What to do with Canada's forgotten conservatives?

“Sunny ways” notwithstanding, the political process in a democracy is rarely pretty. It’s messy, frustrating, moody, inconsistent, and often strewn with the discarded bodies of both good and bad ideas. Individuals and parties are regularly cast into the wilderness. To echo a pessimistic cliché, politics is a zero-sum game in which winning is everything and losing is the equivalent of complete failure. There is no meaningful second place. The political wasteland is filled with people who dreamed big, reached for the stars, and missed spectacularly.

Such is the case with a relatively small but politically significant section of Canada’s electorate. I could call them red Tories or moderate conservatives, but neither term would really do this group justice. (I would cast myself in this camp.)

These individuals generally are united by a strong, yet restrained belief in the power of free markets, an assertive but not obstinate distrust of big government, an uncompromising belief in the positive power of immigration and openness in all its forms, and a subtle but foundational faith in the power of individual rights.

Once upon a time, we would have called these people liberals, and there are members of the Liberal caucus who likely fall within the ideological boundaries of this broad group, despite their political affiliations. (I’m looking at you, Scott Brison.) In terms of style, this group prides itself on a moral code centred on basic civic virtues, political engagement, honesty and decency, merit and capability over fame and glitz.

In the areas of income inequality (considered bad) and climate change (obviously real), many members of this group would probably have more in common with the NDP’s Tom Mulcair than they would with most of the people running for the leadership of the Conservative Party (albeit more in terms of diagnosis than prescription). Many of these individuals — myself included — cautiously voted for Paul Martin back in 2003 and even again in 2006, despite serious misgivings. Some even voted for the Liberals in 2015.

Most Canadian political experts will tell you the Stephen Harper era redrew the Canadian political map by creating a “big tent” Conservative Party. Except the tent only was expanded so far. As the Harper era moved into its final years, and as the 2015 election revealed in the party a strange ugliness and pessimism that some always had suspected, many moderate conservatives threw their hands in the air and accepted the marginalization of their values. Forced to choose between a Liberal Party preaching the gospel of government and a Conservative Party increasingly willing to embrace its own worst demons, these forgotten conservatives just gave up hope.

But there are indications this group is coming back to life. A recent call-to-arms by Maclean’s columnist and conservative Scott Gilmore has gone so far as to call for a discussion on creating a new, centre-right federal party. His suggestion seems to have hit a nerve for Canada’s forgotten conservatives: within hours of the article’s appearance, a new website appeared, with apparently hundreds of individuals registering their desire to join Gilmore in his possibly quixotic but undeniably noble pursuit. (Some more disclosure: I’m one of these individuals.)

The extent to which calls for change become a real force will depend very much on how the final months of the Conservative leadership race play out. With moderates such as Michael Chong and Lisa Raitt relegated to the second tier of popularity and support, and with polarizing and often unpleasant candidates such as Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary soaking up much of the attention, things don’t look good.

In Britain, people like me would probably already have flocked to the politically moribund but ideologically sound Liberal Democrats, one of the few “centrist” parties left in the Anglosphere. Whether a Canadian Lib-Dem option is necessary is not yet clear, but a new centre-right party might be just what Canada needs to jumpstart a genuine and clear-headed debate about the country’s future.

Mischa Kaplan is an ­Ottawa business owner

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