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What does it mean to be a Conservative these days?

Conservative? Come out, come out, wherever you are..
A conservative in Alberta? What does that mean, exactly, wonders political watcher. Photo supplied.

Leadership elections are going on for the federal and provincial “Conservative” parties but it’s a good question whether we have conservative politicians anymore.

They don’t exist in the pie-in-the-sky federal NDP and Green ranks.

The federal Liberals follow a haphazard course. They lean toward expansive social programs and are close to making Parliament an Apology of the Month Club on various social and historical issues (although some of those issues are anywhere from regrettable to shameful).

On financial matters, they are suspect. The last federal budget saw the finance minister talk about being prudent on spending, but the document had some big assumptions as well as some big gaps that could have been labelled 'To Be Filled In Later'.

One of the least conservative trends among the Liberals is their appetite for taking crowd-pleasing whacks at specific business sectors.

The surtax on bank profits is a bad idea; no industry should be singled out just because a lot of people don’t like its fees or because it happens to be making money.

The newly announced plan to cap greenhouse gas emissions in the energy industry looks like scapegoating. It’s yet another way to channel unease over global warming into a limited response that lets people think they can get someone else to make most or all of the sacrifices. There’s a lot of chatter these days, especially on social media, about ending the “fossil-fuel industry” and making it pay for carbon emissions — as if no ordinary people have ever demanded oil and gas over the last century unless they were somehow duped or forced into demanding them.

And then we have the “Conservative” leadership hopefuls, presumably responding to opinions they see in their parties.

The federal Conservatives are focused on anything but actual conservative principles of tradition, moderation, integrity, and respect for law and authority.

Their “moderate” option is Jean Charest. He has promised an “Alberta Accord” that would help the province do things like set up its own provincial police force and pension plan (neither of which has demonstrably strong public support here). That was more than a vote-getting ploy. He has basically been a soft Quebec nationalist; handing more powers to any other province is essentially a way of solidifying Quebec’s endless demands for freedom from the federal government.

The other main option, voting for Pierre Poilievre, is a quick trip to decidedly anti-conservative territory such as support for lawbreaking protesters and enthusiasm for the financial hazards of crypto-currency, supplemented by attacks on sober institutions such as the Bank of Canada. Jason Kenney’s primary characteristic has been sneakiness; Poilievre’s primary characteristic is shamelessness.

As for Alberta’s United Conservative Party, it is neither united nor conservative, and its leadership hopefuls don’t promise an effective move in either direction.

The presumed leading candidate, Danielle Smith, delights in exuberant tinfoil-hat pronouncements. Brian Jean offers little beyond Ottawa-bashing. Rebecca Schulz and Travis Toews offer a more moderate image but little other change from a government that has done things like risk more than $1 billion on the Keystone pipeline, and eliminate the provincial gasoline tax without actually doing much other than reducing government revenues.

Toews is particularly interesting. He has come out strongly against the idea of a provincial sales tax. As finance minister, he had been planning a study of provincial revenues this fall. Now he has apparently taken off the table the main option for study (aside from the possibility of reviving the highly unfair and highly inefficient old “health premiums”).

The provincial New Democrats are just as eager to play to the crowd for short-term gains, except that where the UCP is always looking for ways to tout tax cuts, the NDP is always happy to promote caps on prices and industry profits.

I don’t know much about provincial politics in the Atlantic provinces. Maybe that’s the region where one can look for the elusive modern Canadian conservative.