Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives showed a new face during the recent campaign. A surprisingly progressive one. The leader said the party has let Canadians down, citing climate policies and engaging with working Canadian and union leaders. Not only the electorate was surprised. Many Conservatives were as well. When did we start supporting a carbon tax? they asked. Since when did we want to get chummy with labour unions?
Apparently this is causing some distress to many members of the party. Some, particularly social conservatives, don’t much like it at all. There are concerns it will drive the base toward Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party.
Nonetheless, O’Toole seems committed to change. As he said during the campaign, “We’re not your dad’s Conservative party anymore.” What he was actually saying, I expect, was that they are not Stephen Harper’s party anymore.
And his new version certainly isn’t. But it could be Brian Mulroney’s party. Or John Diefenbaker’s party. It could, in other words, be what was once the Progressive Conservative Party. The party that existed before the Reform Party swallowed it whole.
Brian Mulroney’s party, for instance, formed perhaps the most environmentally-committed government we’ve ever had. He was named the “greenest” prime minister in Canadian history by prominent environmentalists for such achievements as initiating the acid rain accord with the Americans and for introducing measures to fight ozone depletion. We shouldn’t be surprised—conservative is, after all, almost the same word as conservationist.
John Diefenbaker’s government included one of our most successful ministers of labour. Michael Starr was a true friend to working people and developed a solid rapport with unions. He had a special concern for the unemployed and worked to extend unemployment benefits to women and seasonal workers. Conservatives could, at one time, accept that unions were an integral part of a modern economy.
So is what was old now new? Is Mr. O’Toole bringing back a progressive conservative party? We can only hope.