Skip to main content
jeffrey simpson

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.The Globe and Mail

Canada's Conservatives have been a remarkably quiescent lot since their electoral defeat seven months ago. No factions have appeared; no backstabbing has left blood on the floor. Anger has been bottled up and kept from public view.

It was not always so for the Conservatives' predecessors.

The Progressive Conservatives (remember them?) always turned their guns inward and fired after defeat. They sometimes fired at themselves while in power.

The fighting against the leadership of John Diefenbaker began while he was still prime minister. The leadership of Robert Stanfield was marked by continuous unhappiness from Diefenbaker loyalists and assorted other malcontents. Joe Clark, Mr. Stanfield's successor, never had a complete grip on the party. Usually out of office, the PC party never mastered the discipline of power.

Only Brian Mulroney's two smashing majorities quelled internal dissent, as did the leader's remarkable abilities at keeping his caucus happy, even in politically turbulent times.

As Mr. Mulroney's second term moved along, however, his coalition fractured with the creation of the Reform Party (and the Bloc Québécois). The right was hopelessly divided – a division that delighted the victorious Liberals.

So it might be argued that under Stephen Harper, who more than anyone put together the modern Conservative Party, conservatives experienced their longest continuous stretch of internal peace in at least half a century. And the peace has lasted, even in defeat.

On Thursday, in Vancouver, the whole party – and the country for that matter – will see Mr. Harper for the first time on a public platform since his rather weird election-night appearance last October. You might recall that rather than announcing he was resigning as party leader and/or leaving politics, he did neither. Instead, he issued a press release before he spoke announcing he was stepping down as leader, presumably not to give his adversaries the satisfaction of a watching a public admission of defeat.

Then Mr. Harper stayed on as an MP, seldom appearing in Ottawa and never speaking publicly in Canada, in the House of Commons or anywhere else. (He is expected to resign as the MP for Calgary Heritage before the fall.) He did apparently give one address last month at a meeting in Las Vegas organized by a casino mogul who is a fervent defender of Israel and right-wing political causes, as is Mr. Harper.

Because Mr. Harper resigned as leader immediately after losing the election, and then disappeared (as he had every right to do after so many years in the public eye, despite some media outlets demanding to know where he was and what he was doing), he removed himself from whatever firing line disgruntled Tories might have dreamed up for him.

When he addresses the party convention on Thursday evening, it would be difficult to imagine any mea culpa, but rather a recitation, as any leader has the right to offer, of what he believes were the accomplishments of his time in office.

As an amateur piano player, he could (but he won't) quote the Sinatra line, "I did it my way." The question before the Conservatives today, and for the future, is whether that "way" will be good enough, or whether changes will be required.

Almost every Conservative who has spoken publicly about the party's future agrees that at least stylistically there must be a change. The party as surrounded by enemies; the all-or-nothing attitude to debate; the shrillness and take-no-prisoners partisanship; the total lack of humour; the search for divisive "wedge issues" – these characteristics of the party under Mr. Harper are now almost universally acknowledged to have been counterproductive.

All the Conservative leadership candidates thus far announced, and those who will yet enter the contest, will agree on this critique. But beyond style, what about substance?

Mr. Harper did take a more ideological perspective on government (and foreign policy) than the predecessor party. The effect was to narrow the Tories' potential appeal, which worked only if their adversaries divided the non-Conservative vote and the base of the party was hugely mobilized.

The narrowing made internal discipline easier, since the Harper party had very few moderate Conservatives left. Amid national defeat, most of those who were elected are from rural and small-town Canada.

The commanding issue for the post-Harper party is how to broaden its appeal. The debate about the means to accomplish this objective has barely begun.