Andrew Bennett, program director for Cardus Law, said culture is about our common life, which itself is bound in the common good, about which state institutions cannot be neutral.

Andrew Bennett, program director for Cardus Law, said culture is about our common life, which itself is bound in the common good, about which state institutions cannot be neutral.

Despite some grumbling from social conservatives before the Manning Networking Conference Feb. 8-10, at least five panels examined issues of interest to Canadians on the right concerned with life, family, and the culture.

Jeff Gunnarson, vice president of Campaign Life Coalition, told The Interim that CLC considered not sending anyone to the annual gathering of conservatives in the nation’s capital because there was little indication that the topics addressed issues of interest to the organization and the lineup of speakers was filled with politicians and government-relations types. CLC ended up sending two staff to the conference because the primary purpose of the event is to network, not necessarily listen to keynote speakers and panelists.

In his opening remarks, former Conservative Party of Canada president John Walsh said the conservative movement exists to talk about things that aren’t always talked about within parties, and then, “feed those ideas into political parties.”

When the program was released, Gunnarson was a little happier. The conference featured panels on end-of-life issues, strengthening the family, religion and the public square, and culture and public life.

In a panel on family, moderator Garnett Genuis, Conservative MP for Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan, asked whether strengthening the family was more a matter of getting out of the way as libertarians argue or supporting families as conservatives often do. Andrea Mrozek, program director of Cardus Family, said that at the very least government should end policies that are obstacles to flourishing families. She said that libertarians needed to understand that their favoured policies of smaller government and thriving markets are undermined when families are weakened. She said the best research indicates that thriving families are the best way to raise well-adjusted children to become productive citizens, and that most social pathologies correlate with dysfunctional family formation.

Karen Vecchio, the Conservative shadow minister for families, children, and social development said, “I believe in a strong family unit” but reiterated that she is a “supporter of LGBTQ and their families.” She said “not all families work as they should” – citing problems such as drug addiction and family breakup – and blamed a combination of government not doing enough to support families and doing the wrong things that undermine them.

Ambler-and-MrozekFormer Conservative MP Stella Ambler said “I am not on the libertarian side of this,” and made clear the state has an interest in flourishing families. She said federal tax policy should allow income splitting to help parents who want to stay at home. She also said there needs to be a cultural shift that women “who want to stay at home” are not looked down on as unproductive. She said she was opposed to institutional day care and full-day kindergarten: “three year olds are still napping in the afternoon; what are we doing putting them in school?”

Vecchio and Mrozek endorsed the idea that women who choose to stay at home with young children should not be criticized for their choice, with Mrozek noting that men who stay home with young children are often praised for doing so.

Mrozek also warned that conservatives should recognize the social engineering aspect of child care schemes as it is often promoted as a way of incentivizing women to work. She pointed to research that shows families are the “gold standard” for raising children and that most studies indicate it takes time for children and parents to strengthen their bonds. “I can’t stress enough what a national day care plan would do to incentivize parents to work which hurts attachment principles,” that produce well-adjusted children.’

Mrozek also said policy and society should view the family as a unit that works together rather than accept radical individualism that pits family members against one another; she pointed to health care policies that presume parents do not act in their children’s best interests.

The panel on culture and conservatism tackled larger philosophical questions rather than policy. Andrew Bennett, program director of Cardus Law, said at its root, the common life of culture is linked to the common good and the goal of “any movement should be the common good, not only about winning power.” He said the movement should be about advancing truth and increasing human flourishing. Politics is about how some of our common institutions promote those goals.

Tasha Kheiriddin, a radio host on 640 AM and an iPolitics columnist, conceded that the government has a role in ensuring the common good but said the fundamental question is how to define it. She said two pillars of conservatism are tradition and order, but that fusionist conservatism has incorporated a libertarianism that promotes liberty, sometimes at the expense of order. “There is always a tension between liberty and order.” She said the conservative movement in Canada is often pulled in opposite directions as it tries to settle that tension. Kheiriddin’s answer to those compromises is that conservatives “have to accept changes that respect the Charter.”

As the debate veered to topics such as truth and abortion, Conservative MP Gérard Deltell, (Louis-Saint-Laurent), said “I’m pro-abortion.” Noting that in the previous night’s keynote, Tory leader Andrew Scheer called freedom a fundamental value for Conservatives, Deltell said, “if we believe in freedom … we can’t tell people what to do.”

He said the important thing for politicians was that “we respect each other” and if people disagree, “so what?” While conceding that MPs and the public can hold different views, he said abortion is “not the business of government.” He also said if the public is talking about abortion, then politicians and voters are not talking about hospitals, which he seemed to consider a more important issue. He also complained that he considered the Summer Jobs Program attestation a distraction that politicians should not be addressing.

Deltell said he was Catholic despite his self-identification as “pro-abortion” because his parents and grandparents were Catholic, but that it has no bearing on his political views. Bennett said “I am a Catholic not a conservative” before acknowledging but not enumerating “although we share many goals, values.” He said, “we should be advancing what is good” and movements cannot do that in an “atomized society with a radical notion of autonomy.”

In a panel on end-of-life care, moderator Garnett Genuis, said the euthanasia debate “pits notionally conservative values against each other” – personal autonomy and respect for human life. Conservative MP Arnold Vierson (Peace River-Westlock) said the most important value was the “dignity of human life” and suggested that having a public health care system means that talk about personal freedoms complicates public policy decisions.  “How do we value life within that context?” he wondered. Paul Wilson, a former adviser to prime minister Stephen Harper, who spoke in favour of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, said it was interesting that the panel was discussing “dignity of human life when we used to call it the sanctity of human life.”

Vierson said there is a difference between suffering and despair, and urged public policy to provide better end-of-life care to treat the physical and psychiatric needs of patients who are tempted by euthanasia. Wilson responded, “as a conservative I believe in letting people decide on their own” which threshold of suffering they want to endure.

In a panel on faith and the public square there was general agreement that faith belongs in the public square. MP Rachael Harder (CPC, Lethbridge) recalled telling a constituent who was worried about her faith intruding in her new job, that Harder’s compassion and integrity were rooted in her Christianity and a vital component of who she was as a person and an MP.

Ray Pennings, vice president of the Christian think tank Cardus talked about how the secular was a distinct sphere separate from the church, but that over time secularism has morphed into an idea antithetical to religion.

In a panel discussion about identity politics, Preston Manning, Genuis, Kheiriddin, and Calgary Herald columnist Licia Corbella all criticized the Liberal government’s Summer Jobs Program requirement that employers attest to their support of the abortion and gay rights agenda.

Many socially liberal panelists highlighted a difference between the Conservatives and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, namely that the Tories allow a diversity of views on moral issues. MP Cathy McLeod (CPC, Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo) said on the end-of-life panel, “we are not the party of Justin Trudeau that says everyone has to think one way.”