Updated: Feb 22, 2021
By Luke Montalbano
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“The Conservatives are a moderate, pragmatic, mainstream party - as old as Confederation - that sits squarely in the centre of Canadian politics. …There is no place for the far right in our party.” This defining statement of the present-day Canadian Conservative Party is being emphatically declared by the party’s leader, Erin O’Toole, and in response to the ejection of a far-right member of the party. This statement - alongside his policy platform - marks a dramatic shift away from the Scheer and Harper-Era social conservatism and most importantly, from the influence of Republican-Esque conservative populism.
In contrast, many American conservatives, most notably the former President of the United States, Donald Trump, have refused to disavow the far-right extremists within their own party. In the United States, it appears that the Republicans have shifted away from the centrist policies of John McCain and George H.W. Bush and firmly cemented themselves on the far right of the political spectrum.
With Trump having dominated the news cycles for the past 4 years, Canadian-style conservatism has been overshadowed by its American counterpart and somewhat defined by it. The Conservative Party of Canada’s inability to distinguish itself from the Republican Party mortally wounded Andrew Scheer’s campaign in the 2019 Federal Election. Apparently learning from these mistakes, Mr. O’Toole has positioned himself firmly on the centre to centre-right of the political spectrum -when reviewed objectively, the “centre to centre-right” in Canada can mean different policy prescriptions than that of the “centre to centre-right” in the USA. This article is dedicated to analyzing the differences and similarities of the two conservatisms.
The Economy and the Budget
American conservatism has been defined by supply-side economics, fiscal prudence, low taxation and few government social programs. These policies were inspired by Reagan-era deregulation and the subsequent boom in the US economy and were further implemented by former President, Donald Trump’s administration.
The “supply-side economics” implemented under the Reagan administration between 1981 and 1989 - although one of the most complex economic systems to date - can be focused squarely on three major aspects: deregulation, tax cuts and fiscal restraint. Interestingly, the British conservative movement, along with the West German conservative movement, took lessons from “Reaganomics” and applied it to their own beliefs. Despite this significant shift towards supply-side economics by global conservative movements during the late-cold war period, there was one outlier: the Canadian Progressive Conservative Party.
In 1984, the Progressive Conservative Party, led by Brian Mulroney, won one of the largest electoral victories in Canadian history. Mulroney won the popular vote in every province and had formed the largest caucus ever in Canadian parliamentary history (211 Members of Parliament out of 282 available). As Prime Minister, Mulroney became close with the President of the United States and took inspiration from much of Reagan’s foreign policy, yet was determined to distinguish his party’s social and economic policies from those implemented by Reagan. This social and economic distinction is important because it determined the outcome of Canadian conservative economic and social policies that remain today.
Mr. Mulroney pivoted on Reaganomics by introducing a Goods and Services Tax, and standing for prudent and solvent social programs - such as a Single Payer healthcare system - as well as advocating for environmental regulation, most notably, the Acid Rain agreement and, further, the ratification of the biodiversity and the climate change conventions.
The effects of Reagan and Mulroney on their respective parties continue to last to the present day. Arguably, the policies of the modern Canadian Conservative Party can be linked to that of the George H.W. Bush administration (1989-1993) as identified by the lack of support for supply-side economics and belief in fiscal prudence with a focus on balanced budgetary spending.
The social policy differences between Canadian and American conservatives can be best described as being almost polar opposites on most issues. The most notable examples are issues surrounding abortion, climate change, and indigenous and LGBTQ rights.
American conservative social values have been shaped by the Reagan-era and have tended to stay consistent with his religious beliefs concerning abortion rights. In fact, according to Pew Research, 64% of Republicans agree with their party platform on abortion. This party platform believes in defunding planned parenthood and implementing further restrictions on abortion access. In relation to LGBTQ rights, the Republican policy has generally opposed same-sex marriage and transgender individuals. It appeared that between 2008 and 2012, the Republican rhetoric in opposition to LGBTQ rights was softening due to the leadership of John McCain and Mitt Romney but alas, these changes were not to stay. The policy of “take-no-action” soon was swiftly reversed by Donald Trump once he became president. In fact, Former President Donald Trump took immediate action to implement measures to discourage LGBTQ individuals from partaking in government and the military (e.g. Transgender military ban).
Immigration policy was deeply affected by the Trump administration, where his radical proposals of border walls and dramatic decreases in immigrants resonated with many Republicans and would-be Republican voters. Canadian Conservative Party policy on immigration has often been drawn from the policies of Reagan and Bush Jr. in the aim of decreasing immigration, especially that of refugees and those seeking blue-collar jobs - today it does stop short of Trump’s controversial legacy.
On the topic of abortion, the Canadian Conservative Party has generally been less outspoken against abortion access, even with social conservatives such as leadership candidate Leslyn Lewis not taking drastic measures to restrict abortion entirely. The leader of the Conservative Party, Erin O’Toole, has stated that he is openly pro-choice and will personally vote against any bill that attempts to restrict abortion access.
On the subject of LGBTQ rights, Erin O’Toole is supportive of LGBTQ rights, with one of the most progressive voting records, on the issue, in the Conservative Party. In contrast, The Republican Party is seemingly silent on the issue, and in some cases, such as transgender people in the military, openly hostile.
It is clear that, although the Canadian Conservative Party has a large base of social conservatives, it still stands beside the rights of the LGBTQ community and will ensure that safe abortion access is available to Canadians. The Republican Party, in contrast, is opposite to the Canadian conservative stance, believing in restrictions on abortion access and LGBTQ rights.
The environment is an issue in which modern American and Canadian conservatives often agree. For much of history, Republicans have supported deregulation of the economy (with two exceptions being Richard Nixon and George HW Bush) and incentives for fossil fuel companies and the manufacturing industry. One may argue that these incentives have been necessary to compete with the manufacturing advantages (low labour costs and modern facilities) of Mexico and the People’s Republic of China. Although both parties have stated they have a strong climate plan, it often lacks substance and is simply fueled by tax breaks and lacklustre incentives for corporations and energy companies.
The United States, under the leadership of a Republican supermajority (controlling the house, senate and presidency): withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, attempted to repeal fuel efficiency regulation, and repealed the Clean Power Plan and replaced it with a weak Affordable Clean Energy Rule.
The climate plan of the Canadian Conservative Party during the 2019 federal election was given a “D-rating” for ambition and an “F-rating” for feasibility by a leading media publication where the conclusion was as follows: “by getting rid of the current carbon pricing system and replacing it with largely optional incentives, the CPC plan is more likely to increase Canada’s carbon emissions than decrease them.”
The Conservative Party of Canada and the Republican Party of the United States have recently travelled very similar paths after casting away the pro-regulatory policies of President Bush Sr. and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Seemingly, to satisfy a dogmatic wing of their respective parties, they have endorsed almost complete neglect of the environment with a lack of policy alternatives to slow the onslaught of a climate catastrophe.
Most recently, the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada has promised a renewed and strong stance on climate change. This promise may simply be equivocation in an attempt to garner disenchanted Liberal voters. If proven to be true, a focus on the environment will be a significant point of differentiation between Canadian and American conservatives.
The Bottom Line
The two conservative parties of America and Canada are often thought to be one and the same, but it must be noted that their economic, social and environmental policies differ dramatically. The lack of support for supply-side economics along with socially moderate policies (such as the Conservative Party’s unconditional support for Universal Healthcare) arguably makes the Conservative Party of Canada more similar to the moderate Democrats of the United States than that of the Republican Party as a whole.
Canadian media and partisan supporters claim there is very little distinguishing the Conservative Party of Canada from that of the Republican Party. The evidence to prove their differences is clear. The party must successfully convince the Canadian electorate that the Conservative Party of Canada and the Republican Party are not one and the same.
Written by writer Luke Montalbano