National Newswatch

Reading Erin O’Toole’s recent speeches reminded us of the old management consultants’ joke that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Apparently, O’Toole doesn’t get it. He wants to build a new electoral coalition around a “philosophy” that has even bigger bumps than our enigmatic desert friends.

The Tory leader embraces three fundamentally different visions of Canada: 1) on federalism, he is a decentralist who thinks the provinces should run Canada; 2) on economics, he is a Canadian nationalist who says he’ll use Ottawa’s power to redefine Canada’s approach to globalization; and 3) on foreign policy, he is a free-trader who wants the benefits of a rules-based order without the costs.

As a political philosophy, this set of ideas is incoherent; it is a circle that cannot be squared. To see why, let’s break down the various parts.

Decentralized Federalism

In his reply to the Speech from the Throne, the Conservative philosopher accuses Justin Trudeau of taking an “Ottawa-knows-best” approach to federalism – and that infuriates the provinces. Instead, O’Toole sees the federation as an “alliance” of provinces. In this view, the country is bound together through a “shared destiny and shared dream” among the provinces.

Of course, the Conservative leader never defines this “shared dream” but that, as we have argued elsewhere, is because it doesn’t exist. Canada is deeply regionalized, and different provinces have different views of it. This is obvious from their disagreements on a long list of issues, including climate change, health care, taxes, childcare, immigration, Equalization, Official Languages, monetary policy, deficit spending, international trade, and the pandemic.

Mr. O’Toole’s account of Canada is simply at odds with how the country works. Canadians like federalism not because of some shared dream but because it accommodates their diversity. And we don’t look to the provinces to bring the country together. Typically, that role falls to the federal government – not that Ottawa gets to act like a dictator.

Federal parties use national elections to propose plans for federal/provincial collaboration. Liberals and Conservatives alike have done this for generations; that’s how Canadians got health care, the Canada pension, Free Trade, and a reduction in the GST.

O’Toole’s decentralized vision would strip federal politics of this leadership role and divest the federal government of its responsibility to define or act in the national interest – that is, if he really means what he says. In fact, the Conservative leader uses another speech to argue for a different version of Canada.

Economic Nationalism

In his speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto, the Tory leader presents himself as a Canadian nationalist; and he turns to contemporary versions of conservative populism, such as  MAGA and Brexit, for guidance.

Working class members of the middle-class feel threatened by globalization. When manufacturing and natural resource industries were at their peak, these people enjoyed an historic level of prosperity, but this has all but vanished. New high-paying jobs have emerged in financial services, business management, and so on, but these are going to a new class of urban professionals.

The Conservative leader argues that allowing Canada to “de-industrialize” was a mistake. While capitalism may lead to the most efficient outcome, he says, it does not always coincide with our “national interest.”

A Conservative government, says the Tory leader, would use Ottawa’s power to protect working people’s jobs, such as our auto workers and construction unions, and to rebuild the middle class. When capitalism (globalization) “does not align with our national interest…the national interest comes first.” In short, as prime minister, our philosopher would redefine Canada’s approach to globalization.

Perhaps this sounds reassuring to working people, but friends of O’Toole-the-decentralist will be alarmed to hear about these new plans for leveraging Ottawa’s power – as will Canada’s trading partners, which brings us to his third version of Canada.

Free Trade

Canada is a trading nation. Our prosperity depends on the global economy and Canadians everywhere must be able to get their goods to market. This, in turn, requires reliable trading relationships and strong supply chains. And that requires rules-based agreements.

Enter O’Toole-the-free-trader.

In this role, he starts by taking China to task for its unfair trade practices, then assures Canadians that a government led by him will stand for “free and fair trade amongst free countries…” Except, O’Toole-the-nationalist has already promised to protect our national interests in these arrangements.

To be fair, exceptions can be made. Brian Mulroney carved out spaces for dairy products and Ontario wines in the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. Other agreements have done similar things. However, getting exemptions also requires trade-offs on our part – and a lot of effort by federal negotiators.

So, how far will this working-people’s champion go to protect our national interests? Which ones will be urgent enough to fight for? What trade-offs will he make to secure them? And how will all this be decided? The answers depend on which of his versions of Canada you believe:

  • O’Toole-the-decentralist would be led by the provinces, who would produce a list of exceptions longer than your arm – lumber, fish, minerals, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, high-tech products, financial services, and so on.
  • O’Toole-the-Canadian-nationalist would make these decisions in Ottawa, thereby infuriating the provinces.

Finally, whichever of these two options turns out to be right, our trading partners will quickly tire of our endless demands – and our penchant for scolding them for their unfair practices.

O’Toole’s Real Choices

Erin O’Toole’s Conservative philosophy is designed to appeal to specific voter-groups that will expand his party beyond its current base:

  • The decentralized federation plays to Quebec and the west.
  • The economic nationalism is an attempt to win over a special cohort of non-voters who are economically moderate or even left-leaning, but culturally conservative.
  • The nod to free trade is to reassure all Canadians that Conservatives will protect our access to international markets.

As others have pointed out, it is ironic to see this former Harper Conservative courting unions. As a cabinet minister, he supported anti-union legislation and, for some, that would be enough to discredit him. But the problems go deeper.

The elements of his new Conservative philosophy conflict with one another – deeply. Building an electoral coalition in a country as diverse as Canada is not easy. Brokerage politics and big tents are about living with differences; political parties can tell different stories about how Canada works.

But no party gets to be all things to all people and that’s O’Toole’s problem. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Unfortunately, that’s not how the game works. Like the other leaders, he must sit down with his colleagues and make some hard choices about where Conservatives’ real priorities lie.

Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.com

Andrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.

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