Bob Plamondon is the author of Blue Thunder: The Truth about Conservatives from Macdonald to Harper.
Andrew Scheer may not have been a dead man walking on election night, but he became one in the weeks that followed by holding on to deep social-conservative beliefs that are disqualifying to anyone who wants to lead the country. Mr. Scheer has the distinction of being simultaneously condemned by moderates in his own party and by socially conservative organizations such as the anti-abortion Campaign Life Coalition for not acting on his beliefs.
It takes exceptional skills to unite the diverse factions that make up the conservative universe. Not only does this have to be done in English and French, but in communities large and small that stretch across a vast country.
Fiscal conservatives, free enterprisers, libertarians, monarchists, free-traders, red Tories, small-government and even environmental conservatives are not uncompromising or necessarily incompatible forces. But putting social conservatives and even Maxime Bernier into this melting pot without the lid blowing off was more than Mr. Scheer could handle.
While social conservatives represent a small portion of the Canadian population, they are a potent and oversized force within the Conservative Party. Campaign Life Coalition claims to have sold more than 11,000 Conservative Party memberships in the run-up to the 2017 Tory leadership vote, and it can rightly claim to have put Mr. Scheer over the top.
Of the 13 contenders who sought the Tory leadership, Campaign Life ranked Scheer its third-favourite. His promise in the leadership campaign to implement a tax credit for families that home-schooled their children was certainly a policy they could embrace.
The two candidates ranked above Mr. Scheer by Campaign Life received 16 per cent of the points in the early ballots. Most of these votes ultimately fell to Mr. Scheer, who won the contest by less than two percentage points on the 13th ballot.
While there needs to be a place for social conservatives in the Conservative Party, their influence should be proportionate to half the Canadian population who say they are open to voting Conservative.
A larger and more diverse membership would inoculate the Conservative Party – locally and nationally – from being overtaken by a narrow and fervently held interest or a particular group. If Conservatives want to be a big-tent party, they can begin by eliminating the $15 annual fee. The party should also undertake a massive membership drive to gain mass participation in this critical element of our democratic process.
This does not mean that the voters of Regina-Qu’Appelle cannot get behind the socially conservative Mr. Scheer. But a large party membership makes it harder for someone to become the leader by catering to a narrow faction of interests and voters.
The strongest Conservative leader will be the one who can draw the party’s diverse factions together in common cause. The leader could follow the example of Stephen Harper, who kept social conservatives in the tent by adopting an array of family-friendly policies that did not offend mainstream public opinion. A good example was income-splitting, which reduced the tax penalty paid by one-income households. More controversial was funding an international program on maternal health that excluded contraception or abortion in its design.
Tories who are more focused on winning an election than holding to a cause agree they need to expand the party membership to better reflect the wide swath of conservative-minded voters. They need to attract more progressive members in urban Canada and in Quebec. They need to attract younger voters and new Canadians. Rather than the 141,000 Canadians who took part in the 2017 leadership election, the party should try to double or triple that number for the 2020 leadership vote.
Candidates and leaders may win a party vote under today’s rules by microtargeting, but they do their cause no favours when the general election comes around. As Churchill said of party management, “There are fools at one end and crackpots at the other, but the great body in the middle is sound and wise.”
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