Since it began, the federal Conservatives' leadership race has attracted little public interest -- a reflection of the Tories' lack of high-profile candidates and poor standing in the House of Commons. Thus, Monday's by-election win in Ontario's Perth-Middlesex riding could not have come at a better time for the party. The Tories now control 15 seats in Parliament -- still a meager total, but enough to pull ahead of the NDP into fourth place.
There is room for growth, too: The fact Conservative candidate Gary Schellenberger outpolled his Canadian Alliance rival by a ratio of nearly 2:1 suggests many Ontario voters may be coming to see the Tories as the most viable alternative to the Liberals.
The Conservatives will now ride a small wave of momentum into their leadership convention, to be held in Toronto at the end of May. But if this is to be more than a temporary uptick, the party must change its ways.
Since falling out of power a decade ago, the Conservatives have consistently failed to present Canadians with anything resembling a coherent vision for the country. To contend seriously in the next election, they must be willing to take some risks and advance an innovative platform.
Unfortunately, Peter MacKay, the Tory leadership front-runner, has thus far displayed a troubling inclination to play it safe. Rather than running a campaign of ideas, Mr. MacKay's main priority evidently is to avoid offending any of his supporters. This strategy may win him the leadership, but it will do little to capture the attention of mainstream voters. For that, the Tories might do better to look to one of Mr. MacKay's leadership rivals, fellow Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison.
In a meeting this week with our editorial board, Mr. Brison laid out the boldest and most sensible platform we have heard from any federal candidate -- Tory or otherwise. Unlike leadership contenders who insist they will defer to their caucus or "grassroots" before formulating an agenda, Mr. Brison had a clear answer for every question we asked. Better still, he came equipped with plenty of his own fresh ideas.
To reduce Canada's tax burden, Mr. Brison is offering a systemic overhaul of the federal system. Among the highlights are the immediate elimination of the capital and personal capital gains taxes; increasing the basic personal exemption to $12,000 from $7,400; a change in our tax brackets to bring us in line with other countries; a major increase in RRSP limits; and the implementation of a youth tax credit system to help keep and attract young talent.
Mr. Brison also seeks to replace regional welfare programs like the Atlantic Canadian Opportunities Agency with an investment tax credit system. The change would provide sweeping tax relief to local economies in poor areas -- while eliminating existing boondoggles. His ideas on EI reform, too complex to summarize here, are equally innovative.
On health care, Mr. Brison stands apart from 95% of Canadian politicians: He is unafraid to make a strong, principled case for greater private sector involvement. He is even open-minded to the virtues of "two-tier" care. Mr. Brison was the first PC leadership candidate to endorse Canadian involvement in the Iraq war. Rather than paying homage to "multilateralism" as other federal politicians do, he has adopted as his foreign-policy centrepiece a Canada-U.S. "Partnership on Security and Economic co-operation." From the obvious (joint participation in missile defence and perimeter security) to the ingenious (the streamlining of regulatory procedures for pharmaceutical and other products, a resource security pact and co-operation on environmental protection), Mr. Brison has many ideas about how Canadian interests could be pursued even as we rebuild relations with our closest ally and trading partner.
On the social issues that tend to divide conservatives, Mr. Brison is more clear-headed -- and more progressive -- than most. He supports the push to decriminalize marijuana, for instance. Regarding the gay marriage issue, he wants the state removed from the marriage business altogether. While Ottawa would register heterosexual and homosexual couples alike for civil unions, marriage itself would be a decorous institution left to religious officials
For moderate voters uncomfortable with the socially conservative tendencies of the Canadian Alliance, Mr. Brison's thoughtful liberalism might hit just the right tone.
Mr. Brison's chances of upsetting Mr. MacKay are low. But regardless of how the party's delegates vote in Toronto, the Tories should take a long, hard look at Mr. Brison's agenda. These are the sort of strong ideas that can bring a fourth-place party back into contention.
| Read Scott's Ideas Here |