Bruce Anderson is chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, and partner with i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. Over his career he has provided counsel and polling for Liberal and Progressive Conservative politicians but no longer does any partisan work. Different members of his family have worked for Conservative, Reform and Liberal politicians, and one of his daughters currently works for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He spent four years as a member of CBC’s popular At Issue panel.
Years ago, I wrote the odd speech for leaders including those of the Progressive Conservative type. Watching the early circling of possible Conservative Party leadership candidates, I wondered what I would write, if I were writing a speech for one of them to give today.
A great political speech should be about the audience. It will describe what you want to do and shed light on who you are, paint contrasts, draw the crowd in and make them want more. But more than anything, a great speech has a feeling of pure honesty. Conservatives today will want an honest conversation with each other.
Here’s what my draft would look like.
My friends, in the course of this race, you’ll hear from candidates who will tell you reassuring, pleasant things. They’ll say that our party came within a whisker of winning. That with 99 seats we have a strong fighting force in the House. We’re fabulous at raising money, know the issues deeply and know what we stand for. Before we know it, voters will put us back in charge.
But if we let ourselves be lulled into reassurance, we’ll squander the lessons we can take from our defeat. And you know what they say about those who fail to learn from the past.
So today, I want to share my thoughts about what the past tells us about how to build a next generation of success for Canada’s Conservative Party.
Only 44 per cent of Canadians define themselves as conservative. Seventy per cent say they are “progressive.” That’s because many people have a mix of conservative and progressive instincts, depending on the issue and the circumstances. This math has not changed much in decades. But despite this math, or maybe in part because of it, we became, in a pretty obvious way, the only party that wasn’t really trying to grow our support.
Many Canadians, including many who had voted for us before, sensed that we didn’t really want their vote. That we felt they weren’t conservative enough for our tastes.
Now, we can tell ourselves that this is a mark of honour, proof that we don’t compromise on what matters to us. Or, we can take a sober look at what this approach means to our prospects of forming a government in the future.
We have a choice. We can be a pure voice for the 44 per cent. Or we can ask Canadians from across the spectrum to be open to us, to hear how their goals and aspirations can be served by our values and ideas.
This is the essence of politics – it isn’t a radical idea. But we somehow got ourselves turned around.
When we focus only on our base, we become preoccupied with constantly stimulating those who will send money, attend our meetings and applaud our every act. Pretty soon, we’ve forgotten what it’s like to try to persuade someone of something. Our policies start to have a narrower focus. We expose ourselves to fewer new ideas, in a world where change is a constant, and fresh thinking is like oxygen – we can’t thrive without it.
Spending our days attacking others to energize our base produces immediate rewards, but the bill comes due eventually. We all know plenty of people who walked away because they thought we were too taken with ourselves, or too focused on combat with our political opponents.
Our Party has much to offer Canadians. But we must return to the idea of growing our support, not ring-fencing our supporters. To do that, we must concentrate on describing the outcomes we can achieve for people. We must not demand that they share our ideological DNA. Or leave the impression that we disrespect them if they don’t.
On election night, it was Stephen Harper’s prerogative not to discuss the reasons for our loss. But every party that loses should have an honest conversation with itself. If we simply tell ourselves the clock ran out, we do ourselves a disservice.
The future of Canada will always be shaped by a blend of progressive and conservative instincts, and will always be something of compromise by voters on both sides of the spectrum. It’s the way regular people live their lives, and it’s only natural that they expect politics to reflect this aspect of our culture.
Our goal must be to make our ideas as persuasive as they can be, to as many people as possible. We must do more than give voice to their anger, or fear. We must remind ourselves, and them, that we are a vehicle for the national good, not a partisan minority.
Our country is known around the globe for a few things. Hockey. Winters. Natural beauty. And maybe one other thing.
Somewhere along the way, we confused the idea of being passionate about our ideas with being obnoxious to people outside our party. Regular people don’t live their lives with their knuckles and teeth bared, and they don’t like people who do. Our party, instead of correcting this behaviour, rewarded it, and put it on TV screens every day. We allowed voters to believe this was what we admired.
This is on us. And we owe it to ourselves to choose a leader who will erase this stain on our reputation.
A modern conservative party can win elections without betraying our true nature. In truth, it’s more likely that we lost an election because we sent the wrong signals about the kind of people who are members of our Party.
Conservatives don’t lack compassion. We believe in looking out for our neighbours and helping those in need. We join groups in our communities to get things done, by working together. We listen, hear different views, smile, and offer our own. We have friends and family members whom we cherish, even though they vote for other parties, and think differently about politics.
So let’s regroup, and aim high. Beating our opponents is not aiming high. Raising more money is not aiming high. Proving that voters made a mistake on Oct. 19 is not aiming high.
Building a better future for Canada and a better life for all Canadians, that should be our unending, and principal, priority.Report Typo/Error
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