03/16/2012 01:44 EDT | Updated 05/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Why Canadian Conservatives Could use a Sarah Palin

For anyone still in denial about the sad state of the Canadian conservative movement, may I present the Manning Networking Conference as exhibit A. Despite being billed as Canada's answer to CPAC -- the unapologetically brash and undeniably powerful U.S. Conservative Political Action Conference that recently concluded its February meeting -- the consistently bland, cautious tone of the Manning event really did little more than expose how comparatively weak the organized right remains above the 49th parallel.

The duelling convention themes say it all. CPAC: "We Still Hold These Truths: An Ode to American Exceptionalism," and Manning: "Government as a Facilitator."

Thus, while CPAC featured Utah Senator Mike Lee leading a rousing panel entitled "It's the Spending, Stupid! Why Is It So Hard to Cut a Trillion Dollars?," at the Manning Conference one was limited to hearing Rona Ambrose discuss how to begin "Facilitating Innovation through Smart Procurement."

Even Preston Manning's much-anticipated keynote address fell a little flat when contrasted with the Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin trifecta that capped off the Washington conference. While the former Reform Party head emphasized the need for Conservative leaders to be helpful, knowledgeable, and (with one eye clearly on the Robocalls scandal) ethical, he had precious little to say regarding how to actually define conservatism in 21st-century Canada, beyond neutered calls for stuff like "creating the conditions where the non-governmental sector can create more jobs and wealth."

Walker, in contrast, devoted much of his CPAC keynote to the budgetary threats posed by public sector unionization, while Ryan praised the virtues of individualism, and Palin denounced "crony capitalism." You can take or leave any of these folks (personally, I'm happy to leave Palin wherever I find her), but no one can deny that they're politicians for whom the label of "Conservative" is a strict ideological identity begetting a fairly precise set of values, perspectives, and policy positions.

A Canadian conservative, however... well, who knows what they believe anymore. By far the most revealing (and infamous) speech of the entire Manning conference was a blistering rebuke delivered by the National Post's Andrew Coyne, who accurately observed, as he has been observing for quite some time now, that there is little identifiably "conservative" about the modern Conservative Party. Even when measured by the mild "better than the left" standards they generously use to grade themselves, the party cannot honestly be said to spend less, tax less, subsidize less, or regulate less than any available alternative.

For a party that has already sought to aggressively divorce itself from identifiably conservative positions on social issues like abortion, immigration, and the death penalty, that doesn't leave much. As the Manning event deftly exposed, a movement that is this desperately afraid of its own ideology -- one that has come to internalize the standard media tropes about conservatives as monstrous reactionary knuckle-draggers -- can ultimately do little more than nervously retreat into insular partisan obsessions like "campaign strategy" and "outreach" that offer little appeal to anyone not already inside the tent.

It's not that this is a country bereft of conservative sentiment. Canada has no shortage of contemporary crises in which conservative ideas -- which is to say, common-sense solutions to government-made problems -- are both easy to articulate and publicly popular. As anyone who has visited an online message board will know, on issues as varied as state-mandated bilingualism, the broken First Nations reserve system, socialistic equalization payments, and oppressively anti-American media regulations, contrarian conservative perspectives are quite comfortably mainstream, despite lacking visible public advocates.

Part of this stems from the inherent flaws of the Canadian parliamentary system itself. Both CPAC and the Manning Conference featured oodles of elected politicians, after all, but a creature like Paul Ryan -- a charismatic, influential, free-thinking legislator with a power base independent of the party bosses -- almost never emerges from the smothering, conformist hothouse that is the Canadian House of Commons.

At any given time, the great philosophical principles (assuming any exist) that define what a Canadian party believes are mostly decreed top-down by the party leader himself. The rank and file can either like it or lump it, but without open primaries or free votes in the legislature, there's not a lot activists and critics can do to hold anyone to much account.

This lack of role models is why Preston Manning was right on a least one point in his keynote: the need to build "conservative democratic infrastructure" beyond the Tory party -- including think tanks, policy centres, and interest groups -- capable of breeding some.

As long as the opposite remains the case, however, Canada's conservative moment can never hope to be anything more than it is now: a thin veneer of ideological legitimacy on a political party that has long ceased to take ideology seriously.