Sean SpeerSean Speer argues that conservatives should draw on the enthusiasm, diversity and unity at the Manning Centre conference to build a fundamental reorientation of government towards limited spending.

By Sean Speer, March 3, 2017

This past weekend’s Manning Centre conference in Ottawa was a chance for conservatives, libertarians, and others who make up Canada’s centre-right movement to assess the current state of the country’s intellectual and political life.

There are reasons to be pessimistic. Hard-fought battles on taxes and spending are being reversed. Public support for free trade and free markets can no longer be taken for granted. A fracturing of conservatism in the United States has spilled into Canada creating new fissures along populist and cultural lines.

But there are also glimmers of hope. Enthusiasm is high. Diversity of opinion is present. And unity has thus far endured an election defeat and a federal leadership campaign.

These ingredients are essential but insufficient. Conservatives must also build out a concrete vision and accompanying agenda that speaks not just to Manning conference attendees but to regular folks in large and small communities across the country.

Enthusiasm is high. Diversity of opinion is present. And unity has thus far endured an election defeat and a federal leadership campaign.

This is not yet another call for moderation or “me-too” conservatism. It’s an encouragement to refocus from 35,000 feet to ground level in order to present a positive programme. An effective conservatism must be more than slogans about freedom and values. It must apply those first principles to practical matters facing regular people.

The federal budget deficit is a good example. Of course, conservatives must build the basic case against deficits and debt. Citing the cost of government debt for instance is essential to helping people understand that borrowing and spending carries considerable and immediate costs.

But the case must be broadened and granularized. One of the reasons the current government’s deficit pledge was broadly accepted in the last election is that conservatives let the soundness of our public finances serve as the only real test for whether spending increases were justifiable.

The debate became limited to the extent to which spending hikes increased the debt-to-GDP ratio. As long as it didn’t, any new spending was seemingly defensible.

But the principal problem with higher spending, ongoing budgetary deficits, and greater debt accumulation isn’t that it marginally changes the debt-to-GDP ratio. It’s that so much of it is counterproductive.

Deficits and debt are the output. Spending on wrong-headed programs and services is the input. Those concerned with smaller government, lower taxes, and sound public finances can no longer afford to just challenge the macro figures. Conservatives must get at what government does, why it does it, and how it does it.

Meaningful change will require a more fundamental reorientation of government and a concrete plan to achieve it.

It doesn’t come natural. Conservatives don’t tend to have technocratic instincts. But the case for limited government requires specifics about what the government should do and not do, and a positive vision about what it means for communities, families, and individuals.

Generalities about corporate welfare and government waste simply won’t cut it. These expenditures should of course be cut but they’re ultimately a drop in the bucket.

Meaningful change will require a more fundamental reorientation of government and a concrete plan to achieve it. Real progress must involve an exercise in statecraft.

Conservatives should be up to the challenge. The enthusiasm, diversity, and unity displayed last weekend is a positive sign. It’s now important to focus these sentiments in a constructive direction. Building a positive vision for a limited government that speaks to all Canadians is a key step.

Sean Speer is a Munk senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

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