By Richard Forbes.
Featured image via  Justin Tang.

The annual Conservative pow-wow, this year’s Manning Centre Conference, has been as good an indication as any of just how far adrift the party really is. However, its eponymous chieftain and keynote speaker, Preston Manning, the former leader of Canada’s Reform Party, dismissed the possibility of a party divide at this year’s conference, preferring instead to characterize “Trumpomania” as something needing our sympathy and understanding, something for which its “root causes” (his choice of words, not mine) must be understood (and shamelessly pandered to.)

If you’re still following, note: our national conversations have now devolved to the point that understanding the “root causes” of terrorism is folly and the butt of a joke, but understanding the “root causes” of racism, sexism and perverse demagoguery is a solemn prerequisite to running a successful Conservative campaign. There’s apparently only so much room in the Tory brain-trust for sociology.

Yet in an interview prior to the conference, Manning, sounding less optimistic, said party unity couldn’t be taken for granted, rather, he expressed his hopes “the stitching is solid stitching,” describing the Conservative party as a coalition between various kinds of conservatives, but noting the fragility and relative newness of the party: “it’s not like it’s been around for a hundred years.” Manning in that interview went as far as to liken his Manning Centre Conference as a “relief” oil well for a slick that’s about to explode; rather than suppress the rank and file, Manning would rather see the party’s grassroots let off some pressure on controversial files – and that they did

The first seminar of the day was titled “Leading the Response to Islamist Extremism and its Ideology in Canada” – which is basically all you need to know about how the day went. Former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford, a self-described “unwavering” Trump supporter, also ad libbed at the conference yesterday for “Down with the Elites?” Followed by another damn panel on Islamic extremism, the “Islamist Extremism Discussion Group,” starting at 11:15 am, followed by Canadian-born Trump speechwriter, Frank H. Buckley, wistfully musing “Can Trumpism be exported to Canada?” (A serious departure from the conventional Canadian take: “How long till the idiot’s impeached?”) Also on the agenda: gutting the CBC, carbon taxes and “campus freedom”; the latter requiring two sessions, “Stifling Dissent-Conservatism on Campus” and “Censorship on Campus” today at 9:45am.

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Preston Manning says Tories will have to learn from Trumpomania.

For me at least, behind all of these ‘relief wells’, there remains the unsettling suspicion that what Manning considers a “release” of the party’s most wild notions is in fact, dog-whistling: a large ultrasonic shriek across the country to remind the country’s lowest common denominator that the Conservative party still shares their prejudices and will forgo any semblance of shame to win their vote.

Shades of this putrescent politics can be found in the Conservatives’ most recent opposition to Liberal MP Iqra Khalid’s Motion 103, an anti-Islamophobia motion, which calls for the Commons Heritage committee to research “systemic racism and religious discrimination.” The Conservatives have raised questions over the use of ‘islamophobia’ – implying it applies to the simple criticism of Islam. They would prefer, rather tragically instead, to condemn hate against “all religions,” that is, after they’ve found themselves physically unable to mutter anything less than an indirect defense of the right of Muslims to live as Muslims peacefully in Canada. Perhaps for some particularly craven Tories, all phobias aside, it’s an acknowledgement that they are afraid of Islam – and given the copious amount of time that’s been devoted to “Islamic terrorism”, “radical Islam” and “Islamist extremism” at this year’s Manning Convention, I would say that’s a fair self-assessment of the party’s grassroots.

For other conservatives, like Kellie Leitch, however, Motion 103 has been an opportunity to cynically hitch a ride on the fears and prejudices of others. Her campaign quickly set up a website, “Stopm103.ca” with the dramatic image of a woman censored by the letters, “M-103” over some rather silly sloganeering: “No religion should be singled out for special consideration.” Leitch is, of course, fully aware as a parliamentarian that the motion is directing a committee to research the subject, not gag citizens – and this is hardly the first time that Ottawa has focused on hate and discrimination within a specific context (anti-semitism, homophobia.) Indeed, the Conservatives already supported a House condemnation of islamophobia via an NDP motion in October, only to back track on that step forward without explanation several months later.

And it’s not as though anything that’s happened since October (a US Muslim travel ban and a mass shooting at a Canadian mosque) should reasonably be giving anyone second thoughts about condemning islamophobia again.

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Perhaps a “bit” of an overstatement.

The Tories have arrived at a crossroads reminiscent of a post-Diefenbaker Progressive-Conservative party which had been drained in its policy making and intellectual honesty. Seven years of the old chief’s mindless, angry prairie populism had left a trail of empty, improvised policies behind, roaming the countryside as kleenex tumbleweeds – disposable, spoiled, slimy and potentially contagious – a scarce intellectual inheritance that Bob Stanfield, Tom Symons and others would reinvent as a progressive-conservative policybook for a new generation that served them (and at times, Trudeau) well: in it, proposals for a guaranteed annual income, bilingualism and wage and price controls. The post-Harper Conservatives have a similar policy void as the one post-Diefenbaker Conservatives: they can choose, as Stanfield did, to fill that void with meaningful policy or they can fill it with the glib surrealism of the likes of Kevin “What constitution? There’s a constitution!?” O’Leary.

A failure to choose the constructive path would lead the Tories down a dangerous death spiral, a personal nightmare for Preston Manning that he’s only scantly entertained publicly: the re-separation of the old progressive-conservative wing of the Conservative party in both protest of the latter’s intellectual aneurysm and solid tactical strategy.

Tom Flanagan, one of thinkers behind Manning’s ‘Invasion from the Right’ may have unwittingly foreshadowed this in introducing game theory to Canadian politics in his 1998 book, Game Theory and Canadian Politics. As actors, the remaining Red Tories, like Micheal Chong, Peter Kent, Lisa Raitt, Deepak Obhrai, David Tilson and others, have a stronger hand outside the Conservative party than they do in the Conservative party and they have a clear interest in speaking with their feet. To be clear: a rogue PC element in the long term would guarantee mutually-assured irrelevance for all Tories, but a brief interlude would force the Conservative tent to bargain with the PCs for a stronger institutional position and more concessions for the latter within the party apparatus than it achieved in the original 2003 merger under Stephen Harper.

That kind of divide is hard to contemplate, especially given the lack of sitting Tory MPs from Atlantic Canada, but the lower the party’s rhetoric descends, the more strategic a divide will become, if for no other reason than to salvage part of the conservative brand from the tarnished and radioactive legacy that someone like O’Leary, Leitch or Bernier might leave.

It truly feels as though the Conservatives have forgotten over this past decade how to survive the opposition benches. Indeed, dismantling things rather than offering something is not a selling point; the natural advantage the opposition possesses is in its capacity to ludicrously out-promise the government of the day. Focusing on say, cutting the CBC – an important cultural institution created under a Progressive-Conservative prime minister – will bear only a niche appeal among Canadians. And yet not to be outdone, libertarian candidate Maxime Bernier, along with advocating stripping down the CBC’s mandate, has suggested scrapping just about every subsidy and transfer – equalization, supply management, health – although he’s been noticeably mum on fossil fuel subsidies…

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Bernier is third among first preferences of CPC voters in a recent Mainstreet Poll behind O’Leary and Leitch (Photo: Matthew Usherwood / Agence QMI.)

Meanwhile, Kevin O’Leary’s comical plan to subtract what provinces raise in carbon taxes from federal transfers not only demonstrates he doesn’t understand the value of carbon pricing or the concept of revenue neutrality, but it’s a decidedly un-conservative proposal: he, in punishing provinces, would be invading on their taxation policy. Reducing transfers also shows how little O’Leary understands Canada’s transfer system: the transfers are mostly conditional and redistributive to provide consistent social assistance and health care across provinces, big and small.

O’Leary’s plan amounts to both a cession of responsibility in areas like secondary education whilst infringing on the division of powers. It’s also an amusing faux pas in the case of BC, which has had a carbon tax since 2008; since BC does not collect equalization transfers and it just renegotiated its health transfer with the federal government for the coming decade, O’Leary would have to scrap almost the entirety of BC’s social transfer to cover the $1.2B that BC regularly amasses and rebates from its carbon tax. It’s a toss up in 2022 whether the CST would even be larger than BC’s carbon revenue.

The constitution also, of course, requires equalization payments.

Truly capturing the hearts and minds of Canadians requires praise for the country and ambition; something Trudeau keenly understood when he repeated the line, “in Canada, better is always possible”: Canadians see value in an activist government. The Conservatives should be focusing on the priorities that matter to regular Canadians by researching long term policy solutions with a ‘conservative bent’ to daycare and affordable housing – if it’s looking for a ‘grand design,’ perhaps the Conservatives could tie Trump’s calls for renegotiations, climate change and economic anxiety together with an intercontinental carbon price regime, a ‘Green NAFTA,’ ‘NAFTA+.’ etc. – god knows anything would be more productive than running an entire federal election campaign on headscarves, pepperspray, equalization payments and Islamic bogeymen.

Mark my words, if the traveling circus they’re calling this year’s ‘Manning Centre Conference’ is an accurate portrait of the party’s future, the Tories won’t just embarrass themselves in the next election, they’re headed for a fractured and bitter party schism.

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Richard Forbes studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Waterloo. Winner of the Peter Woolstencroft Prize in Canadian Politics (2015).

When asked what ‘one does exactly’ with said degree, he laughs and politely declines to answer. A perfect night for him involves a cup of Lady Grey, writing and a re-run of Yes Minister.

Twitter: @richardjforbes

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