Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario (PCPO) leader Patrick Brown is currently engaged in a very public dispute with social conservatives over the future direction of the party. His critics on the religious right have pointed to his policy shift on social issues, his promise that the PCPO will not revisit these issues if elected, and his insistence that PCPO MPPs not push a social conservative agenda in public or in the Legislature, as evidence of an abandonment of the fundamental principles of conservatism. He is accused of being “Liberal-lite” and of having gone “full Trudeau” since being elected leader. The idea that Patrick Brown is not a true conservative takes an extremely narrow view of what it means to be a conservative in Canada; in fact, policies that religious activists in the PCPO are advocating represent a departure from the principles of freedom and individual rights that have united conservatives for hundreds of years.
Brown has expended considerable political capital since becoming leader in trying to make the Progressive Conservative Party more “progressive”. In particular, he has reached out to the LGBT community for advice. He has publicly supported same-sex marriage, marched in Toronto’s Pride parade, and reversed his earlier opposition to the province’s new sex-ed curriculum. He has put the party’s support behind Bill 28, which gives same-sex couples equal parenting rights. Most importantly, he has insisted that the party focus on fiscal issues and demanded that PCPO MPPs not push a social conservative agenda. For his efforts, social conservative critics have accused him of abandoning them on these crucial issues.
To the religious right, this is an unconscionable betrayal. Christian activists call him a “shape-shifting weasel” who is purging the party of social conservatives while espousing “Liberal” polices on same-sex marriage and sex education in public schools. Federal Conservative MP and leadership candidate Brad Trost, who, like fellow candidates Pierre Lemieux and Andrew Scheer, advertises himself as “100% conservative”, has criticized Brown for embracing “Liberal-lite” social polices and demanded that Conservative parties in Canada stop “discriminating” against social conservatives. Brian Lilley of The Rebel Media has insisted that Brown “pick a side – Liberal or Conservative” and launched a petition to “bring Patrick around to the proper way of thinking”.
Modern conservatism is a political movement composed of people who believe in freedom and individual liberty, and who demand that the government mind its own business. Conservatives resist efforts by the state to restrict our freedoms; their hackles are raised when the government tells them what foods to eat, what TV programs to watch, or what cars to drive. They are indignant when governments place onerous restrictions on the enjoyment of private property. They fight tooth and nail to defend individual liberties from the totalitarian urges of the state. And yet, religious activists in the PC Party want their leadership to embrace policies that restrict the civil rights of LGBT people by imposing a biblical view of morality on every citizen using all the regulatory and enforcement apparatus of the state. This is a profoundly un-conservative attitude.
The great British conservative politician and philosopher Edmund Burke, in his 1777 Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, articulated one of the fundamental tenets of conservatism:
For as the sabbath (though of divine institution) was made for man, not man for the sabbath, government, which can claim no higher origin or authority, in its exercise at least, ought to conform to the exigencies of the time, and the temper and character of the people, with whom it is concerned; and not always to attempt violently to bend the people to their theories of subjection.
Burke believed deeply that the government should reflect the will of the people, not impose its will on the people. It is this belief, not adherence to a religious moral code, that makes someone a conservative.
We find ourselves in an odd situation when so-called conservatives accuse the leader of their party of being a Liberal for insisting that all citizens, gay or straight, be treated equally under the law, or that the coercive power of the state should not be used to deny a minority of its citizens their civil rights. What kind of conservative would insist that same-sex couples, who have been exercising their legal rights to civil marriage in Canada for eleven years, be deprived of those rights for no reason other than that some find this objectionable on religious grounds? What kind of conservative would be upset that school teachers are instructed to treat LGBT children and their families with understanding and compassion, and that children of same-sex couples should be given the same legal recognition as those in other families? What kind of conservative would be angry when a leader insists that religious doctrines be practiced in private and not be imposed on the whole population by the government? How arrogant is it that Christian activists demand that party members accept their religious agenda in order to be called “true” conservatives, whether they share those religious beliefs or not?
In the historical struggle between the state and the individual, conservatives have almost always taken the side of the individual. This is why it is so disturbing to see a minority of religious activists pressing for more intervention by the state to restrict the exercise of civil rights by individuals, and for using the power of government to impose a moral code on its citizens whether they like it or not. Moral decisions are best left up to individuals; the policies of the government must be secular and neutral.
The same Brian Lilley who wants to bring Patrick Brown around to the proper way of thinking, and who said, “It’s fine to have a big tent, Patrick, but the tent needs to be blue,” also complained recently about special gender-segregated “Sharia-compliant” swim times in Ottawa public pools. How can one advocate for the right of Christian activists to demand, based on their interpretation of the Bible, the repeal of the Ontario sex-ed curriculum and restriction of the right for same-sex couples to marry, and at the same time be outraged that Muslims ask for separate swim times based on their interpretation of the Koran? To use Lilley’s phrase, social conservatives need to “pick a side”.
Now that he is the leader of the PCPO, Patrick Brown has come down unequivocally against social conservative policies, stating in no uncertain terms that he is “determined to lead an Ontario PC Party that is modern, inclusive, pragmatic, and that reflects the diversity and values of our province. To me that means one that is fiscally conservative and socially progressive.”
Patrick Brown’s position on social issues is far from being “Liberal-lite”. It represents the best of conservative tradition: treating everyone as equals while protecting individual liberty from the encroaching power of the state. It doesn’t matter how he arrived at this position; it matters that he’s here. True conservatives should be standing behind him, not sniping at him from the undergrowth.
Hastings County, Ontario