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Sean Speer: Now it’s time to replace anger and frustration with aspiration and purpose

Commentary

And like that it’s over. Thirty-six days of the federal election campaign have come and gone. Canadians have heard from the various parties for more than five weeks and finally had their say. The anti-climatic finish seems fitting for a mostly anti-climatic campaign.

It feels like mere days ago that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was standing at a podium at Rideau Hall talking about how we found ourselves at a “really important moment in Canada’s history.” Events subsequently conspired to broadly conform to his early election framing.

The ensuing days and weeks were indeed highly eventful including the rise of a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Afghanistan’s collapse into chaos, recriminations over abortion, guns, and health care, an economic contraction and an inflation spike, and Canada’s exclusion from a new Anglosphere partnership on defence and security.

Yet, notwithstanding these major developments, one would be hard pressed to argue that the election campaign was defined by high-minded debate and strategic thinking on these fundamental issues. If the country actually finds itself in a “pivotal, consequential moment” as the prime minister described, Canadians could be forgiven for failing to understand the gravity of our circumstances or the competing ideas on offer to address them. Instead we got laundry lists of policy promises undergirded by a multi-partisan consensus in favour of rising government spending and long-run deficits and debt.

The Liberal campaign, in particular, was cynical and crass. Gone was the aspiration and energy of the extraordinary 2015 election. In its place was a campaign that stumbled from one wedge issue to another in search of any semblance of purpose. Notwithstanding the ultimate outcome, it’s hard to think that Prime Minister Trudeau feels good about his campaign’s highly-divisive tenor and tone. So-called “sunny ways” were replaced by an abject expression of desperation and negativity.

Although his “petulance and gloom” was undoubtedly about achieving partisan advantage, it inadvertently matched the mood of the country and became the campaign’s overall theme. This wasn’t a campaign about ideas, issues, or arguments. The 2021 federal election campaign was an exercise in anger and frustration.

As pollster Darrell Bricker tweeted in mid-August:

“The best word to describe Canadian voter opinion right now is brittle. It is a combination of anxiety, uncertainty and frustration. It has the potential to shatter. After many months of stability things are beginning to stir.”

He may have been slightly off on the actual election results, but Bricker’s read on the public’s “anxiety, uncertainty, and frustration” captured something happening below the surface of Canadian society. He recognized that Canadian governments’ (both federal and provincial) ongoing COVID-19 responses were the subject of a lot of pent-up skepticism and criticism within the general public.

A perceived loss of agency — a sense that we’ve effectively lost control of our lives — was at the backdrop of this attenuated campaign.

This anger and frustration spilled into the campaign in the form of regular protests following the Liberal Party leader’s campaign stops, the surprising and sustained support for the People’s Party, and the wedge politics practiced by the Liberals.

Journalists and pundits spent most of the campaign debating what had Canadians seemingly so angry. Was it the pandemic lockdowns? Or vaccine passports? Or something else altogether?

Recent polling for The Hub points to the practical and psychological effects of living with pandemic-induced uncertainty. The poll, conducted on our behalf by Public Square Research and Maru/Blue, asked Canadians whether they thought the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was over or still yet to come. Nearly half of respondents (47 percent) said that they don’t know what the future holds.

This perceived loss of agency — a sense that we’ve effectively lost control of our lives — was at the backdrop of this attenuated campaign. It seems clear in hindsight that policymakers have underestimated how deeply the pandemic’s alienation and uncertainty have affected people.

Emergency programs such as the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit could mostly solve for people’s material needs. But no amount of government spending could substitute for lost child care, postponed weddings, delayed office re-openings, uncertain employment prospects, or ongoing distance from loved ones. The practical and psychological effects of these losses are both ongoing and immeasurable.

It’s almost as if some Canadians didn’t fully realize how much this alienation and uncertainty was affecting them until they were given an opportunity to express themselves in an election campaign. Then their feelings of anger and frustration suddenly came pouring out in a paroxysm of passion, protests, and populist politics.

Although the top policy priority of the incoming government will be to steer the country through the pandemic, its overarching goal must be to restore people’s sense of control over their own lives. This will require a rejection of petulance and gloom and a renewed commitment to a positive-sum, future-oriented vision for the country.

With the campaign now over, The Hub will return to its main goal of being a catalyst for ideas and debates for such a vision for Canada. Over the coming days, we will publish mandate letters for the incoming cabinet ministers that set out a series of bold policy prescriptions that would cumulatively tilt Canadian politics towards a different and better future.

The best antidote to anger and frustration is aspiration and purpose. The campaign has demonstrated how urgently Canada’s body politic needs such a remedy. There’s no time to waste. It’s time to get to work.

Howard Anglin: Where to for the Conservative Party? Looking backward to find a way forward

Commentary

As the Conservative Party of Canada licks the wounds of its third consecutive general election defeat, Canadian conservatives can look at the party’s situation in three ways. They can look forward with obdurate optimism; they can look backwards with nostalgia (the conservative mode par excellence); or they can look backward to see where they took a wrong turn and, having found the road not taken, they can follow it forward.

While I incline to nostalgic reaction and would defend it as a rational pose in a period of civilizational decline, the third option makes the most sense for a party intent on eventually winning another election.

Almost a year ago, the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung — the German think tank of the centre-right CDU party, which most Canadians will know as the party of Angela Merkel, Helmut Kohl and, of course, Konrad Adenauer — asked me to contribute to a book on the history of conservative parties and their policies in Canada and Germany. It has now been published as “Parallel Values: Christian Democratic and Conservative Values in Contemporary Western Politics – Perspectives from Canada and Germany.”

My half of the book, which is titled “Unpicking the Skein: Tracing the threads of the CPC’s politics backward and forward from 2020,” includes a potted history of Canada’s conservative parties, focussing on Macdonald, Diefenbaker, Mulroney, Manning, and Harper, followed by reflections on some (mostly) consistent policy themes. While my contribution was written almost a year ago, and well before 2021 election was called, I believe most of it remains relevant to a party looking to find its way back — and forward — to power.

What follows is an excerpt of the introductory sections.

The full book is available in electronic form here:

___________________________

The poet Earle Birney famously said of Canada that “It’s only by our lack of ghosts we’re haunted,” and while that is not actually true of the country — there are plenty of ghosts, from Generals Wolfe and Brock to Thomas D’Arcy McGee and Pierre Laporte, whose untimely deaths haunt our history — it is true of Canadian conservatism. That is not to say we have not had great leaders and even a few notable theorists, but Canadian conservatism has been renewed and reinvented so many times that a Conservative leader today has to squint to discern a coherent tradition among so many disparate and contradictory historical figures and is, thus, mostly free to chart his own course free of spectral haunting.

The task I have been set is to tease out of this diverse party history those principles that have endured over time and apply them to the current political landscape. Some of these principles have been present from the beginning; others entered Canadian conservative thought more recently, but have since become inextricable from the party’s conception of itself.


The first challenge that any Canadian conservative party must confront is that Canada is not a conservative country. This means that a majority of Canadians will not endorse the policies approved at a party convention. That is why principles are so important. When party policies are tailored for public approval, or adapted to meet unexpected circumstances, it is the underlying principles that must guide the policymakers.

As Paul Wells wrote back in 2007, “Governments improvise more than they can ever plan, and it is natural for conservatives to prefer that a Conservative get to do the improvising.” That is especially true now as we face the greatest period of economic, social, and spiritual destabilization in Canada’s history — but only if the Conservative doing the improvising understands and respects the party’s historic principles.

Principles are also important because without them a party — and the country it leads — can offer only banausic slogans and an ad hoc policy agenda. Even if such a party wins election, through democratic fatigue with the incumbent or favourable vote splits, it can do no good, and likely much harm. A government can’t expect to win the allegiance of its own citizens, which is necessary to inspire solidarity and industry, let alone the respect of by its peers, which is necessary for trade, diplomacy, and war- and peace-making, if it doesn’t offer a vivid account of what it stands for.

With that in mind, the principles that I have teased out of the history of the Conservative Party of Canada for discussion are:

• Free trade and principled foreign policy

• Immigration and multiculturalism

• Federalism

• Economic choice and security

• Nation-building

This list is selective. It omits many areas of public policy — including criminal justice, Indigenous affairs, the environment, ethics and accountability, and national defence — not because they are not important, but because their distinct roots in Conservative party history are harder to untangle. Nor are the chosen principles discrete; each extends beyond the space allotted to it and, in most cases, encroaches upon others. The reason I have chosen them, however, is that they are areas that highlight clear philosophical differences between Canadian Liberals and Conservatives. They are areas where Conservatives can claim to be more than reluctant, foot-dragging Liberals.

The full essay continues here.