Wanted: Tory leadership candidates who are comfortable with their own philosophy

The 2017 Conservative Party of leadership campaign had sort of a soft launch in Ottawa over the weekend. In two separate sessions at the Manning Centre Conference, under the heading “If I run, here’s how I’d do it,” four serious potential candidates plus Kevin O’Leary laid down a bit of old time religion.

proposed defunding CBC’s television arm, on grounds it’s unfair and untenable to subsidize one “content provider” and not the others. stumped for a “simpler, fairer, flatter personal income tax system. proposed tossing the equalization formula out the window and ending business subsidies forever — yes, even for Bombardier.

“You need courage,” Bernier conceded to reporters after his speech. “Is it fair, when an entrepreneur in Saint-Georges-de-Beauce is paying higher taxes to give that to billionaires? That’s a question we must ask.”

Chris Roussakis/ National PostChris Roussakis/ National PostConservative MP Tony Clement talks with Preston Manning during the Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa on February 27, 2016.

In recent years, the Manning conference increasingly resembled “the Conservative party in exile,” as my colleague Andrew Coyne aptly put it two years ago. It was a place where conservatives said conservative things —down with supply management! No more subsidies! Get off my lawn, Big Brother! — that were impossible to square with what the federal Conservative party had become under .

At this year’s conference, the first post-Harper iteration, the most common refrain was that Canadian conservatives failed to advance conservative solutions to issues outside of their security economic wheelhouses — issues like poverty, climate change, the environment, the deplorable conditions on Canada’s worst-off First Nations.

“We simply cannot vacate these debates and allow our opponents to define (them),” said Clement.

Chris Roussakis/ National PostChris Roussakis/ National PostMP Michael Chong speaks during the first day of the Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa on February 26, 2016.

He’s right. But the situation is worse than he let on. Harper’s Conservatives weren’t good at explaining themselves even in their comfort zones. And outside their comfort zones, they were worse than silent. They allowed their opponents to exaggerate if not outright invent positions that will stick with the party long after a new leader takes over in May 2017.

Take immigration. Like every government, the Conservatives tweaked and fiddled. But in substance, it was more or less business as usual. From 1994 to 2005, the average annual number of new permanent residents in Canada was 727 per 100,000 population. From 2006 to 2014, it was 750.

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Yet many Canadians know the Conservatives as an anti-immigrant party, in part because smart, capable people like Jason Kenney made it far too easy to think that with their talk of “bogus refugees” and cutting health-care benefits to asylum-seekers.

Chris Roussakis/ National PostChris Roussakis/ National PostConservative MP Maxime Bernier shows off his “leadership pin” during the first day of the Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa on February 26, 2016.

Or take climate change. What were Canadians to make of a conservative government that claimed to be worried about climate change and determined to tackle greenhouse gas emissions, but that railed against exactly the market-based approaches — a price on carbon —that any sincere person in such a position would advocate? Many concluded the Tories didn’t actually care about it. And I think that was pretty reasonable.

Failing to advance one’s philosophy, and the solutions that derive from it, is an alarmingly basic failure for any movement. For conservatives at Manning to suggest they should now simply start doing it overlooks the burning question of why they haven’t been doing it for the better part of a decade.

As Clement noted during his speech, the is a young entity. It has had only one leader, and Harper’s controlling temperament may well have been beneficial in keeping the new coalition together thus far. But that coalition bottomed out in October in a very bitter, very unprincipled, very dumb place: a “barbaric cultural practices” snitch line, a Parti Québécois-style war on niqabis, a rally with the Catastrophe Brothers, Rob and Doug Ford.

For all his controlling ways, Harper never seemed comfortable among Canadians in his own philosophical skin. If his party didn’t advance conservative solutions, it often seemed it was because it didn’t think Canadians would buy them. The Tories need their next leader to be far comfortable in his or her own skin; far more willing to promote conservative solutions in non-traditional areas of focus; and far more able to explain his or her way out of the inevitable attacks from the left, as opposed to simply riposting.

Chris Roussakis/ National PostChris Roussakis/ National PostKevin O'Leary speaks to members of the media during a scrum at the Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa on February 26, 2016.

No one compellingly fits that bill right now. But even an extremely charismatic figure will have to deal with Harper’s extraordinarily divisive legacy — especially if he is a veteran of that era.

In an interview on Saturday at the Manning conference, Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown suggested Canadian conservatives need to get a handle on “empathy issues.” I asked him why they were such a problem. In the Ontario context, he mentioned clashes with teachers’, nurses’, and doctors’ unions “under a few of our predecessors.”

He didn’t say the words “Mike Harris,” but there is no question the former premier is still a problem for the Ontario Tories. There is no question Harper is just as divisive. Harris hasn’t been Premier of Ontario for nearly 14 years. Harper was PM four months ago.

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