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Year in review: Does Canada need the Conservative Party?

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves as he walks off the stage after giving his concession speech following Canada's federal election in Calgary, Alberta, on October 19.

Mark Blinch/Reuters

One of the more surprising aftermaths of the election of Justin Trudeau and the Liberals was seeing the speed with which former Conservative cabinet ministers distanced themselves from Stephen Harper and his style of government.

"Clearly we've got to turn a page, and we've got to reattach Conservative values and principles to the hopes and aspirations of Canadians," Tony Clement, the former president of the Treasury Board, said the night the Tories handed their solid majority in Parliament to the Liberals.

"We need a conservatism that is sunnier and more optimistic than what we have sometimes conveyed," said Jason Kenney, the former minister of national defence.

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No kidding. So where were Messrs. Clement and Kenney during the years Mr. Harper ran the party, and especially during the election campaign? Were they speaking out about their leader's oppressively dark and pessimistic conservatism, one that pitted Canadians against each other, sowed fear and put the party in a win-at-all-costs headlock that brooked no dissent? These are two capable people – why did it take the disaster of the 2015 election for them to acknowledge that negativism, truculence and disdain for Parliament are political liabilities in Canada?

Similar questions can be asked of Rona Ambrose, the interim party leader and Leader of the Opposition. As a Harper cabinet minister, she tacitly supported her leader's dubious position that the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women was a police matter only, and that a public inquiry was unnecessary. The minute the Liberals were elected and reaffirmed their campaign promise to hold an inquiry, Ms. Ambrose announced the Conservatives would support it and that this was a "non-partisan issue" that "should never be political."

This lack of conviction doesn't bode well for the renewal of a national party whose ability to compete in elections is critical to the health of Canadian democracy. The CPC brand was no doubt damaged mostly by the insular and combative Mr. Harper, the only leader the party has ever had, but many of the leading men and women who remain in its ranks were groomed by Mr. Harper and seem content to work in his image.

The question is, as Mr. Kenney put it, can Canadian conservatism become "sunnier and more optimistic," or is it doomed by its Reform Party roots to forever view government, the civil service, the Supreme Court, the media, unions, social liberals and other so-called "elites" with Mr. Harper's unpleasant, sneering suspicion?

It's evident that the Conservatives themselves don't know the answer to that yet. Thankfully, the party's leadership campaign is at least 18 months away, giving its MPs and leadership hopefuls time to reflect and, possibly, to learn.

The first thing Tories need to do in Opposition is to demonstrate respect for Parliament, something they conspicuously failed to do while in power. They can perhaps take notes from the Liberals, who have promised to make Question Period more civil, strengthen the role of committees, eschew omnibus budget bills and end the Harper government's animosity toward critical watchdogs like the Auditor-General and the Parliamentary Budget Officer. If the Liberals keep their promises, it will be a useful refresher course for the likes of Ms. Ambrose and Mr. Kenney, not to mention Pierre Poilievre, on the primacy of Parliament.

The second thing the Conservative Party must do is remind Canadians why the country needs it. The job of preventing unnecessary expansions of government is never done. But Conservatives must recognize that many voters want something more than just tax cuts, sometimes with good reason. This is an opportunity for the Tories to refocus on fiscal prudence (which is more than just balancing a budget) and good government (which is not always less government), and get away from the divisive and embittering social issues that helped them lose the election. The Harper Conservatives stopped being a party of ideas. That has to change.

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Small-c conservatism is an essential part of Canada's makeup. We will always need a party that focuses on individual liberties, limited government and support for free markets. Yes, the Tories of today are in a slump. But it is only a slump, not an apocalypse; the party still has strong representation in Parliament and, with proper leadership, can rebuild itself and be a serious challenger in 2019.

To do so it must abandon divisive, win-at-all-costs politicking. It must stop treating Parliament like an assembly line cranking out boutique tax breaks and targeted legislation designed for fundraising. It also needs to stop treating political opponents, judges, civil servants and independent-minded MPs as enemies to be destroyed. And above all, it must convince Canadians that it is the party with the best ideas for increasing the country's peace, order, good government and prosperity. Otherwise, it will lose the next election, and deserve to.

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