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Canada needs a reconstructed Conservative Party

By Susan Riley      

One that embodies the prudent policy and personal rectitude of a Peter Loughheed, Bill Davis, Joe Clark, or Robert Stanfield, not the extremism, vitriol, and defiant ignorance on offer from today’s right.

The heirs to Sir John A. Macdonald, and his uniquely Canadian conservative vision, have been out-shouted and out-campaigned by the likes of Doug Ford, left, Jason Kenney, and that spawn of Stephen Harper, Andrew Scheer. These neo-conservatives draw their inspiration from Breitbart, Donald Trump, evangelical pastors, and hateful talk show hosts, writes Susan Riley. The Hill Times photographs by Andrew Meade
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CHELSEA, QUE.—This country needs a reconstructed Conservative Party—one that embodies the prudent policy and personal rectitude of a Peter Loughheed, Bill Davis, Joe Clark, or Robert Stanfield, not the extremism, vitriol, and defiant ignorance on offer from today’s right.

Red Tories, blue Conservatives, and centre-right intellectuals still exist in demoralized and diminishing rumps within present-day conservative parties, in the Senate, academia and in some think-tanks. Others have drifted into the Green Party, or into an uneasy alliance with the Liberals, or even the New Democrats (in Alberta, especially.)

But the heirs to Sir John A. Macdonald, and his uniquely Canadian conservative vision, have been out-shouted and out-campaigned by the likes of Doug Ford, Jason Kenney, and that spawn of Stephen Harper, Andrew Scheer. These neo-conservatives draw their inspiration from Breitbart, Donald Trump, evangelical pastors, and hateful talkshow hosts.

As they rise to prominence, politics is becoming increasing detached from truth and fewer people appear to care. Or maybe they do care, but the most outrageous fabulists are still rewarded at the polls. Call it the Trump effect, (although the U.S. president is more scurrilous opportunist than serious ideologue.)

Ontario Conservative leader Doug Ford is different from Trump in ways—less overtly vindictive, barely articulate in front of a crowd, less vulgar—but he shares the American president’s tendency to scatter unfunded promises like confetti. During the campaign so far, Ford is offering Ontarians better health care, middle-class tax cuts, new subways, and, recently, a 10 cents-a-litre cut in gas prices—an estimated $8-billion worth of goodies—with no cuts in services, no public service layoffs, no sacrifice at all. He will cover the new expenditures by finding “efficiencies” in current spending, he says.

This is one of the hoariest dodges in politics, mocked by pundits and shredded by economists—but it doesn’t seem to matter. Ford is leading in the polls. No amount of background detail, or learned comment, seems to have an impact. It is easily proven that the forgone gas tax alone will cost the treasury more than $1-billion, money intended to improve transit, and fairly obvious that oil companies will simply hike prices to fill the gap. (Especially as the price of crude increases, if it does.)

Some voters may think provincial gas tax can be cut with no consequence—at least none that affect their lives. Others probably doubt that Ford will follow through, because we’re accustomed to politicians reversing themselves once elected, but they are willing to take a chance. Many are simply not paying attention to the daily details: they want a change of government, period.

This is excellent news for oil companies. They can rush into the space opened by the shrinking provincial gas tax and raise prices to squeeze every last drop of profit from a dying industry. It is the oil companies, after all, who manipulate the price of gas and who are responsible for the dizzying increases of recent months. (Gas has increased some 27 cents a litre in parts of Ontario since last spring, and not because of federal carbon taxes, which have yet to take affect.)

But real culprits are never fingered by campaigning politicians—particularly those on the right. Recently, both federal Conservative leader Scheer and Alberta’s Jason Kenney have blamed jumps in gas prices in Vancouver (to more than $1.60 a litre) on federal failure to get the Kinder Morgan pipeline built, and, on yet-to-be imposed federal carbon taxes.

In fact, British Columbia’s prices jumped because of a maintenance shutdown at a refinery in Burnaby and similar interruptions in supply from nearby Washington State. If prices continue to rise to $3-a-litre, as predicted, it will be the work of the Alberta government, cheered on by Kenney. Alberta Premier Rachel Notley is threatening to stop supplying gasoline to the B.C. Lower Mainland through the existing Kinder Morgan pipeline unless John Horgan’s government gives its blessing to twinning the controversial project.

As to carbon taxes, B.C. has had one for 10 years, introduced by a previous Liberal government, and while that levy pushed up gasoline prices by some eight cents-a-litre, the increase is trivial compared to the premium British Columbians pay for importing their gasoline from the U.S. at a time when the loonie is low. The underlying problem is the lack of refinery capacity in Canada, not government taxes and not the absence of a pipeline intended to circumvent the Canadian market altogether.

Such facts, however, complicate the distortions peddled by the right.

For some months, the federal Conservatives have been publishing tabloid-like, digital pamphlets smearing Justin Trudeau. They blame the prime minister for single-handedly destroying the oil sector, losing control of our borders and allowing unrepentant ISIS murderers to roam free in our streets. It is all so much more complicated. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

That said, the Liberal government has been slow to mount a coherent response in some cases and has displayed unbecoming arrogance in others. But, the notion that it doesn’t care about oil industry, when it has squandered its credibility with environmentalists to push Kinder Morgan expansion, is ludicrous. Yet Scheer sneers that Trudeau’s recent offer to cover some of Kinder Morgan’s losses is “taxpayer-funded life support.” What more does he want?

Another Brietbart-like ad claims Trudeau is “failing Canadian workers” because his government created “zero” jobs in April, and that 41,400 jobs were lost in 2018. In fact, Canada has the lowest unemployment rate in decades (5.8 per cent) and added 48,000 jobs so far this year. The trend detailed by Statistics Canada suggests more full-time, and fewer part-time jobs, are being created and wages are rising. Scheer’s claim elicited disagreement from at least one poster on the leader’s Facebook page: “I mean, I don’t super-like the guy (Trudeau). But this is kind of misleading for sure and voters deserve better than someone who will lie to win an election.”

There is nothing new about exaggeration, false accusations, and outrageous spin in politics, but lately the distortions seem more brazen. The people who churn out this material are usually highly-educated and bright; Ford’s team includes former Harper aide Kory Teneycke and Scheer’s campaign director for 2019 is Hamish Marshall, a former corporate director of Ezra Levant’s Rebel Media. These backroom veterans have a sophisticated grasp of the complexities of policy, but they don’t let that stand in their way.

Add to the daily assaults on fact an element of vitriol and you have the new right in a nutshell. Kenney, for instance, recently said of the prime minister: “I know Justin Trudeau. This guy is an empty trust-fund millionaire who has the political depth of a finger bowl. He can’t read a briefing note longer than a cocktail napkin.” Even people who don’t super-like the prime minister, may recoil at the snakiness. The remark tells us more about Kenney than it does about Trudeau.

If Kenney and Ford do win power, expect political discourse to get even uglier, more disconnected from the always-nuanced truth—and from the concerns of most Canadians. Political campaigning has always been rambunctious, but the humour that accompanied some of Brian Mulroney’s barbs, and the principled arguments of a Lougheed, or a Michael Wilson, have been replaced by something darker and more cynical.

It leaves thoughtful voters, fed up with the ruling parties, one less alternative.

Susan Riley is a veteran political columnist who writes regularly for The Hill Times.

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