the typos in the US Republican Platform from 2020 —resovlved had a covfefe surreality to it — but still, the very first principle among only 22 being ungrammatical is indicative of a lack of attention to detail and getting the basics right.
2.1.2 The goal of building a national coalition of people who share these beliefs and who reflect the regional, cultural and socio-economic diversity of Canada.
Hmm… “regional, cultural and socio-economic diversity.” But not of gender, ethnicity, religion, First Nations, or sexual orientation? It’s nice that they at least aren’t pretending to be increasingly just an Alberta and Saskatchewan regional grievance party that’s similar to the BQ, but their inclusivity is a little weak sauce. One can see why they chose to keep it light, however. There is always the terror that non-inclusive people have of missing a group that they are at best dimly aware of, and as a result being called on for being intentionally exclusive.
It is a bit better in its detailed document, but strong statements against racism, bigotry, and hatred are absent. They are against discrimination against women and others in the workplace.
But the CPC specifically condemns “discrimination against girls through gender selection abortions.” This just isn’t a big issue in Canada as it’s already illegal and our birth gender statistics are in line with the global average, not with countries that practice gender selection regularly. This is more anti-abortion nonsense which has been inserted by the social conservative wing, not anti-discrimination policy.
And to be clear, in the era of Black Lives Matter, the CPC doesn’t seem to have advanced much beyond grudgingly accepting Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which was brought into law in 1982.
2.1.3 The goal of developing this coalition, embracing our differences and respecting our traditions, yet honouring a concept of Canada as the greater sum of strong parts.
This is a bit applehood and mother pie, but it is also in the context of a Western Exit (Wexit) separationist movement that’s moderately well liked by a lot of people in oil country, Canada’s conservative heartland. It’s not the only place an affirmation of Canada’s national unity comes up, so obviously it was a point of contention.
2.1.4 The Conservative Party of Canada will operate in a manner accountable and responsive to its members.
Like when it paid for the former Conservative leader’s kids’ private Catholic school, private security, an extra housekeeper, his minivan, and clothes for his family, as a primary counter-example. But it was responsive to its members when they refused to include climate change acceptance and action into their constitution and policy focus, and when they wanted social conservative regressive wording included, so there’s that.
2.1.5 A belief in loyalty to a sovereign and united Canada governed in accordance with the Constitution of Canada, the supremacy of democratic parliamentary institutions and the rule of law.
I think this means “Wexit sympathizers, sit down and shut up,” and is paired with 2.1.3.
2.1.6 A belief in the value and dignity of all human life
Hmmm… there’s that suspicious “all” in there. It took two seconds with Google to find a Catholic Bishops site using almost identical language. That site goes on to say that the value and dignity of all human life is under attack from abortion, euthanasia, and stem-cell research. This one is a door wedge for the social conservatives, not the nice statement it appears to be.
Sure enough, in the detailed principles document we see “an initial three-year prohibition on embryonic research” and “conscience rights for doctors, nurses, and others to refuse to participate in, or refer their patients for abortion, assisted suicide, or euthanasia.”
And there’s this: “Abortion should be explicitly excluded from Canada’s maternal and child health program in countries where Canadian aid is delivered, since it is extremely divisive — and often illegal.”
So what are they doing to ensure that Canadian women have access to the personal health care rights that the Supreme Court asserted they had in 1988, 33 years ago? “A Conservative Government will not support any legislation to regulate abortion.”
They won’t work to ensure access. They will let backward religiosos refuse to even refer women or those suffering painful and degrading quality of life with fatal condition to other doctors who will deliver service aligned with the laws of Canada.
Of course they aren’t going to whip votes on any of this either.
2.1.7 A belief in the equality of all Canadians.
Oh FSM. “All Lives Matter” apparently. There are many parts of this document which are tone deaf, but this one is particularly jarring.
2.1.8 A belief in the freedom of the individual, including freedom of speech, worship and assembly.
This one in this moment in time reads like a sop to the religious groups and anti-lockdown sociopaths who persist in putting everyone else at risk by assembling without distancing or masking during the middle of a pandemic. I agree with the words as written, but as a principle in the middle of ongoing flouting of basic civil rules by people who mostly vote for the CPC, this one could have used some additional clauses, like “recognizing constraints necessary for the best interests of society as a whole.”
And there are some devils in the details: “discrimination based on the beliefs of a faith based organization be excluded from the definition of disallowed discrimination under Human Rights.”
Yes, they want to allow religious groups broad freedom to discriminate. That’s pretty backward. The other parts of section 95 on “Faith Based [sic] Organizations” are reasonable, basically saying that churches don’t have to perform gay marriages if they persist in being stuck in the 2nd Century, never mind not being in the 21st Century.
2.1.9 A belief in our constitutional monarchy, the institutions of Parliament and the democratic process.
The monarchy? Really? A belief in the monarchy? Considering that conservatives these days keep pretending to be the real liberals, aka classical liberals, aka liberals as of about 1800 who were focused on eliminating the remnants of monarchic rule and privileges, this seems a bit odd. But as a “big tent’” party, the CPC includes the monarchist traditionalists who get all excited when the Queen visits, so I guess it makes sense. The rest is completely reasonable, it’s just the first bit that seems odd.
And to be clear, there are zero devils in the details on this point. As in, the 77-page document that spells out the details of its principles has only this line that includes the monarchy and doesn’t mention Queen Elizabeth, the Governor General, droit de seigneur, or anything else you’d expect if this principle weren’t simply a sop to the aging monarchists who would get all squiffy if some mention of royalty weren’t included somewhere.
So a top-line dog whistle to monarchists, but no biscuits for them when they come wagging their tails to be fed.
2.1.10 A belief in the federal system of government as the best expression of the diversity of our country, and in the desirability of strong provincial and territorial governments.
Yay! They like the federal government. Oh, wait. Yes, more trying to strip power from the federal government and devolve it not to cities, which are the true economic powerhouses and centers of population, but to the sub-national level where there are lots of rural votes. Very 20th Century at best, perhaps 19th even.
2.1.11 A belief that English and French have equality of status, and equal rights and privileges as to their use in all institutions of the Parliament and Government of Canada.
No quibble here. Can’t have Conservatives in Quebec without saying this. And they actually have 10 MPs serving in Quebec right now. Unsurprisingly, they are entirely middle-aged white men, but that’s kind of par for the course for the CPC.
2.1.12 A belief that the best guarantors of the prosperity and well-being of the People of Canada are:
18.104.22.168 the freedom of individual Canadians to pursue their enlightened and legitimate self-interest within a free competitive economy;
22.214.171.124 the freedom of individual Canadians to enjoy the fruits of their labour to the greatest possible extent;
126.96.36.199 the right to own property
A bit more grammatical trouble there, but okay. Lots more individualism there. Oh, and look, they have the wretched excess and no taxation clause in there for the Libertarians and their ilk, i.e. “enjoy the fruits of their labour to the greatest possible extent.”
What’s missing in something devoted to the “best guarantors of the prosperity and well-being of the People of Canada?” How about civic responsibility, joint action, alignment of policy with empirical reality, building a resilient economy, reducing inequity, and a handful of others I won’t bother to list. Yeah, this is the rugged individualism set of clauses. These people really need to read Stephen Pinker, or any sociologist who published after 1930 really.
2.1.13 A belief that a responsible government must be fiscally prudent and should be limited to those responsibilities which cannot be discharged reasonably by the individual or others.
This one is droll. Decades of bad fiscal management by Conservative administrations which gets cleaned up by Liberal administrations, a pattern familiar south of the border as well, and they still have this as a principle. This is just rank hypocrisy and a refusal to accept that they are bad at this.
Of course, this is also another small government principle. We are experiencing COVID-19 when big government is critical, and are in the climate crisis, also where big government is critical, both of which the Conservatives are silent on in the 22 top-line principles, and the Conservatives are about small government.
To be clear, a huge part of the past decade has been the global success of Keynesian stimulus fiscal and monetary policies over Hayekian austerity policies. So what does the Conservative Party say about these policies?
“The Conservative Party supports a stable and predictable monetary policy that creates a positive climate for investment and growth for Canada within the context of the global economy.”
Hmmm… that’s a nothing-burger of a non-statement, isn’t it? The detailed document never mentions austerity, stimulus, or deficits. But there are devils in the details again: “enact balanced budget legislation, which includes overrides for declared national emergencies or other defined, and presumably rare, circumstances,” and “introduction of a debt repayment plan with the main part of budget surplus being allocated to debt repayment, in order to achieve a declining debt-to-GDP ratio.”
Yup. Austerity, Hayek and nothing learned from the global natural experiment of 2008–2012. No wonder Mark Carney was at the Liberal Policy Convention, and strongly supports the Liberals. It’s because the Conservatives have become unnuanced fiscal ideologues uninterested in global economic learning. I mean, it’s not like they need to embrace modern monetary theory’s core observations, never mind its focus on the implications of them, but at least they in 2021 they should have moved off of their narrow-minded focus on federal debt and austerity.
Especially because they are the ones who keep driving debt up every time they are in office without the excuse of a global pandemic.
And I have to give a special moment in the light to this: “presumably rare, circumstances.” We had SARS in 2003 with its billions of costs and shutdown of Toronto. We had the meltdown of the sub-prime mortgage crisis in 2008, whose lessons Canada’s Conservatives refuse to learn. We are in the middle of COVID-19. How rare exactly are these circumstances? The evidence is that every decade at minimum the world throws a major curve ball at the world and we have to adapt. The federal government needs not only the ability to react, but to establish policies and procedures that are automatically resilient and reactive.
2.1.14 A belief that it is the responsibility of individuals to provide for themselves, their families and their dependents, while recognizing that government must respond to those who require assistance and compassion.
“Respond to”… hmmm. Fend for yourselves, and if you don’t, the government will … uh… say hi when you call? More rugged individualism, more dog whistles to people who blame the poor for being poor is the way I read this.
2.1.15 A belief that the purpose of Canada as a nation state and its government, guided by reflective and prudent leadership, is to create a climate wherein individual initiative is rewarded, excellence is pursued, security and privacy of the individual is provided and prosperity is guaranteed by a free competitive market economy.
It was doing really well up until the last (and again ungrammatical) clause. If they had said “well-regulated and competitive market economy with strong social safety nets,” they would have been doing well. As it is, this is just free-market ideology with a side of bad grammar.
2.1.16 A belief that Canada should continue its strong heritage of national defence, supporting a well-armed military, honouring those who serve, and promoting our history and traditions.
What do heritage, history, and traditions have to do with an effective 21st Century military? I’m from a military family, grew up on military bases in Canada and Europe, and served in the infantry reserves. I honor those who have served and continue to serve.
But I want them to do that with a very modern perspective on what the actual risks are in the 21st Century, training focused on addressing those concerns, and equipment and budgets commensurate with the 21st Century. I want a military that is looking ahead, not looking backward.
This conflation of the military with stodgy tradition isn’t helpful at all in an age of cybersecurity risks, asymmetrical warfare, vastly diminished military actions globally, strong global coalitions against aggressive militarism by any bad actor, specialization, and drone warfare.
This is a principle of spit-polished boots, military parades, and soldiers saluting politicians, not a principle of a well-trained military focused on current and future risks.
2.1.17 A belief that the quality of the environment is a vital part of our heritage to be protected by each generation for the next.
Oh, isn’t that quaint. Except for climate change. And oil and gas remediation. And air pollution. And water pollution. And brownfields. And preserving and extending national parks and their protections. Yeah, except for everything, the Conservatives are for preserving the environment for coming generations.
What conservative environmental movements seem to have have mostly devolved to is rich people having places owned by other rich people where they can enjoy nature without concerns about hunting seasons and the like.
And there are the devils in the detailed document, like this one: “We believe that an effective international emissions reduction regime on climate change must be truly global and must include binding targets for all the world’s major emitters, including China and the United States.”
What that means is that Conservatives won’t do anything locally without the big emission countries — which are both doing a lot more than Conservatives want to — being forced at gunpoint to sign up to specific commitments.
COP21 recognized that a soft touch and social cohesion create better progress than a big stick, as Mark Carney points out in his new book, Values: Building a Better World for All. The Conservatives clearly haven’t got that memo either.
And this one: “We continue to support hydrocarbon exploration, pipeline construction, transportation efficiencies and plant improvements to increase energy conversion efficiencies and reduce pollutant and greenhouse gas discharges.”
Yeah, lots of love for oil and gas. Climate action isn’t just missing in action in CPC policies, the policies are actively climate hostile.
2.1.18 A belief that Canada should accept its obligations among the nations of the world.
Yes! Like Harper pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol! And Conservatives fighting against the (very conservative) carbon pricing policy instituted by the Liberal government. And promoting expansion of oil and gas emissions which are harming everyone in the world. It’s unclear what obligations they have in mind, but not many of the ones that count.
2.1.19 A belief that Canadian Jurisdiction extends beyond the coastline to include the internationally recognized regions of the Territorial Sea, Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Continental Shelf.
This is an odd one. It’s like saying we agree that the earth is round. Not sure what special interest group within the CPC felt it necessary to ram this in. Presumably ones who are focused on shipping oil through the Northwest Passage as it continues to clear of ice. And doing Arctic offshore drilling. And mining in sensitive waters. And that’s what the detailed policy document makes clear in section 142. It’s all about exploiting living and non-living resources, and controlling the Passage.
Amusingly, Section 143 which follows immediately is on protecting marine biodiversity, as long as the area doesn’t have any “non-renewable resource extraction presently occurring and after a socio-economic impact analysis on the coastal economy and communities has been conducted.” Yeah, protection unless offshore drilling is an opportunity and only after lengthy study of any potential economic concerns.
2.1.20 A belief that good and responsible government is attentive to the people it represents and consists of members who at all times conduct themselves in an ethical manner and display integrity, honesty and concern for the best interest of all.
Well, I’m glad they at least stated this. And to be clear, they did boot Derek Sloan out of caucus, so there even appears to be some focus on not being solely the party that represents white, affluent people and only the subset of people who voted for them. Former leader Scheer’s challenges with misrepresenting his pre-politics career and maintaining a dual citizenship spring to mind as well. Harper-era challenges are also top of mind. They have more work to do here.
2.1.21 A belief that all Canadians should have reasonable access to quality healthcare regardless of their ability to pay.
Yay. This is one of the few pieces of unequivocally Canadian things in this document. Of course, the devil is in the details, and here’s one of the details from the detailed policy document: “Flexibility for the provinces and territories in the implementation of health services should include a balance of public and private delivery options.” What’s that balance, one asks? Is that an open door for two-tier health care?
And here’s another devilish detail: “The Conservative Party supports conscience rights for doctors, nurses, and others to refuse to participate in, or refer their patients for abortion, assisted suicide, or euthanasia.”
That considerably weakens access to both abortion and medical assistance in death, and uses the heavily emotionally charged language that medical assistance in death avoids.
That’s in line with this statement: “The government should work with provinces and territories and professional medical groups to develop a National Palliative Care Strategy and adopt appropriate legislation to provide timely and equitable access across Canada to palliative care which affirms life, regards dying as a normal process and excludes euthanasia and assisted suicide (MAID).”
Yes, health policies are based on their social conservative regressive arm. They can’t even use 21st Century language, despite managing to use the acronym. I’m sure that the religiosos were frothing, speaking in tongues, and thumping their bibles in discussion of this, and finally the sane Conservatives — yes, I know you are out there — just capitulated.
But what’s missing from the top end of the principles? How about promoting public health and having resilience in the face of epidemics and climate change exacerbated disasters. Silent in the 22 top-of-mind principles for the Conservatives. In the middle of a global pandemic. During lockdowns and vaccine rollouts. After substantial setbacks to in-country vaccine manufacturing in both the Mulroney and Harper administrations.
The details have some less devilish stuff: “Canada-based rapid response plan, including domestically available biomedical, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and personal protective equipment (PPE) assets, with best practices to mitigate illness/death and collateral societal disruption and economic damage.”
But you’d think that COVID-19 would have made resilience in the face of pandemics and public health in general into the top 22 principles somewhere. No, that’s reserved for rugged individualism and free market capitalism.
And to remind everyone, Canada’s ability to manufacture vaccines was significantly degraded first under Mulroney and then again under Harper. Yes, the Liberals didn’t correct Conservative mistakes when they were in power on this file, but the mistakes were clearly made by Conservatives.
2.1.22 A belief that the greatest potential for achieving social and economic objectives is under a global trading regime that is free and fair.
And, at the very end of the document, free and fair trade. This one I’m fully behind. I voted for Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney because I supported NAFTA. Mulroney, to be clear, has harsh words for his successors on their lack of focus on the very real challenge of climate change, and he brought in both acid rain and ozone layer treaties. Mulroney was the last good Conservative PM or candidate, frankly (not that he didn’t have other challenges).
I was a bit worried about what they might mean by “fair,” as it’s one of those positive but potentially weaselly words. The detailed policy document is just fine however. Unsurprisingly, the agricultural protectionist bits are left protected, but that’s a reasonable compromise.
And that’s the big level. But it was worth poking at one more thing from my perspective, the carbon tax. The superficial document ignores it, but what about the detailed one?
31. Carbon Tax We believe that there should be no federally imposed carbon taxes or cap and trade systems on either the provinces or on the citizens of Canada. The provinces and territories should be free to develop their own climate change policies, without federal interference or federal penalties or incentives.
Yup. As O’Toole has tried to come up with a federally imposed carbon tax to replace the federally imposed carbon tax, but making it a lot cheaper and less effective, not calling it a tax, and putting it in the hands of some unknown collection of private companies to administer, he’s obviously trying to skate around this. Of course, it was only 6 days after that detailed policy statement was voted in that the Supreme Court stated that the federal government had every right to impose a carbon price.