The next federal Conservative Party leader will be judged not only on style and substance but on where he hangs his hat.
This is what the party has to think about as it rebuilds itself after a dispiriting run that has culminated in Andrew Scheer’s plan to resign next year. To present a credible challenge to the governing Liberals in the next election, the next leader needs to tick a lot of boxes: The ability to connect with voters; coherent fiscal and economic policies; and positions on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion rights that are from this decade.
These issues could be relatively easy to tackle, frankly, when compared with the yawning regional gaps that have emerged in Canadian politics when it comes to energy and the environment. And for this reason, and others, the next leader likely cannot hail from Alberta or Saskatchewan.
First of all, Conservatives would do well to be more diverse in their regional representation. Calgarian Stephen Harper ruled the Conservative roost for more than a decade. Then Rona Ambrose – once of Edmonton, now of Calgary – served as interim leader for 18 months before Mr. Scheer of Regina-Qu’Appelle took over.
This regional reasoning could be why Jason Kenney decided to gun for the job of Alberta premier in 2016 instead of trying for the job of federal leader. He knew that, following the Harper years, the national appetite for another staunchly conservative prime minister from Calgary could be limited.
Three-and-a-half years after Mr. Kenney made his decision to go provincial, he has expended a lot of political capital defending Alberta’s interests – which probably further nullifies the possibility of a federal run. (And I am going to introduce a Kenney caveat here: If he wants the job some day, he will seek it. He could win it. Never underestimate the political gusto of the Alberta Premier.)
Geography still matters in an outsized way in this decentralized political federation. Peter MacKay, Erin O’Toole, Michael Chong, Lisa Raitt, Christy Clark and Jean Charest are all names being discussed as potential leadership contenders. What do they have in common? None is from the Prairies. It makes their candidacy more palatable.
In the years since Mr. Kenney made his political decision, the energy debate has become ever more regionalized and polarized. Part of the issue is the conflict between what many Canadians believe is a moral imperative to take decisive action on climate change and worries about how much domestic industries will be hobbled compared to international competitors as the country curbs greenhouse gas emissions. The gap also exists because people in Alberta and Saskatchewan (and Newfoundland and Labrador) are faced daily with the economic repercussions of declining investment in the domestic oil and gas sector, while many in the rest of the country are not.
While Mr. Scheer certainly gave voice to those regional economic concerns during the election, he wasn’t able to convince enough voters in key swing ridings in Ontario that he had a broader vision for the national economy, immigration or LGBTQ rights.
Even more than social issues, the thorniest question for the next Conservative leader, and the party, will be how to develop a climate-change policy that’s appealing to a broad range of Canadian voters but still acceptable to the base. This will be a careful balancing act for a party that has run hard against carbon pricing. Especially when it comes to energy and climate policies, concerns about becoming a Western rump party are real.
A Conservative leader from outside the oil-and-gas-producing regions might be better equipped to find a way to bridge the gap on energy politics between the Prairies and other parts of the country.
For instance, Mr. Charest certainly understands his home province of Quebec’s deeply held views on pipelines and climate change, but he has also made frequent trips to Calgary and expressed Alberta-like concerns that Canada is increasingly viewed as “a country that can’t get its big projects done.” His long record of political victories and push on free-market principles could outweigh any concern the base has about his status as a central Canadian elite.
Others such as Mr. O’Toole, Ms. Raitt and Mr. MacKay come from different regions of the country but still have strong Western ties and knowledge.
There is only one way I can imagine the next leader coming from the Prairies, and that’s if Ms. Ambrose joins the race.
It sounds as though she has a good life now, outside the political glare. Her website bio notes she is now married to long-time partner J.P. Veitch.
But she’s seen as moderate and reasonable and is popular beyond the confines of her party. Given her star status, the pressure on her to run must be intense.
The Conservative Party is often associated with men, especially men from the Prairies. So a woman could represent a different kind of Conservative to many voters – no matter where she hangs her hat.