People have asked me what I think about the PC plan for ‘real change that works for people.’ Admittedly, given my hockey duties on Saturday morning, I only saw about 3/4 of Patrick Brown’s speech to a boisterous PC crowd. I only recently just finished reading the platform, so it’s time I write my review.
One way to evaluate a convention is whether those in attendance feel better about the party’s chances of forming a government after it is finished. My top level opinion to this end, is an emphatic yes! There was an energy in the room and in the halls. People were following caucus old and soon-to-be like they wanted to be part of the win. Patrick gave his best speech yet. He was confident. He was smiling. The whole branding of the people’s guarantee was also fresh, and the platform release in the form of a magazine spread was genius – perfect for a new age of voters. The message was clear and concise. Five ideas form part of guarantee – a contract – to voters. If, as premier, Patrick Brown doesn’t fulfill those 5 promises, he won’t seek another mandate. He must surely be able to do all 5 too, because none of them are bound to running a balanced budget. All are big ticket items – some might call them big government items – and all are designed to be people friendly, or more precisely, appealing to legions of women who hadn’t considered voting PC in years. I have advocated for this kind of approach in the past, so the pitch has some real resonance.
Yet, there I was, on the convention floor, in awe with the spectacle and really pumped about our chances, but I wasn’t wildly clapping at most of it. My first reaction was ‘how on earth are we going to pay for all of this?’ Bob Stanley should me where Kevin Page said the numbers add up, which is fine, but a 22.5% tax cut is huge. So I clap until I realize this massive tax cut to the middle class is being paid for by a carbon tax. And so goes every other goodie too.
The second thought I had was how all these people that I stood next to during the time I was in office fighting for smarter, more efficient government suddenly were going delirious over a platform that replaces some Liberal trinkets with PC ones. We aren’t better off from a fiscal perspective. In fact, government spending will grow by $12 billion under the PC plan. Interest payments on the debt is calculated to grow by about $2.5 billion over the 4 year period as well. Most aspects of the long term infrastructure plan, which is what’s adding billions to our provincial debt, are going to be kept in place. Yet, all these people in the trenches were applauding approvingly at the plan.
It reminded me of the time back in 2009 when I attended a Harper government announcement about the creation of FedDev Ontario. There, in Kitchener on that fateful August day, after years of railing against the Atlantic Canada Opportunity Agency as one of the more egregious pork barreling agencies of government – the sort that has government picking and choosing which companies ought to be successful rather than the market – I witnessed the creation of more of the same agencies. To make matters even more uncomfortable for me, my friend was named its responsible minister. I remember standing beside Arron Wudrick, now Executive Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, when we chatted about how bizarre it was to be in a room where people were cheering for something they complained about for years. Late that year, in a speech to Conservative Party faithful, PM Harper said, “We will have to be both tough and pragmatic, not unrealistic or ideological, in dealing with the complex economic challenges before us.” The rigid, hard-right Harper of the 80s and 90s was no more, and you can’t help but see the similarities between Brown’s posturing and Harper’s governing.
The platform continues with many of the Liberal governments plans. There is no hint at radical change in the PC approach to colleges and universities. No major shifts in education policies that would significantly enrage teachers – in fact, the PCs seem intent on partnering with them. You won’t read about smaller government, other than a shaving that might be found in a value for money audit (hint: we just had a release this week, so what are we going to cut from it?). There is no real plan to get the debt under control, given that the bulk of our debt growth is related to our infrastructure spending, and the PCs seem intent to carry on with the Liberal long term infrastructure plan, plus adding a few trinkets of their own. Even on minimum wage, where the PCs say they’re going to approach things differently, it’s a policy of $15/hour minimum wage… eventually.
I raise these points because it shows where conservatism is these days. It’s a fear of not looking progressive enough in the eyes of voters. It’s a betrayal to those who believe that smaller government might be smarter and better. It’s an admission that taxpayers can fund government growth in perpetuity. It’s a denial that free markets and capitalism are part of the solution to our economic and social issues. I could go on.
Part of the problem is that modern neo-conservatism is losing the debate, and we don’t have anybody willing to create the conditions for the mainstays of the movement to continue. People aren’t buying the ‘tax cuts create jobs’ or ‘we should live within out means’ as rational explanations for policy anymore. Retrenchment is met with massive resistance by the public sector partners who are larger and better funded than any political party. And so, what we need is a safe space for conservative ideas. We need to create the winning conditions for conservative ideas to make sense for people. We need to make sure that the people, not the special interests, are in control of our government. We must at once define succinctly what governments must do for people, and ensure that we are world-class in delivering these more limited services. As bureaucracies grow, there is a greater disconnect between those at the top and those on the front lines, which doesn’t help with service delivery – something reasonable solutions and discourse can fix. Again, I could go on.
Over the next few months, I will personally be devoting more of my time to providing a home for such ideas to flourish. If you are interested in helping, I’d love to hear from you!