Conservatives will gather Friday morning within the echo chamber of their own certitudes.
They will assemble in Ottawa at the call of the Manning Centre to celebrate their good fortune, assert the validity of their ideologies and listen to Ron Paul.
Any conference that would offer Mr. Paul as a keynote speaker can’t be serious, at least not as a forum for intellectual debate, unless Canadian conservatives are politically suicidal.
Mr. Paul ran as a fringe candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, exciting clusters of Republicans of the far right and loony variety, on a platform of withdrawing the government from just about everything and the United States from just about everywhere.
This very American admixture of libertarian and isolationist thinking appealed narrowly to some Tea Party advocates and young Republicans from university campuses unsullied by real-world experience. If Canadian conservatives believe Mr. Paul has something to teach them, then they’ll demonstrate their own withdrawal from the complexities of life and, therefore, their fitness to govern.
The Manning Centre’s annual conference purports to bring together Big Tent conservatives, but that tent has grown smaller as the years have passed. The old Progressive Conservative Party, the tent within which conservatives used to huddle, was far more ideologically and emotionally flexible than the current Conservative Party. Today’s party is much more sharply ideological and, as such, has been triumphant by marshalling its forces into tightly drilled units and by benefiting from the scattering of support by the two-thirds of Canadians who don’t support the government.
Today’s conservatives, and their party, have been remarkably successful at raising money, imposing discipline, attacking adversaries, controlling messages, lowering taxes while spreading government spending into every corner of the country, and dominating the public agenda.
They have enjoyed the luxury of a divided opposition, a reputation for economic management and a country whose economic fundamentals withstood the recession better than other advanced industrialized countries.
And yet, conservatives should ponder the fact that, despite their good luck and earned victories, their party is only slightly more popular than it was when first elected with a minority government seven years ago. This Conservative Party has, roughly speaking, the same share of the popular vote (about 35 per cent, give or take a few points) that Joe Clark had when he won in 1979 and less than Brian Mulroney had when he won his majorities in 1984 and 1988.
If this is truly a “conservative” era, as advocates are wont to declare, then the era has not shown up in a significant and permanent shift in popular vote in federal elections for this party iteration of the conservative cause.
History will soon be tapping conservatives on the shoulder, reminding them that, whatever the comforts of today, the most lethal of political adversaries worms its way inevitably and inexorably into the country’s consciousness: “time for a change.”
It arrives after about a decade for any party in office. Consider the past: Louis St. Laurent (1948-1957), John Diefenbaker (1957-1963), Pierre Trudeau (1968-1979), Brian Mulroney-Kim Campbell (1984-1993) and Jean Chrétien-Paul Martin (1993-2006).
When the next election arrives, Stephen Harper will have been prime minister for about a decade. History never repeats itself precisely, but it’s worth remembering within the echo chamber of certainties.
Conservative forces govern five provinces but that will soon be down to four, when the B.C. Liberals (a small-c conservative party) lose power to the NDP in the coming months. The provincial Conservative Party might capture Ontario, but it’s too soon to tell.
The federal Conservatives easily won several by-elections, but they nearly lost the safe Calgary Centre seat. They hover around 35 per cent of the vote nationally, a figure that has been immovable by more than a few points up or down. They should benefit from the addition of more suburban Ontario and B.C. seats and any in Alberta with the new electoral map.
As long as the opposition is divided, they’re in a comfortable place with the voters they have, even if their numbers suggest neither a conservative tide nor, indeed, much growth at all.