With election parties winding up and its final media dregs drunk down, the new challenge of policy-making for a Harper majority government is coming into focus. Politicians returning to work in Ottawa this month will find a more relaxed, more confident environment, the sort of environment in which intelligent, focused policy thrives now that the distracting politics of minority scheming are gone. Bold ideas just might come to Ottawa this term—and not a moment too soon.
Some of those ideas won’t be any surprise. The Conservatives have laboured long for their coveted majority, and we can expect omnibus bills on crime, including sentencing and prison reform and tougher copyright laws. Other measures, like the minority misstep of ending the per-vote party subsidy, will slide into place in a majority. And of course Senators and Supreme Court judges will be appointed, which will hypocritically outrage everyone (and in fact, a younger Stephen Harper would have been outraged as well). This year, at least, there is probably no danger of running out of governance and appointment goodies on the Conservative wish list. We should be in for a very active session of Parliament.
But if the Harper minority government has been any indication, aside from a continued emphasis on prudent fiscal management, there may be a serious intellectual gap in the policy options of the Conservative party in the years to come. This election, while driven at times by strong personalities, also profiled some great policy ideas—which the Conservatives would do well to ponder.
In May’s Globe and Mail, Preston Manning argued that parties that have been long in office use up their intellectual capital and depend largely on the expropriation of ideas from elsewhere—civil service, academics, and think tanks. These parties grow dependent on government resources and attract star talent for power and prestige, rather than insight and creativity. This, he argues, is the legacy today’s Liberals have been handed to rebuild from and, perhaps more ominously, it could be one tomorrow’s Conservatives will face.
Majority government politics mean it’s time for the Conservatives to put away petty minority grievances and take a hard look at good ideas on their own merit. This doesn’t mean a line item adoption of New Democrat social spending, but it does mean taking seriously many of the concerns of Canada’s new official opposition. Conservatives may not care for their freewheeling tax-and-spend ethos, but they dare not ignore the perilously important issues that the New Democrats and other so-called social justice advocates are advancing. It’s not just ideological disagreement—it is a scandal when the reigning party of Canada has limited creative interventions on some of Canada’s most pressing social concerns.
This issue of Cardus Policy in Public is about sparking those interventions, taking a hard look at the overlap between ideas like the big society and social justice and very practically on their meaning for international governance, justice reform, urban renewal, child poverty and family politics. These are conversation starters, some of them borrowed from across the spectrum, but nonetheless critical for a sitting majority government to begin addressing in some coherent fashion. Absent in this issue but no less important are environmental and post-secondary reforms. Many of these were top priorities in the NDP and Liberal platforms. Conservatives may not like their cures, but they can hardly argue with the diagnosis. These are the struggling sectors of Canada’s social architecture. We dare not ignore them for four more years.
Preston Manning argued that the development of political intellectual capital, the expansion of knowledge and skills of political activists, and the increase of communications capacity must be the top priority of this new government. In other words, it’s time for new ideas and the courage to argue about them. Gone is the preoccupation with fighting elections or clever manipulation of Parliamentary procedure. And the political imagination we see over the next four years on these looming social issues will spell the success or failure of the Conservative party and the movement that surrounds it.
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