Andrew MacDougall is a director at Trafalgar Strategy, and a former head of communications to former prime minister Stephen Harper.
Let’s speak plainly: The Conservative Party of Canada has a problem.
Rather, the party now has several problems, something that is increasingly clear as it stumbles through the fallout of its loss in the 2019 federal election. Andrew Scheer might have won the popular vote over Justin Trudeau, but absent change, that could become the party’s high-water mark in the post-Stephen Harper era.
The party’s difficulties are summed up neatly in the form of Derek Sloan, a rookie MP and one of four finalists in the indefinitely postponed race to lead the Conservative Party. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Sloan’s work, he recently made waves by implying that Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s top public-health official, was under the influence of the Chinese Communist Party, an outburst Mr. Scheer shamefully refused to condemn. Mr. Sloan’s only other moment of notoriety came earlier this year when he defended fellow leadership candidate Richard Décarie when he opined that being gay was a “choice.” (The party ended up disqualifying Mr. Décarie from running.)
That someone of as little distinction as Mr. Sloan is within even shouting distance of the leadership of the party that formed government only five years ago is evidence of a rapid decline. The bigger problem for the party, however, is that it’s not clear most of its members disagree with Mr. Sloan’s world view, a suspicion seemingly confirmed by Mr. Scheer’s silence and the muted criticism from other leading Conservatives. It appears few want to risk upsetting the base with the leadership race still in the balance.
And therein lies the root of the party’s problems: It has spent too much of the past five years preaching to the converted and not enough time growing the congregation. Constantly playing to a crowd united by a visceral dislike of Mr. Trudeau and an appreciation of Donald Trump’s brawling governance is no way to convince most Canadian voters that you have something serious to offer.
The “basification” of the Conservative Party is also evident in the way the two front-runners in the leadership race have run their campaigns. The “true blue” version of Erin O’Toole is chippier than the amiable and consensual Minister of Veterans’ Affairs Canadians first got to know in the late stages of the Harper government; Peter MacKay 2.0, meanwhile, nearly short-circuited in the manic days before the leadership race was suspended, spewing out a series of Trumpian posts on social media.
The first thing the party must do to restore its health is to back away from social media. It’s a siren leading them to shipwreck. Besides, the work the party must do runs longer than 280 characters.
And much of that work involves connecting with modern Canada. The regions represented by the Conservative Party need to be heard, particularly hard-hit Alberta, but not at the expense of suburban or urban Canada. Mr. Trudeau can govern without the Prairies, but the same cannot be said for Conservatives without solid representation in the Liberals’ current heartlands. The party needs to again grow in multicultural suburban Canada.
This is where Mr. Sloan’s xenophobic comments are so singularly unhelpful. Not only does it turn off Canadians from all backgrounds, including social conservatives, it also shields the government from legitimate criticism from the opposition over its uneven response to the coronavirus. No good Conservative should want his rhetoric spoken in their name – and yet, here we are, with the party’s top politicians seemingly content to ignore the issue.
The only test for the next leader of the Conservative Party should be how well he or she can grow the movement. That’s why Mr. MacKay and Mr. O’Toole should flash some steel and cut Mr. Sloan and any like-minded support out of their plans; they deserve no chits in a future opposition or government. And if that means one has to drop out to enable the other to get over the line as leader, then so be it. It will be far easier to bring any angry or disappointed members along in the wake of a deal than it will be to grow the party should it remain silent in the face of Mr. Sloan’s provocations.
Mr. MacKay has a history of doing deals that promote the greater good of the Conservative Party. He should negotiate another one now. Doing so would go a long way toward ridding the party of its most noxious problem.
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