Time For Tories To Drop Incrementalism

Published by at 3:14 pm under Governance

Gerry Nicholls

National Post Tuesday, October 21, 2008

With Stephane Dion shuffling off the political stage, the Conservative government must now come to grips with a new enemy. And I am not talking about Bob Rae or Margaret Atwood or a hostile left-wing media. The new enemy for the Conservatives is time; simply put they are running out of it.

Realistically speaking the Conservatives will be able to effectively govern this country for perhaps one more year. After that a revitalized Liberal party led by a shiny new leader, whose name isn’t Stephane Dion, will start to gum up the government’s Parliamentary agenda and perhaps even force an election. And because the Conservatives are running out of time, they have no choice but to abandon the grand political strategy they have been employing for the past two and half years.

This strategy is usually referred to as “incrementalism.” The chief proponent of incrementalism is former Conservative campaign manager Tom Flanagan and it’s essentially based on the idea that the Canadian public doesn’t really like conservative ideas or conservative polices.

Hence, according to Flanagan, if a Conservative government actually tried to feed the Canadian public a true conservative agenda the public would start to choke and this would necessitate some sort of gigantic national Heimlich manoeuvre.

To prevent this from happening, Flanagan and his incremantalist followers argue, the only way to introduce conservatism in Canada is for the government to feed it to the public in tiny little itsy-bitsy bites –bites so tiny you would need a microscope to see them. This is what I call a good news, bad news theory. The good news about this “go slow” incremental approach is it would indeed succeed in creating a conservative Canada; the bad news is it would take about 5,000 years.

And as already noted the government has considerably less than 5,000 years to implement an agenda. In other words, there is not enough time for conservative incrementalism. If the government truly wants to bring about conservative policies it must act quickly.

That means the Conservatives must soon do one or more of the following: cut taxes, make government smaller, reduce government spending, promote and protect individual freedoms. To put it another way, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has to put away his sweater-vest and stop trying to convince Canadians he is a warm and fuzzy guy. Instead he must start inspiring people with a conservative vision, a vision that’s an alternative to the tax-and-spend policies of the NDP and Liberals.

Who knows, maybe if he implemented a true conservative agenda, Prime Minister Harper might even win his coveted majority government in the next election. Then again, maybe he won’t. But at least he would have accomplished something while in power.

And isn’t that what politics is really supposed to be all about? It’s got to mean more than just winning elections or holding onto power for the sake of holding onto power. That’s how Liberals think. For conservatives, at least, politics should be about making Canada a freer and better place.

I realize, of course, that pushing a true conservative agenda would not be easy for the government. The easy thing to do would be to continue with the incremental approach and follow the path of least resistance. But taking the path of least resistance is not leadership.

Nor is it leadership to blindly following the dictates of public opinion polls or to abandon policies whenever a special interest group whines or to shamelessly pander to a particular province. A true leader stands for certain principles and then convinces others to support those principles.

Margaret Thatcher was a leader. Ronald Reagan was leader. In the last election, the Conservative party kept telling us Stephen Harper was a leader.

It’s time he proved it. – Gerry Nicholls is a freelance political consultant www.gerrynicholls.com.This column is adapted from remarks delivered at a recent Fraser Institute-sponsored event.
© National Post 2008