Dialogue

MP Tom Kmiec talks subsidiarity, millennial conservatives, and the changing Conservative party

Conservative member of Parliament Tom Kmiec rises during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, March 26, 2021. Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS.

Today’s Hub Dialogue is with the Conservative MP for the riding of Calgary Shepard, Tom Kmiec. MP Kmiec was first elected in 2015 and has since served in various roles, including as National Caucus Chair in the last parliament. He has also distinguished himself on a number of policy files, including rare diseases, religious freedom, and issues related to Kurdistan. 

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

SEAN SPEER: Thank you for speaking to us, MP Kmiec.

MP TOM KMIEC: Thanks for having me.

Drug affordability

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with your interest in the cost and availability of prescription drugs for rare diseases. What drew you to these issues? And what can public policy do to ensure that individuals and families in need of extraordinary drug interventions are able to access the drugs that they ultimately need? 

MP TOM KMIEC: Let me separate the two questions. My personal interest is from my family. My three living kids have a rare chronic kidney condition called Alport Syndrome. It’s genetic, it’s incurable, it’s something they were born with, and it’s totally novel to them. Nobody else in my family or in my ex-wife’s family has it. 

In boys, it’s worse because it’s X-linked across the chromosome line. Without any interventions or any medicine, you’re looking at potentially stroking out in your teens. My oldest son is now 13 years old. In girls, it’s not so bad, because you get one good pair of genes from the other parent, and the gene lionization basically means that you can spend your entire life not even knowing that you have it. These experiences are why I ran for public office. I’m motivated by the family side of it. 

I’ve met a lot of patients or people with kids with rare diseases all across Canada. They’re often hard done by the medical systems—plural in Canada because each one is different—and they can struggle to get the care or medicine that they need. I find it heartbreaking every single time I have someone send me a GoFundMe page because they can’t afford a particular drug and public insurance in their province isn’t going to do it. I frequently meet families that are taking out a second mortgage on their home, if they’re lucky enough to own their home, or they’re selling their house, and they’re renting just to be able to make ends meet to pay for a very expensive treatment. 

Oftentimes, these treatments are experimental. So, they’re literally just gambling that this will work for their child. Sometimes it does, and it’s extra heartbreaking when it doesn’t because the family has been financially ruined trying to do everything they can for their child. Any parent out there will tell you they are willing to go to any lengths to get access to a drug or therapy even if it has a five percent chance of succeeding. 

In the case of Canada, we were always sold that our public health care systems will avoid financial ruin for families, and that’s not been the case because our systems have over time evolved into cost control systems rather than prioritizing access of drugs for patients.

Empowering MPs

SEAN SPEER: You’ve served in different roles in the caucus since first being elected. How can governments and leaders’ offices better enable policy entrepreneurship on the parts of MPs? How can we have more MPs develop deep expertise on a file and then run with the issue, as you have done on drug access and affordability?

MP TOM KMIEC: That’s a really interesting question. If we could resolve that, we could have a caucus where every single member feels empowered and is totally working in the same direction of improving Canada and making it the greatest country in the world. It’s a great place to live, but there’s always better that we could do. 

I’ve always told members of parliament when they get elected that everybody needs a side hustle. I don’t mean go and drive for Uber or do something for Uber Eats. I tell them that you’re usually going to be placed on a parliamentary committee where you might or might not be interested in the subject matter, but you should also pick up something else, an issue or challenge that is personal or relevant to your riding or important to the country. 

I’ve always told members of parliament when they get elected that everybody needs a side hustle.

People always say that you should specialize as an MP. But one challenge is that a lot of times MPs wind up going to the same issues where everyone else is going. Human rights is a good example; everyone was talking about human rights. But nobody chooses to specialize on human rights in the parts of the world where few are paying attention today but where five years from now it may be more highly important and relevant. 

I have personal experience on issues concerning Kurdistan. I developed a deep understanding of Kurdish issues and a strong network in Canada’s Kurdish communities. When these issues became highly relevant in recent years, this knowledge and those relationships were really valuable. I was able to make an important contribution on the file. But nobody ever asked me to specialize on those issues. That’s really up to each individual MP to go and find out what they’re interested in, and then just go and pursue it. 

Lots of people come to politics through different backgrounds and experiences, including business connections or trade associations or health foundations, or whatever. But the central leader’s office rarely asks MPs “What are you interested in?” or goes through the backgrounds of individual members almost like an interview process. The leader will ask you informally when you sit down with him or her and just find out what you’re interested in, but it’s never an in-depth HR process to figure out who are you connected to and what kind of policy paths you could be interested in. 

Not all MPs are necessarily policy entrepreneurs. That’s okay. Some MPs are really good at communications. Others are really good investigators. And some are excellent at building stakeholder relations. Each of those roles and skillsets are valuable. 

But for those MPs who are interested in policy and the development of new ideas, the leader’s office needs to sit down, identify them, have in-depth interviews, see what they’re interested in, and then plug them in into the entire policy apparatus. Because otherwise, it’s a free for all. It really is freelance work, and that’s what I’ve been doing for the past six years.

How to reach voters

SEAN SPEER: There’s been a lengthy post-election debate about the Conservative Party’s mission and purposes. How, in your view, can the party affirm its commitments to a broad set of conservative principles on one hand, and yet still reach new and different voters who may not think of themselves as conservatives in an ideological sense on the other hand?

MP TOM KMIEC: That’s very a good question. It’s something I’ve thought about for a while. I care more about it than most people do because I happen to be a former member of the Canadian Alliance in Quebec at the time, which put me in the minority of the minority. 

Every time we win or lose an election, there’s this grand debate within our party that’s very open and public about, “Where are we going and what faction is winning over the other factions of our party?” 

These are important questions because, for one, we do not merely exist to be in power. We are inclined to instead ask the question, “If we were in power, what would we do with it? What is it the Canada we would like to see? What are the things we’d like to change? How would we like to do things differently?” 

But we are also a party of factions. We have factions based on ideology and region and we disagree on a lot of those things. We regularly disagree amongst ourselves about that ideal vision of what our ideas should be when we pitch them to Canadians to try and earn their votes.

I think most Canadians don’t identify with a political label. They lead really normal lives. They have families and work-life and stuff that they do after work. Politics isn’t part of their day-to-day experience. The onus is therefore on us to be talking about how our ideas match up with the lives that they’re living on an everyday basis. 

So, when we talk about issues like housing affordability or inflation, we should avoid language or ideas that we use in Ottawa inside the bubble but have no salience elsewhere. Take housing affordability. Just call it what is: it’s the cost of housing, the cost of your home. 

Inflation is another example. If I tell you that next year, the price of gasoline at the pump will probably be over $2 per litre, especially if this clean fuel standard goes through exactly the way the federal government intends to, that hits home to people. Because then if you’re going to gas up your Jeep Commander that guzzles 15 litres per 100 kilometres in the city, that’s a lot of money. That resonates. 

I still remember buying gasoline for 39 cents in Quebec during the price wars, right in front of the old Woolco. That experience speaks to people because it is real.  You could talk as long as you wanted about cost of living adjustments for pension plans but it is difficult to explain to people. But if I tell them, “Listen, your vegetables are going to go up between 11 and 17 percent which means that in price terms, your lettuce that is about $3.99 right now is going to cost like $5.00 plus,” people will invariably respond. 

When Margaret Thatcher was in opposition, she would ask the Labour Prime Minister questions like, “Does the Prime Minister know the price of a loaf of bread today?” She asked those questions because at the time prices were going up so quickly, that everybody knew what she was talking about. She was also a grocer’s daughter, so she knew even more what it was like to pay for these goods on a daily basis. She also did her own groceries whereas many of the other prime ministers who weren’t the ones doing the shopping had no freaking clue what they were talking about, how inflation was affecting ordinary households.  

Yet talking about issues in this clear and accessible way is something that Conservatives often fail at — myself included. The key is to remember that people aren’t getting to us anymore from the six o’clock news. They’re getting it for podcasts or newsletters or from friends and family on Facebook or Snapchat. I just marvel at the fact that people are using Clubhouse. They’re really getting their news from friends or co-workers that have these networks that none of the traditional sources are really capturing it. Our party, the Conservative Party, can and must reach these people. I’ve been slow to catch up to the fact that the consumption of media has drastically changed even over the last five years.

Subsidiarity

SEAN SPEER: You’ve mentioned in a couple of your answers that you’ve previously lived in Quebec. You also now represent an Alberta riding. You have in effect had a vantage point from which to view the country from these two solitudes. What can we do to strengthen the bonds of national purpose on one hand and enable provinces to have room for self-determination on the other hand?

MP TOM KMIEC: Again, that’s something I’m also thinking about for a while as an adopted Albertan. You mentioned two solitudes, which was the country of 1867. That’s the way Quebecers see the country: they see Quebec, and then they see English Canada, the rest of Canada or “ROC.” That’s the acronym they often use. 

But that’s not the way the country of 2021 looks anymore. It’s really almost like three solitudes. it’s the prairies and Alberta, the rest of English Canada, and then Quebec. One might even argue that Newfoundland is very different from the rest of us.

The great debates in Canada have been about fiscal federalism and then the sharing principles: how do we share the financial resources so that a Canadian moving across this country gets a similar level of public services, but also a similar cultural experience? 

At least on a cultural experience, we should give up on it, just stop trying to make this into a monoculture. You’re never going to achieve it and the only thing you build is resentment. 

I grew up in Quebec. I grew up on the south shore of Montreal, I learned English from Sesame Street, and I learned French from Passe-Partout. I’m actually a Bill 101 kid. I went through the entire French education system, learning everything in French, and I didn’t get to take English until grade four or grade five in elementary school. And as soon as I could I switch to English, I went to English Cégep, I went to an English university. I still speak French; I just don’t often have the opportunity to do so. 

But my experience in Alberta has always been that Alberta is just such a different place from the rest of Canada. It’s much more similar to Quebec in a lot of ways. We have the same grievances against the central government. We have the same issues that we don’t want them intervening in our jurisdictions. We just kind of want to be left alone. 

Alberta is a place where, during what I call Stampede season, you have community groups who aren’t paid by the government, they don’t get grants, they don’t get free money, they just carry out this extraordinary program on their own. They organize themselves to put on flapjacks, breakfasts, barbecues, luncheons, whatever it is, usually at no cost to anybody. It’s kind of a civic, cultural thing that we do in Calgary that is very unique, but it happens all over rural Alberta. Edmonton, I’d say, is an exception. They have the Klondike days or K-days, as they call it but it’s more of a government town. But in Calgary and in rural Alberta, the Stampede is a really big civic event. It’s a big deal. Corporations participate but civic organizations really do it. That’s really hard to find in the rest of Canada: something like that, that is not sponsored by a local government or supported in some way. 

Alberta is its own distinct society.

The Calgary Stampede bills itself as the greatest outdoor show on earth is mostly run by volunteers. And when I explain it to people elsewhere in the country they’re surprised to learn that it’s mostly volunteer-based. It’s just that Alberta is different. People self-select to become Albertans. I think it’s because they have a different view of what the world is like and what’s important in life, and they really care about their local community, which is not unlike a lot of people from small towns in Quebec, like La Pocatière or Laurentides, who see their regions or communities as a special area to them. Even if they go work in Montreal, this is where they’re going to retire, in the small region where their family comes from. 

There’s a big debate among politicians about federalism. There’s the centralizing force of most of the left-wing parties who think that one size fits all; one standard federal government program for everyone that equalizes everything is the way to go. I think that the better way of looking at it, along with those of conservatives who believe in subsidiarity—the notion that the government closest to you should be the one doing more for you—is that policy innovation comes more at the provincial level. 

 I’ll take childcare as an example. The new federal government initiative on childcare is mostly just copying what Quebec did. The federal government is taking a provincial government program and trying to apply it all across the board in Canada and, again, make it one-size-fits-all. The same principle could apply to Alberta when it comes to the regulation of natural resources, and this is where methane regulations, clean fuel standards, putting caps on the energy sector, and so on, should be a provincial responsibility. 

These issues are now a big debate where you have Alberta and Quebec essentially saying “leave us alone; we can figure it out better. We’re closer to what’s affecting people and we can act faster and more innovatively.” It’s causing tensions within Confederation because we don’t all agree on what the good life looks like, what good regulations look like, and how we want our regulators to operate. It’s causing just incessant problems. It can make me sound negative. 

I don’t think that I’m being negative. I’m just trying to bring the voice of my voters and the issues that they care about. We saw the recent referendum on equalization in Alberta. Roughly 62 percent of Albertans said that they wanted it removed from the Constitution. More Albertans voted to remove equalization from the Constitution than voted for the federal Liberals in Alberta by a factor of two to one. A federal government program shouldn’t be causing this much angst, animosity, and anger.  

This country that has evolved over the last century and a half is just different than the country it was in 1867. But the thing is, the federal government seems to have forgotten, going back to the Rowell-Sirois Commission, that we have ten provinces now and it’s not the rest of Canada and French Canada. 

Alberta is its own distinct society; it’s become a different place, and its needs to be accommodated within Confederation so we can pursue innovations at the local level. Canadians who want to self-select in can move there and Canadians who want to self-select out have the freedom to move to other provinces. We shouldn’t make Canada one-size-fits-all. Local differences and innovation are what make this place so amazing compared to all these unitary federal states in Europe.

The changing Conservative Party

SEAN SPEER: You’re what is sometimes described as a geriatric millennial, which makes you part of a growing group of Conservatives who represent a generational change in the caucus. I’ve previously written about the rise of a significant contingent of millennial Conservatives. How is that cohort influencing the orientation and direction of the party? Do you feel like you and some of your younger colleagues are having a collective effect on the party’s priorities and messages?

MP TOM KMIEC: We definitely are. I guess I am a geriatric millennial. I’ve never thought about myself as a millennial until I started hiring staff that were younger than me, and they have reminded me of this fact that I don’t fall neatly into any of the categories because I wasn’t born in Canada. I was born in 1981 in communist Poland, and my family came here in 1985; my father was here already in 1983. I kind of missed the early 1980s, so a lot of things to me don’t make sense because I grew up in Quebec, and I just watched French TV. I literally missed out on a whole bunch of things until the late 1990s, going to English universities. I have to catch up on Seinfeld because I missed all that. I had no idea what people were talking about. A bunch of movies, movie references, I had no idea and I still don’t know. Some people make references, and I’m like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” But because I didn’t have the same life experience, as some people did, I don’t fit with a lot of millennials. 

But while my upbringing is just totally different, I am, as you say, on the younger side of the Conservative caucus. My experience is that as I look at the colleagues that get elected, their policy interests are very different. I started talking about housing being a big issue in 2016-2017, and then we got a shadow housing minister following the 2019 election in Brad Vis from British Columbia. He brought a breath of fresh air to the issue, and really sensitized our colleagues who bought and paid for their homes, paid down their mortgages, who have their own ranches or they have small businesses and they’re not paying mortgages anymore because they’re later in their years. These colleagues didn’t experience what we’re experiencing, which is you can’t save fast enough to put a down payment down and it doesn’t matter if the interest rates are low.

These issues and experiences that younger MPs are bringing to bear are really changing the party, and you can see it in the shadow minister titles being given out. Now we have one for mental health, we’ve got one for inclusion, and so on. Even these titles have changed what would be the standard perhaps 20 to 25 years ago. 

We are also finding that younger MPs are not married necessarily to the orthodoxies of the past 20 to 30 years. In polite company, I’ll describe myself as a Thatcherite—I have a massive picture of Margaret Thatcher in my office—but there is this division now emerging, even in Canada, between the Reagan-Thatcher consensus of the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s. It seems to have ended around 2008-2009, during the great recession. There are now more communitarian-minded conservatives who are not as married to fiscal orthodoxy and instead they care very much about the communities that they live in, improving their communities, and believe that there is a role for the government to play. 

Our network of conservatives that we know, and people who might vote for us or support us, is also different. We care about things like the environment, and they show that climate change is viewed differently than past generations, and we’re willing to innovate. We’re still conservatives, so of course we still care about institutions and civic institutions most importantly, but we’re not as married to keeping them exactly the same. Reform is good. 

I think there is a changing of the guard going on.

So, I think it is changing things. I think there is a changing of the guard going on, and you can see it all around us in the issues. We’re willing to tackle how we’re going to talk about them, and I think it’s a good thing. It changes all the time. I even find myself looking at issues like I didn’t think that was an issue, but I guess it is for conservatives who are something like 15 years younger than me. 

These generational trends are revitalizing our movement and getting us to talk about issues that before we used to ignore like social and cultural issues that we used to usually stay away from. The same goes for constitutional issues. I will admit to being allergic to constitutional debates. But we have to get over it because this isn’t Meech Lake or Charlottetown anymore. It’s been 30 years now. We can debate them; we can talk about them. I don’t think it’s a no-go zone anymore, and we have an entire generation of conservatives who are not beholden to these old debates. 

For them, there are no legacy parties anymore: there isn’t a Progressive Conservative Party of Canada or Canadian Alliance Party. There’s just a Conservative Party, and there’s a whole bunch of different people wanting to debate different ideas. So, let’s have at it, and as long as you do it respectfully, you’re polite, you’re civil, and we can agree to disagree. We just got to find what do we agree on, and I find amongst the younger generations, there are more issues that they are wanting to debate, and they’re having the venues and opportunities through more podcasts and online mediums to spread debates and have these smaller groups chatting about it. Which I think is a great thing because that will lead to better public policy in the end. 

A lot of what you saw in the party’s recent platform was responses to what younger conservatives are looking for. I’ve worked on bereavement leave, for example, in recent years. If you had told me 10 years ago, “Tom, you’re going to table a bill on bereavement leave for parents,” I would have looked at you like “Why? I care about fiscal issues, like and taxation, if there should be six brackets of taxation for income taxes or three? What’s the more optimal? Where does the Laffer Curve go?” 

I’ll admit that I never dealt with health policy. I was never interested in health policy. I ran away from it at university when I was doing my master’s degree. Then once I had kids and they got a diagnosis of a rare condition I started getting really interested in it, and how it works, and how it affects my family. So, a lot of it is also personal. As you know, when we’re recruiting candidates, when candidates get nominated, some of that personal stuff leaches into our public life, and that’s a good thing. We shouldn’t stop it either. Because, unlike most other jobs where you’re trying to have a clear dividing line in work and personal, in politics it has to be both, slammed completely together. That’s when you get the optimum interest, enthusiasm, and ability to make a change. 

SEAN SPEER: This was a fascinating and insightful conversation. Thank you for joining us at The Hub.

MP TOM KMIEC:

Thanks for having me. I really enjoyed it.

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