Lori Turnbull is director of the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University and deputy editor of Canadian Government Executive magazine.
If the evolution of the Conservative movement in Canada had gone differently, Scott Brison would be announcing his candidacy for the party’s leadership. And he’d be at the front of the pack.
Mr. Brison was first elected as a Progressive Conservative member of Parliament back in 1997 in the Nova Scotia riding of Kings Hants. Save for a brief departure to allow Joe Clark to run in a by-election in the riding in 2000, he remained a member of the Progressive Conservatives until they joined with the Canadian Alliance to form the Conservative Party in 2003. Just days after the merger, Mr. Brison, the first openly gay MP to sit in the PC caucus, joined the Liberals, citing concerns over the dominant presence of the social conservative wing of the new Conservative Party. The social conservatives’ vocal objections to same-sex marriage made the party an inhospitable place for him.
The Conservative merger was driven more by political ambition than ideological cohesion or shared values. Those who argued in favour of uniting the right did so largely as a result of the simple math confronting them: as long as the right-of-centre vote was split, particularly in vote-rich Ontario, the Liberals would form government. Only by pooling their collective desire to win would the conservatives have the numbers to be competitive as an alternative for government.
However, when Peter MacKay, also a veteran MP from Nova Scotia and now the leadership candidate with the highest profile, agreed to the merger as then-leader of the PC Party, the entity that was born was not – and is not – a truly united right. Instead, it is a collection of factions located to the right of the political centre, among whom there is significant division on fundamental questions of policy and governance. In conversations about electoral politics in Canada, it is common to hear references to the Conservative “base.” This language is misleading. There is no homogeneous foundation supporting the Conservative house but, instead, a number of distinct constituencies, including fiscal conservatives, red tories, gun owners, classical federalists, neoliberals and social conservatives.
Stephen Harper led the Conservative Party to three consecutive governments, each one bigger than the last, by keeping a peace between these groups and giving each of them a reason to show up for him. He was a master of playing to the party’s collection of bases without allowing any of them – including the social conservatives – to run the show. He was in charge. And he gave the party a brand. As long as they were winning, the bases were happy enough. His style makes sense in this light: to keep everyone together, he needed a heavy hand. He learned early on the importance of message control. He insisted on MPs’ compliance with centrally approved talking points in order to avoid the range of mixed messages that would have emerged if caucus members had been free to speak their own minds.
After the 2019 election, in which Andrew Scheer won the most votes, increased the party’s seat count, but failed to form government, much of the analysis has focused on the social conservative wing of the party and the dissonance between these values and mainstream Canadian politics. It has been argued that the party must lose this thread if it ever hopes to be competitive again.
But the most pressing concern facing the Conservative Party is not really the presence of the social conservatives. It is the absence of Stephen Harper. I agree with Sean Speer, a former adviser to Mr. Harper, who wrote recently that the social conservative constituency cannot be simply spliced off from the party. Even if it were possible, it would be dangerous to the party’s fortunes. They need the votes. The right leader is the person who can hold the various parts together by brokering their interests and giving them all something to vote for, as Stephen Harper did. Mr. Scheer didn’t really lose the election. He just can’t keep the party together in the long term. In the days and weeks after the election, Mr. Scheer could have tried to save himself by articulating what the Conservative Party stands for in his eyes and outlining his plan for managing division within the party. But he missed his chance and that window has now closed.
To be fair, no party has a single, united base. That’s not the point of a political party anyway, especially not at the national level. Parties are supposed to bring people together, not amplify pre-existing divisions. The Liberals have civil wars, too, but the Conservatives’ internal fault lines – which are no surprise, given the pragmatic, strategic nature of the merger – have proven more visible and more consequential. This presents a daunting task for the new leader. Going back to Mr. Brison, he took a pass on the merged party not because the social conservatives were present. It was because they became too loud and powerful. The new Conservative leader need not be a visionary. They need to be a masterful power broker who keeps the bases together and in check.