As Canada's right wing gathers this weekend in Ottawa, the conservative movement finds itself looking in a strange -- and somewhat dangerous -- place for inspiration.
Conservatives attending the 2013 Manning Centre networking conference will hear from the usual roster of cheerleaders, political practitioners and ideological elders. But this year's keynote is something different. A surprising guest whose ideas can only be described as completely outside the Canadian mainstream: former U.S. Congressman Ron Paul.
Mr. Paul is well known in the United States for his radical notions. Often described as the "intellectual godfather of the Tea Party," Mr. Paul takes libertarian philosophy to new heights. His positions and policies are offside most U.S. Republicans, let alone Canada's more temperate Red Tory traditions.
In his 2011 book, Liberty Defined, he opined that, "We need to give up our dependence on the state... it is far better to live in an imperfect world than it is to live in a despotic world ruled by people who lord it over us through force and intimidation." I am left scratching my head at this bizarre statement: which despotic agents of the state, exactly, is Mr. Paul referring to? Doctors? Nurses? Social workers? All of the above?
Mr. Paul has been particularly outspoken on a number of other important issues. As a self-described "unshakeable foe of abortion," he has gone so far as to introduce legislation "which would negate the effect of Roe v. Wade." Mr. Paul opposes gun control because he believes it "clears a path for violence and makes aggression more likely." Go figure. Mr. Paul even wants to abolish the minimum wage: during a 2011 Republican primary debate, he argued that "minimum wage is a mandate. We're against mandates so why should we have it?"
Climate change -- which all Canadian political parties have now acknowledge to be real -- is still a fantasy to Mr. Paul. He suggests that "I don't think there's a conclusion yet... if you study the history, we've had a lot of climate changes."
Mr. Paul has spoken candidly about his views on sexual harassment in the workplace. During a Fox News interview, he stated that "...if people are insulted by, you know, rude behaviour, I don't think we need to make a federal case out of it... people should deal with it at home."
And on key votes he has frequently been virtually alone in speaking against what is essentially a right-left societal consensus. On the 40th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act's passage, Mr. Paul was the only Congressman to vote against a resolution hailing the Act, and even gave a speech to Congress claiming that it "violated the Constitution and reduced individual liberty."
I could go on. Mr. Paul's record of opposition to most ideals Canadians hold dear is very lengthy.
The Manning Centre is, of course, free to invite anybody they wish to their party. Even the Tea Party. But my grandmother used to tell me that "You're known by the company you keep", which seems to me a fair comment in life as in politics. Of all the conservatives the Manning Centre could have invited to be the star attraction at their annual shindig, why Ron Paul? Is this supposed to be a foreshadowing of the future direction of Canada's conservative movement? Which of his, frankly, bizarre ideas does the Manning Centre agree with? How does the Centre see Mr. Paul's contribution as being a positive addition to our Canadian political conversation?
Most importantly: Which pieces of Ron Paul's extreme agenda do Canadian conservatives harbor the ambition of importing?
Canada's conservative movement has been working overtime over the last few years to convince Canadians that they are mainstream and on a roll. It is no surprise that my organization and I disagree with both the philosophy and (alleged) facts behind these conservative arguments. By welcoming Ron Paul to Canada, however, it is difficult to see how the Manning Centre furthers even its own stated objectives.
Viewing Canada - U.S. relations through the prism of supposed national self-interest has led many commentators to reject U.S. criticism of Canadian energy and environmental policies. Indeed, a recent Globe and Mail editorial goes so far as to denounce as a “threat” the view from Washington that Canada should get serious about dealing with climate change.
This is deeply ironic insofar as the vast majority of Canadians—78 per cent would—according to opinion polls, have voted to re-elect U.S. President Barack Obama rather than support his opponent Governor Mitt Romney if they had been given the chance.
Canada has long viewed itself as a more progressive country than the United States, more committed to the collective pursuit of the common good through democratic government, more supportive of paying taxes to support decent social programs and public services, and less wedded to the view that market freedoms are the only ones that really count.
But Obama’s recent inaugural address rang many more progressive notes than we have heard in Canada for quite some time, certainly from the Harper government.
The speech argued that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action” and that “social programs are the commitments we make to each other.”
It denounced growing income inequality, saying that “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well, and a growing many barely make it.”
Obama’s subsequent state of the union address spelled out an agenda for the restoration of the broad middle-class based upon public investments, a transition to a clean, green economy as part of a strategy to deal with the fundamental challenge of climate change, higher minimum wages to help the working poor, and securing real equality of opportunity through major investments in early childhood learning.
Obama also underlined the world’s responsibility to future generations to deal with accelerating and destructive climate change.
The president concluded by saying that “We are citizens. ... It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others.”
Canadian progressives, indeed the great majority of Canadians, would applaud these sentiments. The key question is: why are they not embraced by our own government?
The Conservatives, let us recall, ripped up the Kyoto agreement and have done next to nothing to deal with climate change. They have failed to impose long-promised caps on carbon emissions by the tar sands and other polluting industries, and have portrayed opposition to their agenda as politically motivated, and, indeed, dictated by foreign interests.
It’s little wonder that many Americans think Canada is environmentally reckless when we have placed all our eggs in the basket of the expansion of oil and gas exports, over-riding entirely legitimate concerns regarding how we deal with the impacts on the environment and the interests of First Nations.
The Conservatives have signally failed to create the new middle-class jobs in a growing green economy which could have been replacing lost jobs in the hard-hit manufacturing sector. Our efforts are hugely limited in comparison to the strides that have been made south of the border, and voices calling for major new federal investments in public transit, energy conservation, and renewable energy have been rejected.
Far from talking about rebuilding the middle-class amidst rapidly increasing inequality, the Conservatives have launched a major attack on the right of the labour movement to participate in democratic debate; have undermined our Employment Insurance and public pension programs; and have delivered sweeping tax cuts to corporate Canada.
Far from investing in real equality of opportunity for all our children, the Conservatives scrapped the embryonic child care and early learning program they inherited from the previous government. Their social vision is confined to promising even more tax cuts largely tilted to the most affluent once the federal budget is balanced.
In this dismal context, we are ill-advised to reject legitimate comment. Canadians can only hope that the progressive sentiments being voiced in the United States spill over to our side of the border.
Canada is one of the most decentralized federations in the world. Public services (notably health, education at all levels, social services such as elder care, and local services) are delivered and financed primarily by provincial and municipal governments.
The Canadian Constitution states that the provinces should have sufficient resources to provide “reasonably comparable services at reasonably comparable levels of taxation.”