When Mike Harris announced that he was retiring as premier of Ontario, his possible successors began to state their positions: Red Tory, neo-conservative, centrist. Taken together, their statements provided some understanding of what conservatism means in Ontario in the 21st century

In a column under the headline “Neo-con Long is key to leadership,” Toronto Star columnist Ian Urquart wrote that Tom Long, while not a candidate, is a power behind the throne. Long, a veteran backroom organizer and chairman of the last two provincial election campaigns, laid down some benchmarks for candidates to meet in order to win his support. He preaches an ideology; for example, there should be “choice, competition and individual responsibility” in the healthcare system. Urquart says these are neo-conservative code words for two-tier medicine and related measures. Long also says that, “Much more of what government does can and should be done by the private sector” and he recommends the privatization of government agencies, which would likely include TV Ontario, Ontario Power, and the LCBO.

So this is the essence of conservatism, apparently, for one very influential and highly respected Ontario politician – sabotaging Canada’s health care system, privatizing the provincial liquor system, encouraging competition and individual responsiblity, but saying nothing to help the less fortunate.

Elizabeth Witmer, a candidate for the leadership, outlined the “centrist” position which she said should guide her party. She argued that it was time to move away from the neo-conservative policies which twice helped elect Harris. Her vision of the direction the party should take consisted of nothing but woolly rhetoric: “People are looking for someone to lead this province into the future,” “It’s time for everyone in the province to consider where it is they see this province going. So you’ve got to respect all those viewpoints,” and the like.

Does the idea of conservatism have no substance or content?

Other candidates accentuate the negative. The National Post says that in the party’s neo-conservative wing, which drafted the Common Sense Revolution of tax cuts and reduced spending, tensions exist among leadership candidates over social issues. Health Minister Tony Clement, in a veiled reference to Harris’s long-standing policy of steering clear of such contentious matters as abortion and gay rights, suggested that social conservative ideals might not fly with party members. “We as a party have been extremely successful in promoting our fiscal agenda,” said Clement, who has been ambivalent in his statements about abortion as of late. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty refused to be drawn into the debate on abortion and gay rights. “My view on those issues is I think the same as the premier’s has been – that that’s not what we’re about in Ontario. What we’re about is growing the Ontario economy.”

So if you ask what conservatism means in Ontario, the reply would seem to be that it means providing scope for individual enterprise and growing the provincial economy. It is surely significant that candidate Flaherty refuses to be drawn into discussion of such important issues of public concern as abortion and gay rights – “that’s not what we are about in Ontario” – implying that if he himself believes that the number of abortions performed in Ontario each year is a scandal and a disgrace, it is not politically correct for him to say so. In effect many of the Ontario Tories accept the position taken by Prime Minister Chretien during the last election campaign – that the abortion issue has been settled in Canada and there is no point in bringing it up again. Do they realize what it is that they are accepting? The Liberals passed the abortion legislation in 1969 by doing something that conservatives should never accept – separating law from morality. Justice Minister John Turner declared, “We believe that morality is a matter for private conscience. Criminal law should reflect the public order only.”

This very questionable principle was taken from the Wolfenden Report on homosexuality and related offenses, submitted to the British Government in 1957; why it should have become the basis of Canadian law is not clear. Walter Dinsdale, a Tory MP, responded to Turner’s statement by saying that the Wolfenden Report “is not the law of the Medes and Persians.” As advice for those who believed that the moral impact of a bygone era had no significance today, he quoted three conclusions of the historian Charles Beard: that “the mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine,” that “when it is dark you can see the stars” and that, “He whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.” He ended by quoting Dante, who “at another time of darkness said: ‘the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintained their neutrality.'”

That would seem to have been an intelligent conservative response to a bill which conservatives should have and did deplore, since it attacked human life. Dinsdale knew where he stood; our provincial “conservative” politicians are floundering or lost, when it comes to dealing with abortion.

When Iain Duncan Smith was chosen leader of the British Conservative party last September, he articulated a vision of political conservatism far beyond the comprehension of any of the Ontario hopefuls: “We need (Edmund) Burke’s view of the inheritance of wisdom embodied in living institutions. We should draw on Disraeli’s views on symbolism, nationhood and rediscovering a sense of membership at family, community and national levels. Above all, we must have the caring hearts and practical agendas of men such as Wilberforce and Shaftesbury.” Smith may not prove to be a competent leader of the British Conservative Party, but at least he has a reasoned view of what conservatism means, a far more comprehensive view than our Ontario politicians seem to possess.

Wilberforce was the great liberator; it took him 20 years to get a bill abolishing slavery passed by the British Parliament, but he finally succeeded. Today’s campaign against abortion is reminiscent of his campaign against the great social evil of his time. Shaftesbury was famous for his work in reform of the poor laws and legislation improving working conditions in factories. Disraeli, before he became prime minister, wrote novels expressing his view that England consisted of two nations – the rich and the poor. So the conservative political tradition in England does not just include, but emphasizes, areas of social concern which many Ontario Tories want to ignore in favour of an exclusively fiscal agenda.

As for Burke, he was the hero of the late Russell Kirk, a pillar of American conservatism. Without his speeches and pamphlets, Kirk said, conservatively inclined people would be intellectually impoverished. “Foreseeing the revolutions of our time,” Kirk wrote, “Burke expounded the principles of social order that conservatives have endeavoured ever since to defend.” Burke said, “We learn to love the little platoon we belong to in society.” In other words, the institution which is most essential for us to conserve is the family. But he also said that society is a contract, “a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection.” Each such contract “is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society, linking the lower with the higher natures, connecting the visible and invisible world, according to a fixed compact.” So there is a moral and physical disposition of things to which man must be obedient; the social contract, the political order, reflects a God-given moral order, a natural law to which we must conform.

In a curiously reasoned book, the late Mark MacGuigan acknowledged that there is indeed a law, that to violate it is sinful, but that in a democratic society we must respect the wishes of those who choose to violate it. We do not respect the wishes of the person who drives his car at 120 miles an hour on Highway 401, or who commits fraud; we lock him up. There are codes and conventions in our society which inhibit the “democratic right” of the individual to do as he chooses. Joe Clark, leader of the federal Conservatives, wrote the foreword for this book in which his reasoning was as odd as MacGuigan’s. Though they were on opposite sides of the House of Commons, he said, MacGuigan and he “both believed that Parliament should not use the Criminal Code to deny Canadian women the option of abortion when confronted with an unwanted pregnancy.” Quoting MacGuigan, Clark said, “Every politician of national experience instinctively knows that it would be wrong in a democracy such as ours to make all abortions illegal,” about which Clark adds, “That is less a judgment about abortion than it is a reflection of what we have learned from active participation in the democratic political process.” He considered this book to be worthy of the highest praise, “for it is charged with conviction about the relevance, to contemporary society, of human rights, especially the fundamental right of conscience. But it is most appropriate to call it a work of Christian humanism, which is true both to the best of the Catholic tradition, and to the spirit of democracy.”

But Christians have not just the right but the obligation to follow their conscience. They also have a duty to inform their conscience; every Christian ought to know that abortion is a grave sin, and that participation in it is not in the Christian tradition at all. It is grotesque to call a book advocating abortion a work of Christian humanism. Moreover, a conservative ought to be aware of the fact that until the Supreme Court ruling of Jan. 28, 1988, there were always criminal sanctions against abortion in Canada; there was never any such thing as an unqualified right to abortion. In Dinsdale’s terms, the leader of the national Conservative Party was not a conservative at all, but a libertarian.

Whereas Jean Chretien said during the last election campaign that the abortion issue was settled in Canada, George Bush in the United States has changed American policy concerning funding overseas abortions and made it clear that the use of embryonic stem cells has moral repercussions. At the very least, all our politicians – even on the provincial level – should realize that it is a national disgrace for our Criminal Code to keep saying that a baby does not become a human being until he has completely left his mother’s body. Let us hope that whoever becomes premier of this province will reflect a broader and more intelligent view of what conservatism means than some of our provincial politicians have shown so far.