01/11/2016 05:09 EST | Updated 01/11/2017 05:12 EST

A Conservative Plan To Revive Canadian Civil Society

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The start of a new year marks another's passing and a new beginning. It's a chance to evaluate past accomplishments and deficiencies and set new goals and priorities. Conservatives are pleased to see 2015 come to a close.

A fresh start begins with a refreshed agenda and here's where conservatives ought to focus their attention in 2016. A good place to start is a restoration of Canadian civil society. It's a big idea that can form part of the basis of a substantive, thoughtful conservative agenda for the future.

The role of civil society is too often ignored or undermined by public policy. The expansion of the state in the second half of the 20th century came largely at the expense of civil society. Leviathan grew and civil society contracted.

There's some evidence that the pendulum between the state and civil society has slowly begun to swing back. This is a positive development that will produce better outcomes than state intervention and create the conditions for stronger and more dynamic communities. Supporting this trend ought to be a key conservative project.

Civil society can play a critical role in addressing key societal challenges ranging from poverty to education to employment training.

What do we mean when we talk about civil society? We refer to intermediary or mediating institutions that assume a highly personal character and operate according to a different logic than that which informs the marketplace. Key among them are the family and the neighbourhood, as well as religious, cultural, social, and fraternal associations. These "little platoons," as Burke famously called them, formed the backbone of the system of reciprocal aid that predated the modern welfare state.

Conservatives understand that overreliance on government over community-based responses often produces poorer results. Consider, for instance, refugee resettlement. The Department of Citizenship and Immigration has found that privately sponsored refugees tend to integrate better, more quickly, and ultimately more successfully than government-assisted ones. One example: privately sponsored refugees over a 15-year period were generally earning about 40 per cent more. It begs the question then: why are we focused on resettling government-assisted refugees and not focused on enabling more privately sponsored ones?

And the superiority of local, civil society based solutions over top-down, government ones is hardly limited to refugee resettlement. Civil society can play a critical role in addressing key societal challenges ranging from poverty to education to employment training. It's decentralized and localized and thus much more capable of on-the-ground experimentation and direct support to those in need. A bureaucrat in Ottawa won't help a new refugee figure out public transit in Regina but a private sponsor will.

The importance of a strong civil society is not just limited to utilitarianism. The decline of the mediating institutions between the individual and the state under the weight of big government has deeper cultural and spiritual effects. These institutions are what U.S. scholar Yuval Levin has called "the essential pillars of our moral life." Their decline leaves a void the state is unequipped to fill. The result can be a disconnected and unrooted society.

So how can we bolster Canada's civil society? The solutions for reversing a shrinking civil society are complex. In the 1990s the state/civil society pendulum did swing towards civil society in part as Canadian governments brought their fiscal houses in order. But this swing of the pendulum was mostly a by-product of fiscal retrenchment and not a deliberate end in itself.

The outgoing Harper government was committed to a strengthened civil society. It championed voluntarism and civic engagement through awards and sponsorships. It successfully partnered with civil society groups on a wide range of issues including child and maternal health, First Nations education, neurological research, and homelessness. It expanded tax incentives to encourage charitable giving. It also tested out new models such as funding "challenges" and matching funds initiatives to support new, local ideas. These are necessary but probably not quite sufficient conditions to "nudge" forward the revival of Canadian civil society.

Bigger thinking is needed. ‎The goal should be to put forward an agenda in the coming years that establishes a political axiom that conservatives are in favour of a smaller government and a bigger civil society and progressives support a bigger state and a smaller civil society.

This is a positive vision that conservatives inherit from Mr. Harper and should continue to cultivate. Now is the time for big thinking. The little platoons -- the basic building blocks of a vibrant, dynamic, and compassionate society -- are a good place to start.

Ken Boessenkool and Sean Speer are former senior advisers to the Rt. Hon. Stephen Harper and co-authors, along with James Wielgosz, of A Plan to Revive Civil Society in Canada available here.

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