The new leader of the Conservative Party – we will find out who that leader is Saturday night –must confront a simple truth. The party is not competitive. He or she will have only two years to change that. And contrary to popular belief, two years is not a long time in politics.
A Globe and Mail/CTV Nanos poll released Friday reveals, not surprisingly, that most Canadians don't know much about what is happening in Conservativeland, nor do they care. Justin Trudeau's Liberals appear to have the economy in hand – pipelines will at least theoretically get built; money is finally being spent on infrastructure; inflation and unemployment are at acceptable levels; and deficits are not yet an issue in the public mind.
The Liberals are obsessively focused on protecting the North American free-trade agreement from a White House determined to change it, while not angering temperamental President Donald Trump. And Mr. Trudeau continues to be popular in international forums, such as the NATO and G7 summits he attended this week.
There is, in short, no good reason right now for anyone who voted Liberal in 2015 to change that vote. The Conservatives' task is to shake that contentment. How will they do it?
Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, whom polls and pundits predict will prevail, espouses a near-revolutionary commitment to sharply lower and flatter taxes, cuts to government subsidies for everything from Bombardier to the CBC, and an end to federal oversight of health care.
That recipe, if it survives all the way to the next election, will certainly offer Canadians a sharp change in direction. Every poll ever conducted says the Liberals would mop the floor with the Tories' platform. But who knows? Who really knows?
In any event, there will be a policy convention in Halifax in 2018, where much water may be added to the policy wine. Perhaps by then, Mr. Bernier, should he win, will have perfected a speaking style superior to his address Friday night, which managed to be brief, empty and rambling, all at the same time.
Toronto-area MP Erin O'Toole and Regina MP Andrew Scheer, Mr. Bernier's main challengers, are banking on Mr. Trudeau's sunny ways clouding over. Maybe the Liberals can't protect NAFTA. Maybe manufacturers will move their shops south, spooked by the prospect of tariffs. Either of these two candidates would offer calm, managerial competence in a time of economic crisis. Would that message reassure voters or put them to sleep?
That said, the surprise of Friday night's gathering was the genial Mr. Scheer's witty, energetic speech. Best line of the night: Liberals "achieve equality by making sure that we all hold hands finishing last together.' If most of the votes hadn't already been cast, he might have moved the convention.
Whoever wins, the new Conservative leader will need luck. Bad news for the government is good news for the opposition. The Liberals must stumble before the opposition has an opportunity to trip them up. A meaty scandal would be nice.
But the new Conservative leader cannot be passive. He or she (but almost certainly he) must shake public confidence in the Prime Minister and his team. How much of a tax cut did you really get? Is child care really any more affordable? Where is all the promised infrastructure? And what's so sunny about a government every bit as controlling and secretive as, well, Stephen Harper was? Only once the seeds of doubt have taken root will voters start to consider alternatives.
"We have a Prime Minister more focused on the next tweet than on tackling the budget deficit," chided Wellington-Halton Hills MP Michael Chong in his address. There was a lot of that sort of thing Friday night, and there will be more of it from the new leader in the months to come.
That leader will have two years to undermine the Liberal brand and shake confidence in Justin Trudeau's leadership, while hoping for a bit of luck.
Will the new Conservative leader be able to persuade enough Canadians that the Liberals are as tired and arrogant and corrupt (by Canada's gentle standards) as the Conservatives appeared in 2015 and the Liberals in 2006? That's the task. It's a huge task. And there is so little time.