It appears there may be no major candidate from Western Canada for the leadership of the Conservative Party. This is simply remarkable.
When Jason Kenney announced he would run for the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party leadership, he eliminated the best chance for a Westerner to succeed Stephen Harper. The odds now heavily favour someone from Ontario or Quebec becoming the next leader of the Official Opposition. This seems hard to believe, given everything that has happened over the past three decades.
Remember: The Reform Party emerged in the late 1980s because of Western Canadian anger at being ignored in Ottawa. Western Reformers and Central Canadian Progressive Conservatives battled for control of the conservative movement for 15 years. The Canadian Alliance, Reform's successor, essentially absorbed what was left of the PCs in 2003, with Calgarian Stephen Harper as leader.
Now, although Calgary MP Michelle Rempel and Regina MP Andrew Scheer are both thinking about running to succeed Mr. Harper, all of the other major candidates or potential candidates hail from the eastern half of the country. There are several good reasons for this.
First, there may be an implicit principle of rotation emerging within the conservative movement. Just as the Liberal leadership traditionally rotates between an anglophone and a francophone, so too the Conservatives may be accepting that, after a long tenure by a western leader, the next one should come from the east.
Second, the conservative movement is more ideologically united than in its past. Western conservative populists and eastern Red Tories clashed over everything from abortion to taxation. Today's conservatives play down social-conservative issues while emphasizing core beliefs in low taxes, balanced budgets, strong provinces and minimal regulation. As the party demonstrated at its May convention, when it stripped opposition to gay marriage out of its platform, all wings of the conservative movement now appear comfortable with this agenda.
Third, most conservatives understand that the leader of a national party simply must be bilingual. The Conservatives have a solid base in Quebec – 12 seats with room to grow – and even without that base, few voters in English Canada would risk dividing the country by voting for a unilingual English-speaking leader. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall knows this, which is one reason he has ruled himself out of contention.
Fourth, suburban ridings outside Toronto have voted for the party that won government in almost every election since 1968. (The exception was 2006.) Most of those 905 ridings (named after the region's area code) have large numbers of immigrant voters. In effect, suburban immigrant votes in the 905 elect the government. It's no surprise, then, that three of the declared candidates – Michael Chong, Tony Clement and Kellie Leitch – have strong ties to the 905.
Any western candidate will have to convince party members that he or she can win over immigrant voters in Greater Toronto. Otherwise, the party's prospects will be bleak in the next election.
So, four good reasons why the West may not offer a major candidate for the party leadership this time out. Still, for those of us who watched and chronicled the years of conservative warfare between the West and the rest, it just seems so strange that the war appears over, at least for now.
A postscript: Whomever the Conservatives choose as leader, the real opposition to Justin Trudeau's government may not come from within Parliament, but from the provinces. Right now, one of the Prime Minister's greatest assets is that he has friendly allies in Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne and Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley. But Ms. Wynne will be seriously challenged in the next election by Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown. If Mr. Kenney can unite the Alberta right, he will be a formidable opponent to Ms. Notley in 2019. Mr. Brown, Mr. Kenney and Brian Pallister, recently elected as Manitoba's premier, are all former Conservative MPs – Harper's Children, one wag called them.
The West may yet play a major role in opposing the Liberals in Ottawa, provincially if not federally. Which will be comforting, for those who like to see history repeating itself.