Tom Long on Ontario Conservatism

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Seize the agenda and succeed
National Post. April 6, 2009.

The following is an edited excerpt of Tom Long’s recent presentation to the Manning Networking Conference and Exhibition in Ottawa.

The dominant Tory assumption has been that the way to victory is to force the Liberals left by moving to the centre.

My mission is to try and explain what conservatism means in the province of Ontario. What does conservatism mean in a province which is as geographically dispersed, as highly urbanized and as diverse as Ontario? In the political timeline that I have been active, our conservatism has resolved itself into two major streams. One is a progressive strain and the other is an unhyphenated conservatism strain.

The progressive strain has been the dominant strain in provincial politics for a long time. For 42 years we conservatives were the government of the province of Ontario and had largely a progressive point of view. Progressives make some fundamental assumptions. The first assumption is that there is going to be an inexorable drift in terms of public policy making to the left. And our job is to inject some prudence into that process. The best example I can give you is before we lost majority government in 1975 and the Stephen Lewis New Democrats held the balance of power.

We were very quick to implement rent controls in Ontario. Privately, the senior members of the Progressive Conservative government were quite clear that they had no faith that rent controls work. But, they said, rent controls are inevitable and it is much better if we are in power and we are the ones implementing them than if we let the other guys do it.

The second assumption progressives have made in our movement in Ontario is that all voters are in the centre and the way to political victory is to tie down the right but then move as quickly as you can to the centre to force the Liberals left. Senator Hugh Segal used to tell the story of how premier Bill Davis, when he got the sense that the right wing was getting a little cranky, used to go out and declare that the monarchy was under attack and then he’d organize a province-wide campaign to defend it.

We saw brief flashes of the other strain of conservatism in Ontario, the unhyphenated conservatism, in the 1980s. But it was really tested from 1990 through 2002 when Mike Harris was leader of the party. The assumptions that this strain of conservatism makes are fundamentally different from the ones the progressive strain of conservatism would make.

In the Harris years, the first assumption we made is that conservative ideas are not only politically viable but they are absolutely necessary to ensure that our province is put on the path to prosperity. There was considerable effort not only to identify policies but to ensure we were prepared to do the heavy lifting necessary to go out and sell them. So the policies that I would highlight would be injecting quality into public education and health care, powerful tax cuts to create economic growth and jobs, an end to unfair hiring quotas, a repeal of Bob Rae’s labour legislation and respect for the institutions of law and order in the province.

The second assumption that we made is that there is a viable conservative coalition in the province of Ontario that can deliver a majority government and is sustainable over time. That required a realignment of political thinking in Ontario and political identification in Ontario. That meant seizing the agenda. This strain of conservatism believes that specificity is your friend and being bold and clear, and being prepared to stand up and sell these ideas, is the way to political success.

The two strains have typically come together and clashed within our party over the argument of who can make our party relevant in terms of urban voters, female voters and visible minority voters. For 42 years our party has taken tremendous efforts to attract all of these voters. Under Mike Harris we were able to win 45% of the vote in two successful campaigns. In 1995 we won one half of the seats in the “416” area — the core Toronto part of the GTA. In 1999 after four years of government, and after a lot of controversy and a hard fought campaign, Mike Harris held on to one third of the seats. We have won none of those seats since Mike Harris has been premier despite the fact that we have had two leaders from the progressive wing of the party who ran on the idea that only they could make us relevant.

Tom Long is a director of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy. He chaired former Ontario premier Mike Harris’s victorious 1995 and 1999 campaigns.

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