This was one of those weeks where the nation's newsrooms were emptier than a Martin Cauchon campaign rally (slogan: "We're not sure why either!"). Judging from their absentee tweets, a lot of Canadian reporters couldn't resist checking out this weekend's conclave, that ancient and mysterious gathering of aging, reactionary cranks who meet in quiet seclusion to plot the course of an archaic, and increasingly unpopular worldview justified by blind dogma rather than science or rationality.
I'm talking about the 2013 Manning Networking Conference.
The MNC is a thing that happens every year; it's supposed to be a cross-country gathering of conservative intellectual heavyweights, broadly similar to the famed Conservative Political Action Conference in the States -- only without as much action, politics, conferencing, or conservatism.
In this space last year, I took a quick glance at Man-Con's 2012 speaking roster, chock-a-block as it was with megawatt celebrities like treasury board president Tony Clement and natural resources minister Joe Oliver, and concluded that Canadian conservatives could really use a Sarah Palin -- or at least some genuinely ideological leader capable of articulating what "conservatism" even means in the second decade of Canada's 21st century. Wouldn't it be nice, opined young J.J., if instead of an aging waxwork like Mr. Manning or a parade of obsequious Tory apparatchiks, a Canadian conservative conference could actually summon someone dynamic, passionate, and interesting to rally the faithful? Perhaps a "charismatic, influential, free-thinking legislator with a power base independent of the party bosses?"
Well I can certainly eat those words now, because the 2013 Manning Conference actually found one.
Just... not in this country.
The decision to import former Republican congressman/presidential candidate/shiny thing enthusiast Ron Paul to this year's Preston-fest follows the long, distinguished tradition of Canadian political parties asking clever Americans to tell them what they think. The Libs gave noted Democrat chairman / freelance town crier Howard Dean that task in 2006, and the NDP assigned it to some Team Obama staffers in 2009. (The Greens got nobody since their leader is already an American). All of those picks were controversial to some degree, since all were interpreted as evidence of this-or-that preexisting press narrative -- Liberals = desperate?, NDP = pragmatic? So now that it's the Tories' turn, it's only fair to ask what the Paul pick reveals about the state of Canada's right -- beyond the fact that that fiscal conservatism evidently applies to whoever's in charge of booking guest speakers.
Nothing good, concludes Jeffrey Simpson at the Globe.
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Seriouslyconservatives, he writes, you actually trust this "fringe candidate" who won zero primaries and barely appeals to anyone beyond "the far right and loony" to give you pointers? "If Canadian conservatives believe Mr. Paul has something to teach them," he sniffs, "then they'll demonstrate their own withdrawal from the complexities of life and, therefore, their fitness to govern."
But you can't fault us for being excited looky-loos, counters Chris Selley at the National Post. I mean, it's just "so utterly refreshing to see a real ideologue in action." Christopher describes the good doc as "a conservative and a libertarian who makes other self-described conservatives and libertarians squirm" because he's "so alarmingly consistent." And consistency -- alarming or otherwise -- is not a thing Canucks are used to getting from their politicians.
Living in such a culturally protectionist country, Canadians are denied so much of what makes America great we tend to ingest too much of it when given the chance, and settle for cheap knockoffs in the meantime. And just as the NDP has come to embrace the worst excesses of the American counterculture movement -- Occupy Wall Street and trutherism and whatnot -- and Liberals have made peace with their poor man's Obama in the form of Justin Trudeau, it's a valid fear that the Conservatives might be settling for Ron Paul's fringy flavour of Republicanism at a time when they're most starved for Yankee-style intellectual constancy.
Paulism is devilishly good fun after all -- all sharp corners and loud answers -- and lightyears away from anything Harper's Tories say, do, or are. It's no mystery why Ron sometimes seems to have more supporters in this nation then he does in his own; to Canadian eyes he offers an untamed, exotic, almost noble-savage appeal to a country constantly lectured on the acceptable limits of what to think and say (like at the Manning Networking Conference, for instance).
But as Selley notes, much of what Paul has to offer is "miles away from Canadian relevance." There is no Tea Party position on Quebec separatism, after all. Or bilingualism. Or aboriginal land claims. Or the Senate. Or the monarchy. Or the countless other existential and nationalistic dramas that dominate this esoteric sovereign nation.
There is a limit, in other words, to the degree to which any American -- no matter how talented or inspiring -- can serve as a proxy for the sort of leadership Canadians require to tackle the host of weirdly Canadian problems cluttering our own backyard.
In some ways the situation is sort of the reverse of the Canadian pope paradox. Just as a Canadian pushing an unattractive message will never be embraced by his countrymen simply on the basis of his passport, neither does a popular foreigner deserve acclaim for offering clever answers to questions Canadians aren't asking.
What Benedict XVI said to his Cardinals Canada's conservative conclave would be wise to repeat to Pope Manning: try again.