Canada has changed since the Conservatives won power in 2006. New leader Andrew Scheer will need to refresh the party’s policy offer.
That Andrew Scheer would like to emulate the success of his predecessor at the helm of the Conservative Party makes perfect sense. Whatever you thought of Stephen Harper, he was a shrewd politician. Back before the 2006 election, Harper and his team looked at the Canadian electorate and saw a path to victory that united different groups of voters around promises that appealed to their pocketbooks and their sense of personal security. The coalition included Canadians from minority groups that had voted Liberal in the past as Harper convinced “non-traditional supporters that their values were conservative values,” as Natalie Pon wrote in Maclean’s.
Can Harper’s approximate voting coalition be replicated, this time with someone who is more of a people person? Perhaps, but probably not if Scheer reheats an old policy playbook from 2006, nor if he takes the policy development approach that Harper instilled. As Harper’s former policy director Rachel Curran recently noted, the cautious ideas of the CPC leadership contest “do not respond to voters’ expectations that a government-in-waiting is anticipating and developing responses to current and upcoming policy challenges.”
Consider how much has changed since Harper first became prime minister.
Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram hadn’t infected our lives yet. It was before self-driving cars and artificial intelligence were routine dinner party conversation, and before kids in our neighbourhoods were dying in epidemic numbers from Fentanyl abuse. The United States hadn’t yet elected an isolationist, anti-trade deal president, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had yet to sound its wake-up call to Canadians. It was before we had a cabinet where women hold the top jobs, and before a “low carbon” future was something that people of all political stripes began to consider. It was before we began to understand the reality of “precarious” work and the “gig” economy.
Scheer’s promises of a boutique tax credit for parents who have their children enrolled in private schools and a GST credit for home heating bills seem quaint when you consider what he’d be dealing with in government – physician-assisted death legislation, the opioid crisis, the future of NAFTA, the crises in First Nations communities and the rapidly accelerating death of the news media, to name just a few.
But beyond the actual content of whatever policies he might adopt, what’s also important is how the Conservative Party will approach the formulation of its ideas. Will there be wide-open, evidence-based conversations about policy, or will certain topics and voices remain taboo?
Recall that for years, there were simply certain topics that could not be raised with the Harper Conservatives – carbon taxes, safe-injection sites, national child care, marijuana legalization and so on. Stakeholders learned to carefully craft their remarks at parliamentary committee meetings so as not to appear offside with the government (if they were invited to speak in the first place), and inside the bureaucracy there were limitations placed on stakeholder outreach and on public opinion research. Some decisions were taken with no outside policy discussion at all, such as the elimination of the long-form census.
But in the past two years, the policy conversation has opened up. While the myriad consultations and engagements brought in under the Liberals are often ridiculed as a sign of indecisiveness or “dithering,” they’ve also injected a feeling of energy, innovation and creativity in the greater orbit around the federal government. This orbit includes Conservatives who have landed in the private sector or in various non-governmental roles, and are now working to influence policy from the outside.
Will the Liberals do anything with all the policy options public servants are gathering on their behalf? Maybe not – look how they handled the consultation around electoral reform. But opening the channels of input is a positive development that Scheer shouldn’t reverse.
There’s some indication that Scheer is willing to let in a bit more policy oxygen, telling the National Post’s John Ivison, “I don’t like the fact Conservatives have that negative connotation – that we’re always against things, always ‘tackling’ something, ‘cracking down’ on something, or ‘getting tough’ on something else. We have to have something positive to say on the flipside.”
Scheer also told Duncan McCue of CBC’s Cross-Country Checkup that he would be looking to pick the best of the policies put forward by his rivals in the leadership race.
Whichever way Scheer develops his policy offerings for the next election, it would make sense for this 38-year-old father of five to shift the party to face the future. And that might mean knocking down some of the policy fences erected by the leader before him.
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