Tuesday 22 November 2011

Will the real conservatives please stand up?

Over in New York magazine, Canadian conservative and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum has an excellent piece on the Republican party straying from its intellectual roots. Instead, it is now a party that caters to quackery (birthers) and ideologues (no tax increases, ever) and defends itself with name-calling (socialists!). 

Frum points out that when a similar friction occurred in the 1960s between the Goldwater and George Romney Republicans, the moderate Romneys weren't afraid to stand up for their beliefs. That's not the case today in the US, as moderates are either too rare or non-confrontational, and unfortunately it's also what we have in Toronto. 

Frum cites the old adage that, "You're entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts." Sadly, their own facts is what Team Ford conservatives have brought to the table. 

Consider the Twitter conversation that occurred this weekend. First of all, Ford's campaign braintrust (Nick Kouvalis and Mark Towhey) engaged Dave Meslin. This was because Meslin tweeted that Ford ran on a left-wing platform implicitly endorsing Miller because he said 'no service cuts, guaranteed.' Like Edward Keenan in this great article, I'm uneasy about Meslin's 'left-wing' premise but it is a fact that Ford promised no service cuts-guaranteed and that service cuts are deeply unpopular among Torontonians. Ignoring this is at best the selective memory Towhey accuses Meslin of and at worst bringing his own facts to the table that ignore reality. 

The twitter conversation didn't end there. On Sunday, Queens Quay Karen Fraser Macdonald started tweeting about Transit City. Not being able to help myself, I responded. Here's the (slightly edited, for brevity) Storify. In sum, Macdonald- a key part of the Ford campaign- got basic facts wrong about the Eglinton LRT line (lanes of traffic being removed, streetcar v. LRT, where it would run underground) and instead relied on the Fordian campaign rhetoric. 

When Macdonald was asked for underlying evidence for those policy decisions (and assertions that streetcars kill traffic, for instance), none were provided. Nothing on the impact of induced demand, the density requirements for different kinds of development, the terrible planning with the Don Valley or the cost-benefit of burying Eglinton for purely aesthetic reasons at a $2 billion cost (for that money, you could do the Finch LRT twice over. Or rent two chipmunk suits for every Torontonian). Macdonald then finishes with an ad hominem attack, saying that downtowners are not concerned with the suburbs.

The criticism of Team Ford's grasp of the basic facts isn't new, and what they represent is not true conservatism. Like Frum's lamented party, the Towhey/Kouvalis/Macdonald arguments lack evidence-based policy, rely on ideological stereotypes, and either cherry-pick their facts or make them up altogether. It's this kind of process that leads to the complete antithesis of fiscal conservatism with Ford's Folly, the Sheppard and Eglinton lines. 

While Meslin's liberal label might not be accurate to describe the Ford campaign triumverate (or the message to be accurate), they aren't intellectual conservatives either. These policies are the result of what Frum calls the exploitation of conservatives as a market segment (think of Kouvalis' excellent focus groups of which he is proud) rather than a political philosophy.

Shelley Carroll has previously wondered where the Liberals are on council, the likes of Milczyn, Berardinetti and Kelly (who has had his own problems lately) who have ties to the party but don't show it. 

But where are the traditional conservatives, the Bill Davis kind that demand fiscal responsibility with informed, incremental and sustainable planning? 

The likes of Karen Stintz have a responsibility to defend conservatism the way Frum does. If they refuse to stand up for intellectually grounded positions then they, like the increasingly rare moderate Republican, render their ideas to irrelevance. 

And this isn't healthy. It's good to have conservatism in local politics. It improves the dialogue for everyone and challenges the left to strengthen their ideas. 

That tradition is silent right now. It is replaced with the bluster and shallowness of Fordian populism, and everyone is worse off for conservatism's absence. 

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