New Conservative leader Erin O’Toole is taking steps to provide our party with sharper philosophical definition. He is seeking to create a clearer sense in the public’s mind of what the Conservative Party of Canada means by “conservative”. These steps are vitally important; they will expand our party’s electoral support, but they are also necessary for the party itself to have a coherent sense of its own philosophy and objectives.
Conservatives generally advocate for policies that constrain the size or at least the growth of government, that seek to preserve long-standing practices and institutions, and that defend the role of family and the private sector in society. But these are not just an arbitrary collection of preferences and attachments—rather, they stem from a unified philosophical tradition that defines the conservative approach to a broad range of issues.
Conservatives believe that human happiness is most likely to be achieved in social environments thick with supportive networks and organizations. These networks provide support to individuals and they invite those individuals to act with commitment and support for one another. These networks include families (nuclear and extended), faith groups, service clubs, sports teams, cultural and linguistic associations, and yes, unions. These networks provide us with the chance to be a part of something greater than ourselves. They give us support when we experience hardship, as well as opportunities to assist others whose needs we can better understand and respond to because of our pre-existing shared connections.
In a social environment which is sufficiently thick with these networks, different communities are also able to pick up the slack from one another. A hockey coach can step in when a dad drops the ball, or a cultural association can provide academic mentorship which is not available at school.
Not everyone is going to like or want to be a part of every available community. An atheist might not like the activities of a faith group, and a libertarian might not like the role played by a union. But the point is that a society with many different kinds of networks and associations is more conducive to human happiness in general than one without such networks, because it gives different people opportunities for connection with different kinds of communities as suits their needs and preferences.
Unfortunately, we live in a society where community networks have been breaking down. Participation and connection through almost all these different kinds of structures are not what they used to be. This leads to greater pressure on government to address human needs, and it also leads to people being left behind.
Throughout 2020, we have seen how needs are growing, and how governments simply do not have the capacity to respond to those needs. Fiscal limits exist, and even the tax increases proposed by the most radical actors in Canadian politics do not come close to making up the current fiscal shortfall. In response to these challenges, we must assert a principled Conservative commitment to reviving community structures. We will work to strengthen community networks because we recognize the need for these communities and the ways that they reduce the burden on government services over time. Conservatives who understand the importance of supply and demand appreciate that those who wish to reduce the supply of government need to also work to reduce the demand for government.
Some of the more negative reaction to Erin O’Toole’s discussion of reviving community is a result of misunderstanding the difference between how conservatives and leftists define certain concepts. For example, O’Toole recently spoke about the importance of “solidarity.” For those on the left, solidarity is expressed in a demand for government to do more in the lives of vulnerable people. But conservatives see solidarity as a virtue of communities, acting cooperatively to better the lives of each other.
This principled Conservative vision is the most authentically conservative approach possible. It rejects the idea that conservatism is merely another materialist philosophy about the best way to grow and distribute wealth. It seeks to put the focus not on materialism, but on the cultivation of happiness through the creation of strong communities. This is the vision that Canada needs, this is the vision that the Conservative Party under Erin O’Toole stands for, and this is the vision that has animated conservative thinkers and activists for a very long time.
Garnett Genuis, Member of Parliament for Sherwood Park—Fort Saskatchewan.
Conservative Shadow Minister for International Development & Human Rights.