• Mar 02, 2023
  • Insights

Moving the Conservatives forward

Pierre Poilievre

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Written by Geoff Norquay. Published in Policy Magazine.

When Policy’s first issue was published, Justin Trudeau was on the cover as the newly selected Liberal leader and Stephen Harper was two years into his third term as Conservative prime minister. In the decade since, the federal Conservatives have had four leaders, including the current incumbent, Pierre Poilievre. Also in the past decade, longtime Tory strategist and senior adviser Geoff Norquay has provided our readers with a steady supply of deep insight on the party he knows better than just about any other Canadian.

As 2023 begins, Pierre Poilievre is settling in nicely as Conservative leader. In his new role, his presence in the House of Commons has focused Conservative criticisms of the government more tightly, while creating a more immediate dynamic with the prime minister in question period, and caucus remains disciplined. That’s a good start to build on, providing the Conservatives with the transition time to segue from opposing to proposing, from simply criticizing what the government is doing to presenting an alternative.

As much as some in the media might like it, chances of an election in the coming year are highly unlikely, and here’s why:

  • The Liberals are in the kind of patch that every mature government hits after seven or eight years in office, when tiredness and arrogance compete for branding prominence, where key files that have been smouldering burst into dumpster fires, and when bad judgments and ethical lapses become everyday headlines. Basic government services and systems – from health care, the processing of passports, visas and immigration cases, to airline regulation and passenger complaints and our “catch and release” bail system – continue to malfunction and underperform. The Liberals are no longer confronting mistakes made by past governments; they’re now having to fix their own. Their recent gun control fiasco in the House of Commons was a spectacular own-goal, managing to unite in opposition the Conservatives, the NDP, the Bloc, Liberal backbenchers and Indigenous leaders across the country. No mean feat!
  • The leaders of the two principal parties began the new year facing some personal challenges. An Angus Reid poll released in mid-December revealed that, “An emerging gender divide is unmistakable: Poilievre’s favourability is nearly twice as high among men (44 percent as women (23 percent ), while the inverse is true of Trudeau (35 percent  among men, 50 percent  among women).” And Nanos Research reported in early January that 51 percent of Canadians want to see a new Liberal leader before the next election. Clearly, both leaders need time to stabilize and strengthen their leadership positions before going to the polls.
  • In a minority House of Commons, forcing an election requires one or more of the parties to see a potential electoral advantage, but it is also a numbers game. With the Liberals currently holding 158 seats in a House with 338 seats — 12 seats short of a majority of 170 — it would take the Conservatives (117 seats) plus both the Bloc (32) and the NDP (25) to force an election. Barring something unforeseen, it’s difficult to think of an issue powerful enough to unite the opposition and overcome the fact that no party is either ready or desirous for a trip to the polls.

So, if there’s no election in 2023, what must the Conservatives do to get policy-ready for one in 2024 or 2025?

First, take their time. My several stints advising Conservative leaders of the opposition tell me the leader and caucus will face the perennial criticism that they are moving too slowly in developing and revealing policy. Party supporters will wave their hands and shout, “Just release the platform now and you will jump ahead in the polls,” but that’s the wrong approach.

For the next year, the Conservatives should stick with hanging the pain of inflation and the Liberals’ incompetence in running the country on the government: passports that arrive late, air passenger complaints that are never heard, violent offenders that don’t stay in custody. In the meantime, build the platform.

Party activists are true believers, watching every word uttered by the leader, and they are convinced the platform will sweep the country with its brilliance. The voters? Not so much. With no election in sight, they are just worried about the rising cost of living, their job security, car payments and getting the kids off to school and day care on time. Besides, a platform released months, if not years, ahead of an election is just an easy target for criticism and the appropriation of good ideas by the Liberals.

The cost of living and “stuff that’s broken”: Poilievre has hit a nerve with his “broken Canada” theme, for the obvious reason that lots of programs and services are simply not working well right now. There’s an old adage the Conservatives should remember: “When your opponent is busy digging himself a hole, don’t interrupt.” For the next year, the Conservatives should stick with hanging the pain of inflation and the Liberals’ incompetence in running the country on the government: passports that arrive late, air passenger complaints that are never heard, violent offenders that don’t stay in custody. In the meantime, build the platform. 

What should that platform look like? Here are some suggestions.

Climate change: Canadians overwhelmingly want to see progress on climate change and the environment, but they are pretty forgiving on performance; for a generation, they haven’t penalized the Liberals for promising the moon and accomplishing next to nothing. That said, voters do demand that the Conservatives at least try. As Conservatives for Clean Growth have argued, one possible starting point is the diversity and creativity with which the provinces have already developed climate policies to meet the needs of their own regional economies. As the group suggests, “Conservatives need to stop focusing our climate policy on what we are against. Instead, focus on what Canada does best, from developing and exporting clean fuels and minerals, to building the cars of the future.”

While taking down the “carbon tax” is a favourite of many Conservative supporters, the party needs to heed a recent warning from the Canadian Climate Institute, that “the chance that future governments might change course makes investments riskier and capital harder to raise.” Above all, the Canadian energy sector just wants a predictable set of policies that provide and room to plan. Do we really want to dump a bunch of new assumptions on them? A complicating factor for the Conservatives is the recent poll that found that a strong majority of Quebecers (71 percent) are much more supportive of climate action than those living in the rest of Canada (48 percent).

Productivity, competition and innovation: Canada’s public policies regulating commerce and business are incredibly interventionist and protectionist with the result that our productivity is pathetic compared to our trading partners, and our comparative standard of living continues to decline. A 2020 OECD analysis of product market regulation across countries indicates that Canadian government intervention in economic activity “creates more distortions than elsewhere in the West. In addition, barriers to entry into Canada are more numerous than elsewhere, significantly more restrictive, and the regulatory framework is generally more restrictive.” This has created “a thicket of regulations, patents, tariffs, occupational licensing rules, restrictions on foreign investment, and price-fixing to shelter firms from competition.” As a result, our “success” in benefiting from free trade with the United States is largely “due to the depreciation of the Canadian dollar, rather than to the quality and quantity of Canadian investment and innovation.”

Speaking of innovation, all these regulations and rules stifle it. The Liberals have spent billions on program after program to encourage the private sector to innovate with little result. From the “Superclusters” to the Canadian Innovation and Investment Agency that is currently being created, these approaches have yielded minimal results, because they don’t enable innovation and growth in the Canadian economy. They should all be put out of existence. Pierre Poilievre has spoken convincingly of making Canada the freest country in the world; his platform should redeem that promise by dismantling some of the regulatory barriers to unleash competition and support entrepreneurship and economic growth.

Consumers first: Simply put, the next Conservative platform should put competition and consumers back in the centre of Canada’s economic strategy, and finally, once and for all, dismantle interprovincial trade barriers. A 2021 report by Deloitte found that “regulations on interprovincial trade impose the equivalent of a 6.9 percent tariff on goods across Canada – a premium almost two percentage points higher than our current GST rate.” The benefits of removing these barriers could include a rise in GDP of $80 billion, or 3.8 percent, an increase in average wages of 5.5 percent or about $1,800 per person; and higher government revenues of 4.4 percent. Promise it, do it, and Canadians will thank you for it.

Open the borders: In many sectors of the Canadian economy, foreign competition is effectively barred by federal regulation. As Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne recently argued, with consumers first, “competition forces producers into an endless search for ways to improve customer service; if one company doesn’t give them satisfaction, another will. Regulation, on the other hand, gives producers no incentive to please consumers, but only to do the minimum necessary to keep the regulators at bay.” This situation cries out for a stark policy contrast with the Liberals: what better place to start than with cabotage to introduce foreign competition for Canada’s domestic airlines, who continue to abuse and victimize passengers after receiving billions of taxpayer dollars in pandemic bailouts.

Supply management: Finally, if the party really wants to create a “true blue” platform and present a real alternative to voters, they should take a deep breath and confront supply management. Pre-pandemic research found that the average Canadian household paid an extra $300 to $444 a year due to the system. Between September 2021 and September 2022, food prices increased by 11.4 percent year over year in Canada, the fastest pace since 1981. In the same period, supply managed commodities led the way on higher prices: the poultry index: +13.7 percent, the eggs index: +15.5 percent and the dairy index: +11.0 percent.

New Zealand phased out supply management in the 1980s and today, its milk producers export 95 percent of their production through a producer-owned cooperative. Those exports were worth a whopping NZ$11.9 billion last year and were the country’s biggest single export earner. And into the bargain, New Zealanders pay less than half of what Canadians pay for milk.

To be sure, buying out the contracts for the farm families who have come to depend on supply management for their economic futures would cost many billions of dollars and take some years for transition out of the current system. The money to pay for this transition would come from the increased revenue resulting from the deregulation of business described above. Ditching supply management would be a down payment on permanent cheaper food prices for all Canadians and manufacturers of food products and remove a constant irritant in our international trade relations. It would also be a clear signal that Canada believes in putting consumers first, freer markets and a more open economy.

A platform of ideas is one essential to winning an election. A program of fixes is another.

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