Ideological Forests vs. Partisan Trees

  • National Newswatch

By Gerry Nicholls | March 06, 2013 The Manning Centre for Building Democracy, a conservative group, is a Holding a big conference in Ottawa this weekend to showcase brilliant thinkers.Naturally, that rules me out.However, if because of some colossal mistake on the part of the organizers, I was participating at the Manning Centre conference, I would give a speech called "Missing the Ideological Forest for the Partisan Trees."And no, it wouldn't be a call for a right wing arboretum.Rather, I would bemoan, in my nagging but adorable sort of way, the growing tendency of Canadian conservatives to miss the big picture, to focus so much on political partisanship, that they are losing sight of the need to promote principles and values.Certain conservative groups, in other words, seem to care more about helping the Conservative Party than they do about winning the war of ideas.Take, for instance, a group I used to work for, the National Citizens Coalition. In theory, the NCC is supposed to promote "more freedom through less government."Yet, in the past five years or so, it has basically transformed itself into something akin to a Conservative Party vassal.Yes from time to time the NCC will mildly wag a finger at Conservatives, but more commonly it wages partisan-style battles to bolster Prime Minister Stephen Harper and to bash his enemies.We saw one egregious example of this tendency early last year when the NCC ran a negative Youtube ad attacking interim Liberal leader Bob Rae for deficits he amassed while Ontario Premier in the 1990s.Now, it might have made sense for the NCC to run such an ad twenty years ago, but why spend money and energy going after the leader of a third place party, which at the time was languishing in the polls, three years before an election?I suspect for the NCC, hitting Rae was more about politics than ideology.Now it's true, when I worked at the NCC we did on occasion target politicians who we believed were advancing a dangerous agenda, but we did so on a non-partisan basis. Ideas mattered more to us than party labels.Plus, we devoted much more of our resources to advancing the idea of freedom. We launched constitutional court challenges to protect free expression and to promote the rights of unionized employees; we brought privatization experts to Canada from all over the world to speak at conferences and go on speaking tours; we helped organize international rallies opposing Soviet totalitarianism.When was the last time the NCC launched a court challenge or sponsored a conference or ran any serious media campaign to advocate a principled conservative stance?And it's not just the NCC.Another conservative group that has fallen into the partisan trap is the aforementioned Manning Centre.Yes, it's annual "networking" conference is a wonderful event, with great speakers and fascinating discussions.But the group's other big project is its "school of practical politics."The idea behind this concept is to teach candidates, volunteers, campaign managers and other operatives in the fine art of political campaigning.To put it another way, the Manning Centre churns out legions of trained ground troops to wage partisan war in the political trenches.Should helping politicians get elected really be a primary goal for a conservative, ideas-oriented organization?I don't think so.After all, candidates, campaign managers, volunteers and other operatives working on a political campaign actually expend little thought on how to promote the ideas of Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek.Their main goals are to a) get elected and b) stay elected and often ideology just gets in the way of both "a" and "b".In fact, history is full of examples of supposedly conservative governments doing decidedly unconservative things. (See the example of our own Conservative government's massive budgetary deficits.)So, in short, helping the Conservative Party is often not the same thing as helping the conservative cause.Besides, the Conservative Party doesn't need outside groups to train its candidates or fight its partisan battles. It's a well-financed, powerful organization that's doing very well on its own, thank you very much.This is why groups like the NCC and the Manning Centre should avoid partisanship and concentrate instead on promoting conservative ideals, like ending forced unionism, promoting private property rights, advancing school choice and advocating for market-friendly health care reforms.In fact, there are lots of dragons out there that need slaying.Just because conservatives in Canada are winning the political wars (at least federally), doesn't mean we are also winning the more crucial ideological wars.In case no one has noticed governments keep getting bigger and more interventionist, it's now trendier than ever to view capitalism with suspicion and every day it seems the state erodes more of our precious freedoms.This situation won't change if conservative groups identify themselves solely with a single party.To truly make a difference, they have to duke it out in the arena of ideas as independent, principled voices. That means, by the way, being willing to criticize the Conservative Party when it diverts from the right ideological path.The point I'm trying to make is that the conservative movement's ultimate goal should be to win converts to our cause, to create a society where all political parties accept the ideas of freedom.Imagine an election where every party leader promised to promote free markets, individual liberty and smaller government!Of course, we will likely never achieve that lofty - some might say " idealistic" -- goal, but it's what we should be striving for.To be blunt: we shouldn't be content with just getting our friends elected.Admittedly, selling conservative principles isn't as easy as say, attacking Bob Rae or teaching people how to gather voter ID, but difficult or not, it's what we must do to safeguard our cherished values and ideals.If we don't fight for our principles, who will?As former US president Ronald Reagan once said, "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction."Of course, if I were to bring up all these ideas at the Manning Centre conference, I would have to conclude my speech with my own inspirational words: "Please stop booing me!"About GerryGerry Nicholls is a communications consultant and writer who has been called a “political warrior” a “brilliant strategist” and one of the “canniest political observers in Canada.”He has worked as a consultant in both the United States and Canada and was formerly a senior officer in the National Citizens Coalition, Canada's largest organization for the defence of economic and political freedoms.A regular columnist with the Ottawa Hill Times, his work has also appeared in the Globe and Mail, the National Post , National NewsWatch and in the Sun Media chain; and he has appeared on countless TV and radio public affairs programs.