Almost from the moment of that fateful handshake between Peter MacKay and Stephen Harper last fall, political strategists and pundits have been arguing over whether the new Conservative Party of Canada will be a tent big enough to hold Red Tories, neo-conservatives and social conservatives. Can the Conservative Party accommo- date the sometimes wildly different views held by each group on a host of critical issues?

Social policy is a case in point.

Red Tories, the argument goes, want a more egalitarian soci- ety. While they believe in the ability of the individual, they think that government has a responsibility to curb what they see as certain excesses of the market. Thus, over the years, Red Tories have been willing to raise taxes to pay for the social programs they believe are needed to promote equality of opportunity.

Neo-conservatives, on the other hand, tend to oppose such a role for government. In their view, it limits individual choice, fosters dependency, undermines self-reliance and interferes with the effectiveness and efficiency of market forces. Where possible, market solutions are preferable to bureaucratic intervention. They are fairer and more rational.

Social conservatives tend to focus more on another dimension of social policy ”” one that speaks to safeguarding traditional notions of the kind of society we want, and pro- tecting the institutions within it that are seen to be pillars of that societal model. In their view, it is the responsibility of the government to reaffirm its commitment to the nuclear family and the traditional definition of marriage and to enact legislation that safeguards against their erosion.

The social policy direction of social conservatives, neo- conservatives and Red Tories is thus remarkably ”” perhaps irreconcilably ”” different. As it stands, disagreements such as this one appear to have created permanent splits in con- servative ranks.

Such differences were highlighted, however politely, during the Conservative Party leadership contest. Through speeches and debates, candi- dates exchanged barbs about what is more appealing to the mainstream ver- sus what constitutes a ”œreal conserva- tive.” The inter-party war between Progressive Conservatives and the Reform/Alliance became an intra-party debate within the Conservative Party.

We will likely hear more about these differences long after party mem- bers cast their ballot for the leadership candidate of their choice on March 20. After all, the party has yet to hold a founding convention, or policy con- ference, and one can easily imagine that such issues will be brought to the floor during these meetings.

In our view, however, this debate over social policy ”” or other specif- ic policy issues ”” puts the cart before the horse. It skips over a more fundamental ques- tion: Should the Conservative Party’s ”œbig tent” look different in the 21st century than it has in the past?

We think it should.

After all, the world has changed over the last few decades. Shouldn’t we expect as much of the political parties that we look to for leadership? To illustrate the point, let’s consider three key policy areas in which the new Conservative Party will have to develop a position.

First, helping businesses establish a globally competitive, knowledge-based economy is now a key goal of Canadian governments. Although building the infrastructure to support the new econo- my will require major investments, the public policy debate should be about much more than, say, who will foot the bill for broadband access ”” government or business. Like the railroads of the 19th century or the highways of the 20th cen- tury, the infrastructure of the new econo- my will connect the country in new ways, changing how people communi- cate, how they work, what they produce and where they live. It will require new ways of working and organizing people. The real debate should be over what institutions, rules, policies and programs Canadians need to meet these challenges and take full advantage of the opportuni- ties of the knowledge economy.

Second, the learning society is the social policy counterpart of the knowledge economy. The debate here should be over what is needed to establish it. At least this much is clear: 19th century smokestack industries led by rugged individualists ”” self- made men ”” are not a model for the 21st century. In the future, the private sector will need an adaptable work- force equipped with the ”œsoft” skills of teamwork, relationship-building, communications and, ultimately, learning and innovation. In response, governments are rethinking their approach to social policy. The goal is to transform Canada from an educat- ed society to a learning society. An educated society is one that promotes learning as a state or level of achieve- ment ”” usually attained in the first quarter of an individual’s life. A learn- ing society is one whose institutions and organizations foster learning as a way of life, an activity that continues from birth to old age.

Finally, entwined with the knowl- edge economy and the learning socie- ty is a key concept in cultural policy: diversity. High levels of diversity, espe- cially cultural diversity, can be a pow- erful catalyst to learning and innovation. Exposure to such differences, especially early in life, can help shape the atti- tudes and skills needed to enhance co-operation at all lev- els of society. Diversity is also a source of new networks and connections to other parts of the world, as well as of information and expertise regarding the needs, cus- toms, beliefs and opportunities in other countries. A society that has learned to accommodate ”” and even flourish ”” in the midst of cultural and social diversity has already taken a giant step toward developing the kind of learning culture that leads to inno- vation. In a knowledge-based econo- my, diversity should be viewed as a major resource, a form of high-grade social capital. Countries that have institutionalized the values and prac- tices that foster co-operation, open- ness and mutual respect will benefit from it. The challenge here is to make Canada an even more tolerant and democratic society.

Government itself is facing critical issues that were simply not on its agenda twenty years ago and resist neat compartmentalization into right- wing and left-wing boxes.

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For instance, for two decades, Canadian businesses, organizations, governments and citizens have been investing ”” often heavily ”” in infor- mation and communications tech- nologies (ICTs) to improve how they communicate and carry out their busi- ness. The broader impact is now clear: ICTs are changing Canadian society, from our day-to-day conversations and business practices to the relationship between governments and the role of the nation-state. New information net- works and systems are replacing old practices and boundaries. Society is reorganizing around them.

So far, however, efforts to help gov- ernments adjust to these new realities have run into many obstacles, includ- ing incompatible information systems, conflicting regulatory frameworks and policy goals, uncertainty about new accountability arrangements and con- cerns over how information sharing may affect privacy.

As members of a new political entity, Conservatives have a unique opportunity to engage one another and Canadians in an open-ended dis- cussion of how governments should be redesigned for the 21st century. How can these technologies be used to improve services for Canadians? How might they change the modes of deliv- ery for those services? How might they lead to a redesign of the internal machinery of government? How might they redefine the relationship between government and other, non- governmental entities?

Second, as Canadians enter the Information Age, they will need new sources of information and knowl- edge to prosper. We believe information will be to the knowledge-based economy what oil was to the indus- trial economy ”” a source of wealth, influence and power. Developing new knowledge fields and ensuring information remains a public resource will therefore be key roles for governments. How will Conservatives approach these critical issues? How would they make full use of the rich reserves of data, informa- tion and knowledge to improve reporting on the effectiveness of gov- ernment policies and programs, develop better public policy and strengthen the accountability and transparency of government? How would they protect the privacy of Canadians, who are understandably concerned with the potential misuse of these vast pools of data?

Finally, new technologies are increasingly interactive, which, in turn, is changing the relationship between citizens and their govern- ments. Online or virtual communities that are linked together by an ongoing dialogue around shared ideas and interests are already forming. As they grow, governments will be pulled into these conversations. Indeed, using the technology to engage citizens in such conversations seems like a natu- ral way for governments to strength- en democracy.

At the same time, it poses risks for representative democracy, as we know it. For example, while in the past citizens invested their elected representatives with the authority to speak on their behalf, in future they may want to use such conversations to instruct governments directly. How much direct democracy do Canadians really want? Alternatively, some argue that most citizens have neither the time nor the inclination to be involved in such discussions. They say that it is far more likely that direct democracy will attract interest groups who are seeking to influence governments. If so, how will we ensure that the new rela- tionship between citizens and govern- ment is not hijacked by special interests?

The point of this brief policy tour is to underline that the world and govern- ment are changing and that the scope of change makes many of the old debates between Right and Left seem anachro- nistic, if not quaint. Globalization is redefining the role of the nation-state.

Information and communications tech- nologies are transforming the economy. Waves of immigration are changing the cultural make-up of many societies. And responding to these challenges will require a very different view of govern- ment from that held in the 19th or 20th centuries.

So far, the Conservative leader- ship race has not been a very effective forum for these ideas. To varying degrees, candidates have outlined a vision for Canada, but those visions are largely expressed in 20th century terms using 20th century issues. Like the most recent Liberal and New Democrat leadership battles before it, this race has focused almost exclu- sively on the issues that dominated the agenda in the last decade, not those that are likely to emerge in the coming one.

Borrowing a sentiment expressed by a former Conservative leader, per- haps leadership contests are not the time to discuss complex policy issues. Perhaps these issues should be debated in less tumultuous, more reflective cir- cumstances. If that is indeed the case, we hope Conservatives will seize the opportunity afforded to them by their founding convention and policy con- ference to begin to sketch out answers to some of these questions. If they do, they would be doing a service not just to themselves but to our democratic system as a whole.

As a new party, Conservatives have the advantage of a blank slate. In fact, focusing on a new agenda might even defuse some of the internal ten- sions of the old issues that divided the conservative movement for the better part of two decades. What’s more, should Conservatives seize this opportunity and develop party posi- tions on these issues, they could fundamentally recast the political debate by pushing the Liberals and New Democrats to do the same, and thus reinvigo- rate politics in Canada.

If conservatives really want to debate what it is to be a con- servative, they should look to the future for guidance, not the past. While the issue of finding ways of accommodating the policy views of Red Tories, neo-conservatives, social-conservatives and any other group that wants to call the Conservative Party home will undoubtedly continue to be an ongoing concern for party members, their real challenge is to redesign the Conservative tent for the Information Age. That discussion has barely begun. The creation of this new party provides an opportu- nity to launch such a debate. No one knows exactly where it will lead, but it is time to start the journey.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Hill Times in October 2003.

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