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Conservatism in Contemporary Canadian Politics


Notes for a speech delivered to the Fourth Annual National Conference of Civitas


Stockwell Day

 Author Notes

Leader of Canada's Official Opposition, and of the Canadian Alliance party, former Treasurer of the Government of Alberta

 Essay - 4/28/2000

Ladies and gentlemen, I am happy to be here with you at Civitas. Some people would think that by appearing before a group like Civitas, I am taking a political risk. I am publicly identifying myself with marginalized social group in our country - namely conservatives. But I am who I am, so let me say with pride: my name is Stock, and I am conservative!

For the past thirty years, conservative ideas have been considered beyond the pale to many of our self-appointed Canadian elites, the chattering classes, or as B.C.'s Rafe Mair calls them, our "higher purpose persons." According to them, to talk about conservative ideas make you reactionary, narrow minded, or perhaps even American. But conservatism is deeply rooted in the Canadian tradition. This is a country founded by Conservatives such as John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier for the profoundly conservative purposes of preserving the British identity of English Canada and the Catholic identity of French Canada.

But many in our chattering classes would have us forget this conservative heritage. Our Canadian elites have been almost monolithically liberal and socialist. For years, the most famous political panel on the CBC featured the "diverse" views of the socialist Stephen Lewis, the left-leaning Liberal Eric Kierans, and the Red Tory Dalton Camp. And while they bickered about the issues of the day, they all agreed that those nutty "neo-conservatives", those crazy tax cutters, and dinosaurs like Ted Byfield were a threat to Canada. Being a true conservative was somehow equated with being un-Canadian.

Dalton Camp said recently "anyone who claims to be a Conservative is one. There is no litmus test, no bar to admission, or ban." I beg to differ with Mr. Camp: there is a meaning to the word conservative, and I want to talk about what it means to be conservative today.

I am proud that the new Canadian Alliance has the word "conservative" in its official name, and more than that, I want to make sure that unlike that other party, we will live up to our name. So what is a conservative, ladies and gentlemen? The American satirist Ambrose Bierce once defined a conservative as "A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others."

This definition is humorous, but Bierce actually makes a very good point. A conservative knows that there are limits to what we can change, that there are some things that government cannot and should not do. Liberals and socialists, on the other hand, are convinced that by interfering with the free market they can create a better economy, or that by social engineering they can create a new and improved human nature. Time and time again, history has proved that the conservatives are right and the liberals are wrong. Instead of eliminating the problems that they saw, they have simply created a whole new set of problems in accordance with the Law of Unintended Consequences. But the liberals never learn their lesson: they think that the new evils they have created can be fixed by ever more activist economic and social policies.

The conservative does not rush to use the power of the state to try to radically change economic behaviour or social mores. Rather, the role of government is to pursue a few limited goals and objectives that enable citizens as individuals, families, and communities to achieve their own goals. As Sir John A. Macdonald said, "It is not the place of government to rule, but rather to govern, letting the citizen ebb and flow on the tides of justice and freedom in his own interest, unfettered by unjust laws brought about by hysteria and ignorance."

Since the 1960s, Canada has seen the creation of an ever larger welfare state that wants to rule and micromanage the natural ebb and flow of Canadian society. Today, government controls almost 50% of our Gross Domestic Product. We are taxed to the max, and we are controlled by a maze of suffocating programs and regulations. The good news is that Canadians are starting to say" we have had enough". It is time for a real conservatism in this country, a conservatism that wants to give freedom back to citizens, and return to a government that merely governs, but does not rule our lives.

Now it must be admitted that in recent years, after decades of promoting huge increases in government programs and spending, that a few liberals and even social democrats have begun to twig to the importance of fiscal conservatism.

It is said that a neo-conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. And what we saw happen in Canada in the early 1990s was the tax-and-spend Liberals being mugged by a 200-pound bruiser called the debt wall. Faced with a threat of a devalued currency, massive interest rate hikes, and radical program cuts, the Government of Canada finally in 1995 took the minimum measures necessary to cut the federal deficit. The Liberals became deathbed converts to the virtues of balanced budgets.

They became the beneficiaries of fiscally conservative policies at the provincial level. The effects of reinvigorated economies in Alberta and Ontario, the two provinces reformed by pursuing vigorously conservative principles, helped to fill the federal Liberals coffers. By skimming revenue from this new growth, by reducing federal transfers to the provinces, and by raising already punishingly high tax rates, they were able to eliminate the deficit. After thirty years of Pearson-Trudeau-Mulroney economic liberalism, the federal Government discovered, by observing the provinces, that the fiscal conservatism of Mackenzie King and St. Laurent had been right all along.

But having taken the first few steps along the path to fiscal sanity, the Prime Minister and Paul Martin seem to have stopped in their tracks. They seem to think that having eliminated the deficit, we should ignore the crushing tax and debt burden and return to their old ways of reckless spending.

The Prime Minister recently compared the fiscal measures of the 1990s to having to wake up every morning and shovel snow. But now that we have eliminated the deficit, according to Mr. Chretien, that means the sun is out again and we can spend, spend, spend.

Canadians are going to reject this return to tax and spend economic liberalism. They want us to continue onwards and cut taxes and reduce the debt. And we have to keep on the path of fiscal discipline until we get right to the bottom of debt mountain - there is no turning back.

But while most Canadians, and many of our politicians, admit that the fiscal reforms of the last few years were necessary, we now have a new kind of politician in this country. They are found in all parties, in the NDP, the Parti Quebecois, the Liberals - at least until the next cabinet shuffle - and the Progressive Conservatives, who say: "I'm fiscally conservative, but I'm socially liberal." Some of these people even argue that this is a libertarian position - that they want government out of both our economic lives and our personal lives.

I do not doubt that most of these fiscal conservatives / social liberals are sincere, but I think they misunderstand what conservatism is about. Conservatism is about acknowledging the permanent facts about human nature, that we cannot make everybody a millionaire by economic intervention, nor can we create an egalitarian utopia through social engineering. Social conservatism is not about using the power of the state to recreate a mythical "Leave it to Beaver" / "Father Knows Best" society. Social conservatism is primarily about curtailing the power of the state to manipulate society, while respecting the role of individuals, families, and communities to determine how they want to live their lives together.

While many of these politicians have at last grasped fiscal reality, they have not yet awakened to our disintegrating social reality. But they will, and the day they do, many of those fiscal conservatives- but- social liberals will become unhyphenated conservatives. And when they do, they will find a ready home in the Canadian Alliance.

Let me tell you why Canada is about to wake up to this social reality. The same undisciplined government spending and social engineering that has undermined our economy over the past thirty years has also been tearing at the social fabric of this land. And while we may not yet have hit the wall, we have built up a social deficit in this country that is every bit as daunting as our fiscal deficit ever was.

Let's look at a few of the facts. Since 1962, violent crimes have increased from about 219 per 100,000 people to over 1000 per 100,000 people - a 500% increase. Divorce has increased from 36 per 10,000 people to 250 - a greater than 600% increase. Out of wedlock births have increased from under 5% of childbirths to over 36% of childbirths. The birth-rate has fallen in half, undermining our ability to replace our population. Suicides have almost doubled since the early 1960s and youth suicides - perhaps the canary in the mineshaft of social disintegration - have increased from about 100 per year in 1960 to over 600 per year in the 1990s. From drug addiction to domestic violence, the trends have all been going in the wrong direction.

But these numbers are not just statistical trends: they represent real human tragedies. As a counselor to drug-addicted youth, I have watched and held young men writhe through the night as they experienced the agony of heroin withdrawal. I came to know that too often their addictive and destructive behaviour was a consequence of growing up in environments which lacked cohesion and security.

Clearly, something has gone awry in our culture to have caused these escalating social problems. We know the statistical effects of these problems on many of our nation's children. A greater tendency toward poorer school performance, more susceptibility to drugs, violence, and other social problems, poorer economic prospects. More and more children are being brought up in common law unions. That is a free will choice which people should have the freedom to make. But it is wrong to inform people that Statistics Canada figures show that children born into common law unions have a 60% chance of seeing their parents separate by age 10, compared to only a 12% risk for children of married parents.

We are heading in a disturbing direction in this country, and government, far from helping to solve it, is part of the problem. Our social policies have not adequately supported marriage and have led to an increase in illegitimacy. We have allowed children and adults to think that they can commit crimes with impunity. And a whole generation has been brought up knowing everything about their rights, but rarely hearing about responsibilities.

Liberalism has contributed to the breakdown of our civil society. In the long run it is impossible to maintain a combination of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism because in the long run a socially liberal state, with its incumbent social challenges, is very expensive to maintain. It requires a large welfare state and a costly judicial and police system. A self-governing society with a limited state, by contrast, requires citizens who respect the virtues of family, faith, thrift, civility, and personal responsibility. If we want a limited, fiscally conservative state, then we must nurture and respect the institutions that Edmund Burke called the "little platoons" of civil society- families, small businesses, cultural and faith communities - that give rise to these virtues.

The path we have been pursuing over the past thirty years has not been to promote or respect these institutions, but to undermine them at every turn. The socially liberal state agencies have determined that the Playboy Channel is fine for Canadian airwaves, but a broadcast produced by a crippled, septuagenarian nun named Mother Angelica is a danger to Canada's pluralism and diversity. The socially liberal state funds works of "art" like the pornographic "Bubbles Galore" and documentaries like "The Valour and the Horror" that mock the sacrifices made by Canadians who fought in the Second World War, while neglecting to teach our children about this country's noble history. The socially liberal state has undermined tax benefits to married couples, and penalizes those who raise their children at home while subsidizing out of home daycare. Families should be free to choose, the care that meets their needs without the weight of a government reward or punishment system on their shoulders

It is policies like these that have helped lead to this weakening of our social fabric. Make no mistake, contemporary social liberalism is not libertarian, it is not about leaving people alone. It is about using the power of the state to promote certain social values and to undermine others. This is why the formula of fiscally conservative / socially liberal will not work in the long run.

So where do we go from here? If government social engineering lead to negative consequences, how do we turn things around? Let me suggest to you what is not the answer: it is no solution to try to use the power of the state to promote traditional values. Government must exist to nurture and respect healthy social institutions, but it is as mistaken to attempt conservative social engineering as it is to attempt liberal social engineering. Conservatism does not require big government solutions to achieve its objectives. I think we will find that if government stops promoting negative and counterproductive social behaviour, that people themselves will respond, and human action will change in a positive direction of its own accord.

As fiscal conservatives know, people respond to incentives. Research in the United States has shown that birth rates, for instance, are strongly related to the tax treatment of children. Simply letting married families with children keep more of their own money through tax cuts, will reap dividends in the form of more stable families and a subsequent reduction in social problems.

This is, I think, the preferred path for conservative renewal in this country: strengthening families and communities by limiting the power and cost of the state.

Some people seem to believe that giving families tax breaks or other benefits based on marriage is somehow discriminatory, but the Supreme Court of Canada would disagree with them. Madam Justice, now Chief Justice, Beverley McLachlin wrote in the Miron vs. Trudel decision, "Marriage [and citizenship] may be used as the basis to exclude people from protections and benefits conferred by law, provided the state can demonstrate under section 1 [of the Charter] that they are truly relevant to the goal and values underlying the legislative provision in question." I think given the tremendous Statistics Canada data available about the value of marriage as a social institution, meeting the section 1 test to justify providing certain benefits for married families would not be difficult.

But not all issues are resolved as easily as giving a tax break. A few so-called "hot button issues" have proved divisive and difficult in recent years, particularly since the introduction of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And unfortunately, some people do not associate social conservatism with a limited state, but believe that social conservatives want to use state power to take away rights.

Some people actually believe that it is unseemly for politicians to even talk about these kinds of issues. Jeffrey Simpson recently wrote that "Canadians may remain divided on issues such as abortion, capital punishment and homosexuality, but, in the public domain, agreements have been reached on how to handle these issues, either because the courts imposed their will or because legislatures decided some time ago."

Mr. Simpson is right that the courts have imposed their will on some of these issues. We have become all too familiar with judge-made law in this country, and a major debate about the role and scope of judicial review has been underway for some years. In fact, Mr. Simpson has been one of the most eloquent critics of the impact of the Charter in leading to the individualization and fragmentation of Canadian political discourse.

Similarly, we often hear that "moral" questions have no place in modern politics. But political discourse itself is essentially a series of moral questions. Aristotle defined politics as "the art of free men deliberating together the question: how ought we to order our lives together." That ought is the basic moral question. Ought we to tax our citizens more or less? What penalties ought we to impose on what crimes? Ought we to protect human life, and if so at what stage?

I believe that on such matters politicians have a responsibility to state their convictions clearly, but I also believe that these debates should be conducted with respect for the democratic rights of all citizens, even those who may disagree with us on these subjects. I will always state my beliefs clearly, but I will always seek to conduct debate in an open and democratic manner. As Prime Minister I would not - and could not - "impose" my will on my party or the country. No Member of Parliament has the right to do that.

To take but one example, it is well known that I am pro-life. I believe that the scientific evidence is overwhelming that human life begins at the moment of conception, and I believe that all human beings possess an inalienable right to life. I do not support abortion or euthanasia, and I would personally favour measures to protect human life in Canadian law.

But I would not seek to impose my views on the Canadian people. I would want issues such as these to be determined freely and democratically by the people, either through a referendum initiated by Canadians or a free vote of their representatives in the House of Commons. Debates like this need to be conducted with the greatest possible respect for democracy and the views of others, without the angry and harsh rhetoric that too often prevents serious democratic debate on moral questions.

So yes, I am a social conservative. And I am also a deeply committed fiscal conservative who believes in limited government, and a deeply committed political reformer who believes in democratic self-government by citizens.

Finally, I have to address something that is a deep personal concern of mine. I am a person of religious faith. Like 84% of Canadians, I believe in God. Some people react as though having religious beliefs somehow disqualifies you from holding public office, (a view recently given credence by the BC Supreme Court in the Surrey School Board case) I would like to ask those who are always accusing religious believers of being intolerant how tolerant they are of people who hold these beliefs.

Let me give but one example of the intolerance shown by some towards those who have strong religious convictions in public life. In 1998, then Progressive Conservative Senator Ron Ghitter delivered a lecture in which he said: "the real threat to the advancement of human rights in Canada today does not come from the skinheads, the Aryan Nation and white supremacists... No, the imminent threat to human rights... comes from what are known as the theo-conservatives"

And who are these people who Mr. Ghitter considers to be more dangerous than neo-Nazis? He named people like Preston Manning, Ted Byfield, Ted Morton, and the lobby group REAL Women. They are accused by him of being scolding moralists who seek greater government control over our lives, and pursuing policies which "strike at the very foundations of human rights in Canada." Somehow, I find it hard to take lessons in tolerance from somebody who calls religious conservatives a greater threat to human rights than fascism.

The American Catholic intellectual Richard John Neuhaus has said that modern democratic societies are creating a "naked public square" - a society in which religion and matters of fundamental moral conviction are exiled to the margins of private behaviour, and cannot be mentioned in public. Jeffrey Simpson expressed a view typical of this attitude when he recently wrote that "A curtain has been drawn between the religious and the secular, between the private world of religion and the public world of politics. And a politician who does not respect that curtain risks political retribution." Well, I'm sorry, but I don't accept that, and I don't think that the Canadian people accept that. I do not seek, nor do other persons of faith I know seek to impose their spiritual beliefs on anybody else. As a conservative, I have no intention of making my religion someone else's law. But neither is it possible to demand that the convictions I express on Sunday should have nothing to do with the way I live my life the other six days of the week. In other words, I believe in the separation of Church and state; but am opposed to any suggestion that citizens separate themselves from their beliefs in order to participate in the government of their state.

In 1906, the Liberal Party in England nominated the Catholic writer Hilaire Belloc as their candidate in Manchester, a heavily Methodist area. The media said a Catholic couldn't get elected in that area, and Belloc's campaign manager told him to avoid religion. But at his first campaign rally, Belloc got up and said "Gentlemen," - for all the voters were gentlemen in those days - "I am a Catholic. As far as possible, I go to Mass every day." He reached into his pocket and pulled out an object. "This is a rosary. As far as possible, I kneel down and tell these beads, every day. If you reject me on account of my religion, I shall thank God that He has spared me the indignity of being your representative!" And after a few seconds of stunned silence, the crowd burst into applause, and Belloc went on to be elected as the first Liberal from Manchester in decades.

Like Mr. Belloc, ladies and gentlemen, I too am a Christian, although of a different tradition. And like Mr. Belloc, I do not fear that the electors would choose to reject me on account of my religion.

I know that the Canadian people are more tolerant than that, and more tolerant than those in our chattering classes who belittle the religious beliefs of millions of Canadians. Canadians know that the religious beliefs of Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and today of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and many others, are what form our deepest convictions. Religious faith is part of what helps keep the social fabric of Canada together, and most Canadians, whether or not they are church goers or religious believers themselves, are at least willing to acknowledge the importance of the religious roots of our society as a force for social good.

The real intolerance in Canadian society is shown by those who would deny people of faith the right to participate in public life. As a social conservative, I honour the communities of religious faith which do so much on a voluntary basis to build families, educate children, feed the hungry, and care for the sick and dying. As a practising Christian within my own faith community, I have been active in some of these areas myself. And I do not believe that a person who has a religious faith is more worthy of democratic and heart-felt respect than someone who is not a person of faith

I have tried to share with you, ladies and gentlemen, some of my deepest convictions -- my economic beliefs, my social beliefs, my political philosophy, and my personal faith. I want to help reform this country, to bring about new policies that will liberate our economic potential and restore the social health of our communities. In this effort of reform, I believe that economic conservatism and social conservatism go hand in hand. But the way we go about implementing our conservative convictions is equally important. We must respect the democratic will of the Canadian people, and use the power of government in a prudent and limited way. As much as possible, individuals, families, and communities should govern themselves, and government should support them in their efforts. As leader, I will promote pro-growth economic policies and will use the democratic principles of the Reform movement to give government back to the people themselves.

This is my philosophy, one which I am proud to call a "reform conservative" philosophy. And I would be proud to accept the honour and responsibility of being the first leader of the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance to help make this vision a reality.

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