News Dispatch

Towards Alberta, away from corporate tax cuts: A few clues about the direction of Canada’s conservative movement

Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre speaks at the Canada Strong and Free Network conference on March 23, 2023. Stuart Thomson/The Hub.

  • Canadian conservatives gathered for the Canada Strong and Free Network conference at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa last week to talk policy, listen to expert panels, and discuss the future of the conservative movement.
  • Former prime minister Stephen Harper and Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre gave keynote speeches on consecutive nights, and both touched on the theme of targeting big corporations.
  • Other major themes of the conference included Canada's national housing crisis, the nationalization of politics, and Alberta's push to lure more residents with targeted advertisements and affordability-friendly policies.

There was an unusual abundance of beer, Ronald Reagan references, and “Kill Socialism” bumper stickers at the Westin Hotel in Ottawa this week.

Canadian conservatives gathered for the Canada Strong and Free Network conference to talk policy, listen to expert panels and reminisce about the old days. Coming on the 30-year anniversary of the 1993 election, which sent 52 Reform Party MPs to Ottawa, the crowd wasn’t short on excuses for nostalgia. But there was also an undercurrent of hope. A recurring theme was the sense that the governing Liberals are on the ropes, plagued by scandals, and leaving an opportunity for the Conservative Party to mount a serious challenge to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s seven years of governance.

The Hub has collected a few moments of interest that indicate the direction of the conservative movement and illustrate the issues that are on the minds of Canada’s most influential right-of-centre thinkers.

A rough week for big corporations

Former prime minister Stephen Harper and Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre gave keynote speeches on consecutive nights that served mostly as morale-boosting exercises.

Harper’s speech gave advice and encouragement to Poilievre, as he navigates the job of Opposition leader, and Poilievre rallied his troops with a rousing speech about the struggles of regular Canadians.

Both men briefly touched on a theme that may surprise the free market-friendly conservative audience, though.

As Harper itemized the challenges for working Canadians, he pointed out that big companies have mostly been spared.

“We shouldn’t forget tax policy, which has been marked by tax hikes across the board for all kinds of small businesses, workers, and ordinary middle-class people, while at the same time sparing the big corporate sector,” said Harper.

Poilievre, for his part, has been increasingly attacking big corporations in his speeches and media appearances. His keynote speech on Thursday was actually a slight downgrade in rhetoric, where he referred to “corporate dirtbags” who caused the opioid epidemic, rather than “scumbags.”

“McKinsey wrote a business plan for the super-charging of sales (of opioids), actually recommending that there be bonuses for overdoses that a distributor could cause. These corporate dirtbags knew exactly what they were doing,” said Poilievre.

It might represent a shift in the party, either on tone or policy, or both.

As recent as 2019, Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party ran on cutting the corporate tax rate in Alberta, successfully portraying the policy as a job-growth measure and subsequently claiming a big majority victory in the province.

Even after winning on a free market, supply-side platform, though, Kenney came to question his party’s free market orthodoxy, which may not be as sturdy as it once was.

Alberta is calling

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has already told his Alberta counterpart Danielle Smith that he’s no fan of the “Alberta is calling” advertisements that are trying to lure Ontarians out west.

At the Canada Strong and Free Network conference, both Smith and one of her top ministers said they are already noticing an influx of new residents coming to their province.

“What I want to see Alberta be is this beacon that’s going to attract people from all over the country and all over the world. We had 13 consecutive quarters of people leaving our province under the NDP. That should tell you something. 183,000 jobs lost. We are now getting record numbers of people returning to Alberta,” said Smith, at a fireside chat on Wednesday.

“What I would love to see, because I noticed that Quebec’s population is stagnating, I’m going forward 30 years to a time when Alberta will be the second largest province, the second largest economy, the second most populous province, and we’ll actually have some power in confederation,” said Smith.

Rebecca Schulz, the minister of municipal affairs in Alberta, also featured on a panel about Canada’s new working class and made the point that affordability is driving the concerns of Canadians across the country, to the benefit of Alberta.

“The other day I was door-knocking in my riding and I met seven new families and they all came either from Ontario or B.C. Why? Affordability,” said Schulz.

Canada’s housing crisis

A panel on Canada’s housing crisis was packed with Hub contributors, including John Pasalis, who made the point that the country’s housing supply will not be able to keep up with its immigration targets.

“Governments need to sort out supply and find a way to build faster and build more before tripling our population growth. That should be a pretty basic concept, but apparently I was brought here because it’s controversial,” said Pasalis.

“You’re doing a disservice to everyone who is coming here,” said Pasalis.

Chris Spoke, a housing advocate and Hub contributor, said the issue of densification in big cities is a good one for conservative parties because they can upset big city voters who never vote for them with pro-development policies, and stem the tide of “Toronto refugees” who are moving farther out to the suburbs and pushing prices up.

“If you are a Peterborough NIMBY, you should be a Toronto YIMBY,” said Spoke.

The nationalization of politics

At the “future of cities” panel, Reihan Salam, the president of the Manhattan Institute, a free market U.S. think tank that focuses on domestic policy and urban affairs, said our obsession with national political issues is hurting our cities, and society more generally.

“Partly because of a changing media landscape, and for a variety of reasons, both technological and social, we live in a world now where you don’t necessarily identify as intensely with your neighbourhood or your city as you do with people nationally who share certain sensibilities with you,” said Salam.

This has a major effect on how our politics works at all levels, he argued.

“If you’re an ambitious politician in one of the big U.S. cities, you’re not necessarily talking about picking up trash, or the actual basics of competent good government. You might engage in ideological grandstanding about issues you have no authority over,” said Salam.

As the panel shifted to the future of municipal budgets, Salam also predicted serious pressure on government budgets and, subsequently, fiscally conservative political parties.

“I suspect the next 20 or 30 years are going to be extremely challenging and uncomfortable for small government conservatives simply because of demographic change,” said Salam. “Basically you have the challenge of very serious demographic stagnation and rapid aging.”

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