Bob Plamondon is the author of Full Circle: Death and Resurrection in Canadian Conservative Politics
If there is one thing federal Conservatives are good at, it’s losing elections. Liberals call themselves the natural party of government, but that’s largely because Conservatives are prone to disunity and choosing unelectable leaders. Will they make the mistakes of the past in 2020 or get it right this time?
Canadians don’t have anything against conservatism per se. Today, conservative-minded governments hold office in 7 out of 10 provinces, representing over 80 per cent of the Canadian population. Doug Ford’s provincial Conservatives won twice the number of seats in Ontario as Scheer’s federal party managed a year later. In Quebec, François Legault leads a centre-right party that picked up five times the proportion of seats as the federal Tories. A Tory government is in place in PEI, yet federal Conservatives garnered a goose egg in 2019.
Early commentary on the recent election suggests that the Tory party needs to quiet social-conservative voices and all will be well. But Conservative fault lines run deep. Former Tory Minister John Baird’s post-mortem on the 2019 election delivered to Andrew Scheer this week confirms as much.
Achieving unity in a factionalized and ideologically grounded party in a country as linguistically, geographically and socially diverse as Canada requires super-human leadership qualities. Indeed, since Confederation, only three Tories – Macdonald, Diefenbaker and Mulroney – have won governments with strong support across all provinces and regions.
Conservatives would be wise to choose a leader who has a sense of the nation and its history and is welcomed in all parts of the country. When putting a campaign together, the leader needs to put Conservatives in Charlottetown and Sherbrooke and Fort McMurray on the same page. This speaks to the challenge of crafting an energy and environmental policy that is supportable across the country.
Federal Conservatives do not lack for ideas, which are readily supplied by party members, think tanks, academics and conservative governments around the world. Provincial success shows that Conservatives need not be Liberal-lite or land on the dead centre of the political spectrum to succeed. But the best platform means nothing if the Tories choose a leader who cannot broadly inspire Canadians.
Almost no Canadian votes for an ideology. They want problem-solvers who speak about kitchen-table issues while being empathetic to those who are hurting. If a region is struggling, they reach out and find ways to help.
Liberals like to say Tory times are hard times while painting themselves in sunshine. It’s true that some Conservatives have seemed to enjoy delivering grim news on the campaign trail and have talked about spending cuts with glee. Successful Tory leaders have been optimistic by nature: even aspirational and patriotic.
In a leader, instincts matter as much as the policy positions taken within the confines of an election campaign. Canadians need to believe that, when faced with difficult decisions or a crisis, the prime minister will make the call that’s in the long-term best interests of Canada. Voters fear that politicians, despite anything they say in a campaign, may have hidden agendas or are not who they say they are.
No leader can be effective without being an inspiring communicator. People may not remember what you said but will always remember how you made them feel. Storytellers make that emotional connection. Authenticity and life experience matters. Having a sense of humour helps, as does taking the issues more seriously than oneself.
Party members should ask themselves which of the candidates would they most want to have a coffee or a beer with. Leaders who are fixated on an ideology, care about themselves more than others, lack generosity of spirit or have a negative disposition rarely pass this test of charisma. That doesn’t mean voters expect a candidate of perfection. As Churchill said, “I should have made nothing if I had not made mistakes.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge for a Tory leader is the capacity to unite the diversity of conservative factions – and then some – into common cause. A leader who microtargets a collection of interests might win the Conservative leadership but will be doomed in a general election. No one faction can get all of what they want and none should expect to get what might rupture the national coalition that’s necessary to win. We elect prime ministers who can unite the country and not exploit our differences.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.