Calgary Speech: My vision of conservatism
On January 21, 2010, I gave this speech on my vision of conservatism to members of the Calgary Centre Conservative Party Association who had invited me. This is the text of my speech, which you can also watch on these video clips. --MB
Thank you very much Lee [Richardson – MP for Calgary Centre] for this very nice introduction.
Good morning everyone.
I’m very grateful to your riding associations for inviting me and to you all for being here today. I feel very privileged, as a Member of Parliament, to be able to discuss the matters and principles that unite us as conservatives.
As you may know, my journey in politics has been somewhat bumpy. But I very much enjoy my most recent role as an MP. It gives me more time to visit constituency associations and meet people like you. It also gives me more time to think about policy and even write and talk about it, which is impossible when you have very heavy responsibilities.
I started a blog almost a year ago, where you can see YouTube videos of me discussing monetary policy and various other topics. I believe I am the only MP in Ottawa who runs such a blog. All the others understand that it’s useless to try to compete with funny videos of cats and dogs and Hollywood celebrities!
Whatever you’ve read in the newspapers, the first thing you should know about me is that I am from the Beauce. The region along the Chaudière River south of Quebec City.
The Beauce is unique in Quebec. It is well known as the most entrepreneurial region of the province. This is where I learned the values that go with entrepreneurship: individual freedom, personal responsibility, integrity, and self-reliance.
Because I often talk about these values, some people in the media have described me as “the Albertan from Quebec”! This is a compliment, by the way. I wish the media was always this nice to me.
Of course, they are also universal values – values that are at the core of Western civilization and are shared by millions of Canadians. Values that have made this country prosperous and a great place to live.
And I believe you will agree with me – they very much are conservative values. Values that distinguish us from our political opponents.
When a problem arises, our opponents think that more government intervention is always the solution. As Ronald Reagan once said, these people tend to see the role of government in three steps: If it moves, tax it; if it keeps moving, regulate it; and if it stops moving, subsidize it.
For us conservatives, on the contrary, government should ideally set up and enforce the basic rules of life in society. And then, leave individuals free to cooperate among themselves to provide for their wants. Government should not intervene to solve each and every problem on the road to a utopian and unrealistic vision of society.
To paraphrase John F. Kennedy, from a conservative perspective, don’t ask what your government can do for you; ask your government to get out of the way, so that you can be free to take responsibility for yourself, for your family, and for everyone else that you care about.
Good government policy gives individuals the opportunity to dream and to realize their dreams; it does not impose the dreams of some on everyone. I went into politics to defend this kind of policy.
Now, let’s face it, this perspective, based on freedom, personal responsibility and self-reliance, is not that fashionable nowadays.
Over the past hundred years, government has grown to gigantic proportions. It intervenes in almost every aspect of our lives. It tries to plan economic development. It tells us if we may or may not cut down a tree on our own property. It takes care of us from the cradle to the grave.
We got to a situation where every child that is born is already burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. And if you take all levels of government into account, about half the wages of working people in this country goes to fund all this government intervention.
Why did this happen? Economists and political scientists who belong to a school of thought called “Public Choice” have tried to explain this dynamic. Their research shows how particular groups have a strong interest in getting organized to put pressure on politicians.
These special interest groups want subsidies, trade protection, more generous social programs, a fiscal or legal privilege, regulation that favours them and keeps out competition. Any favour they get from the government can potentially bring them huge benefits.
Of course, each of us will have to pay for it. But in our case, the amount we pay for each measure is not significant enough to justify getting organized to oppose it. You won’t go to meetings and demonstrate in the street to oppose a particular program that will cost you ten dollars. But the small group of people who get 100 million dollars have a huge interest in getting organized.
It’s very hard for politicians to say no to these lobbies. Because they have the means to hijack debates, quickly mobilize support and fuel controversies in the media. On the other hand, nobody hears what the silent majority has to say even if they are the ones paying the bill.
So, there is a fundamental imbalance in political debates. On one side, you have concentrated benefits to special interest groups who have a strong incentive to do their lobbying; on the other side, you have dispersed costs that fall on society at large.
That’s how government grows and grows. That’s how we become less and less free. And more and more dependent on government.
What should we, as conservatives, do to reverse this trend?
One way to change the terms of the debate would be to announce that the government is not going to grow anymore.
I know that we are going through some very difficult economic circumstances and that this is not a realistic proposal for the coming budget. But let’s try a thought experiment.
Last year, the federal government’s total expenses were about 250 billion dollars. You can do a lot of things with 250 billion dollars! From a historical perspective, it’s a gigantic amount of resources.
What if we decided that this is more than enough? That expenses are not going to grow anymore?
And I’m not saying zero growth adjusted for inflation and population or GDP increase. Just zero growth.
The overall budget is frozen at 250 billion. From now on, any government decision has to be taken within this budgetary constraint.
Every new government program, or increase in an existing program, has to be balanced by a decrease somewhere else.
We no longer have debates about how much more generous the government can be with this or that group, as if the money belonged to the government instead of taxpayers. The silent majority’s interests are always being protected.
The focus of the debate is shifting to a determination of priorities: what are the most important tasks for government to achieve with the money we have? Is this government function really important and should we have more of it? Then what should we do less or stop doing and leave in the hands of the free market, voluntary organisations and individual citizens?
That would be quite a change, don’t you think? A commitment to Zero Budget Growth could become a powerful symbol of fiscal conservatism, just like the “No Deficit” consensus was, to some extent, until the advent of the global economic crisis. But the consequences would be much deeper.
It would mean that every year, the relative size of government would be smaller. It would force politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and everybody else to stop thinking that your salaries are just there to grab for their own benefit. And because of the budgetary constraints, Canadians would have a lot more confidence that we’re not wasting their money.
We have to convince people that we’re not simply aiming to be better managers of a bigger government; we are aiming to be better managers of a smaller government.
There is a large constituency for these small-government principles. But because there are no lobbies to defend them, they get lost in the debates.
We have to act as the lobby of the silent majority. The silent majority who are tired of working to pay for special interests. The silent majority who are dismayed at seeing their freedom curtailed at every turn. The silent majority who are losing hope that life will get better for them and their children.
It is not always possible of course. There are political realities that cannot be overlooked. But being pragmatic is not enough. In the long run, there are political gains to be made by telling people the hard truth, and not just what they want to hear or what is politically correct.
And not just telling it; doing it too! We have to justify our actions on the basis of these principles.
When I was Industry minister, I was asked to support a new import tariff on bicycles. There was a big Canadian bicycle manufacturer that could not compete with bicycles made in Asia and threatened to lay off workers. So, in order to save over a hundred jobs, the solution was to force all those young Canadians buying a new bicycle to pay $67 more. That would have made all these Canadian families poorer, just to benefit a particular industry.
I said no. Even though the manufacturer was in my own riding, in the Beauce. The free market is not just an abstract concept that you mention when it is politically expedient, and that you forget when it is not. If you want people to believe you, you have to put your principles in practice.
I can tell you that people understood that in my riding. They respected my decision, because they knew why I had taken it. They could see that every time it was possible, I would defend the interest of the silent majority instead of particular interests. And in the long term, they would benefit more.
The confrontation between interest groups and the silent majority was again the central theme in what was by far the most important file I handled as a member of cabinet, telecommunications deregulation. Contrary to what you often hear, industry regulation rarely protects ordinary citizens. It usually protects some favoured players at the expense of others – and in particular at the expense of consumers.
Getting rid of obsolete and costly regulation in this crucial sector for our economy proved a lot more difficult than I thought. I had to face opposition from groups and businesses who benefitted from current rules. The strongest opposition came from my own civil servants at Industry Canada. Bureaucrats don’t like it when they lose their influence and their power to regulate.
It was quite a fight but in the end, we carried out what some observers consider the most important reform of the telecommunications sector in several decades. It brought more competition, more choices and lower prices for Canadian consumers.
As you know, politicians as a group are way down the list in terms of public confidence. I think one reason people are so cynical is that they do not believe us. They don’t perceive us as defending clear goals and principles. Or acting on these principles.
But if you are here this morning, it’s because you don’t share this cynicism. The reason you are involved in a political party is that you want to make a better world for yourself, your family, your community, for all Canadians. You believe it’s possible. And you’re looking for ways to make it happen.
I certainly would not be here today if I did not passionately believe in those ideals. Not after everything I went through two years ago. It would not be worth it.
So, I’m offering you a challenge.
Let’s restore public confidence in politics.
Let’s redouble our efforts to defend the principles of individual freedom, personal responsibility and smaller government.
I don’t think there is any other way to reach our goals. If we want conservative principles to win the battle, we have to defend them openly, with passion and with conviction.
And what could be wrong with giving a voice to the silent majority of Canadians who believe in these principles? After all, in “silent majority”, there’s the word “majority”!