When COVID-19 hit, a lot of people started describing it as this generation’s version of a war. Canada has not faced a threat like this, or had to borrow money and mobilize resources to this extent, since the Second World War.
If the aftermath of today’s war is anything like the previous one, then the Conservative Party, and its new leader Erin O’Toole, are in for a challenge. It’s what the Liberals – preparing what’s expected to be an activist Speech from the Throne next month and a dare to the other parties to vote it down – are counting on.
History doesn’t repeat, but it often rhymes. The hardships of the Great Depression and the war that followed changed Canada and Canadians’ attitudes. Most voters did not want to go back to the laissez-faire 1920s. They wanted better social programs, a wider safety net and the protections of a more activist government. The Liberals, fearfully eyeing the increasingly popular movement that would go on to become the New Democratic Party, promised the beginnings of the modern welfare state.
They were rewarded with 22 consecutive years in power, from 1935 to 1957.
The conservatives, in contrast, were uncomfortable with these newfangled ideas. Unfortunately for them, not enough voters felt the same way. Today’s true-blue heartland of Western Canada was a conservative dead zone. John Diefenbaker, who for years before becoming prime minister was the party’s lone Saskatchewan MP, used to joke that Tories were an endangered species on the Prairies, only kept from extinction by the hunting laws.
Canada’s history is one of voters changing their minds and even their most deeply held beliefs, and of the makeup of the population evolving, often rapidly. The Conservative Party’s challenge has been that, as its name suggests, it has usually been the party least eager to change. But it has still done so.
The conservatives were long the party opposed to free trade with the United States, while the Liberals were supportive; by the 1980s, the script had flipped. And while conservatives have always seen themselves as the party of patriotism, until the 1960s that nationalism was rooted in a tie to Britain and a disappearing empire, and included opposition to the Maple Leaf flag.
Since the 1980s, when Brian Mulroney’s Tories chose to dramatically increase immigration, Canada has been on a path of steady demographic transformation. A country that was once almost entirely white isn’t anymore and it’s becoming less so every day; a country that was once heavily rural is overwhelmingly urban and suburban and that process also continues. Conservatives can get ahead of those facts or find themselves left behind.
In the 2019 election, the Conservatives were entirely shut out of Greater Montreal and almost completely shut out of the Greater Toronto Area. Mr. O’Toole occupies one of the GTA’s few Tory seats, in Durham, a partly rural riding on the edge of the region.
Beyond demographics, the ideological centre of politics may also be shifting, as it did in the 1930s and 40s. The flood of pandemic spending may be temporary, but its fact – and its size, speed and effectiveness – have testified and given impetus to the possibilities of government doing more to promote welfare and to lower poverty and inequality.
The country that Tories failed to win over in 2019 may be a different place today, in ways that further disadvantage a party that Stephen Harper branded as dedicated to government as an exercise in permanent downsizing.
Conservatives should be carefully studying the surprising evolution of Doug Ford’s Ontario government. Elected two years ago with a populist image, the Ontario Premier has suddenly started talking and acting like one. Instead of fretting about emergency spending, he’s done what’s necessary. Instead of seeking out enemies, he’s sounded like a conciliator. The man’s appeal has always transcended race, but now he’s even earned the respect of many voters on the centre-left. The long-time bogeyman for Liberal and NDP voters has been entirely de-bogeymanified.
That’s what Mr. O’Toole’s Tories have to do to themselves. In 2019, the best argument for voting Liberal was the fear of a Conservative government. When your existence is your opponent’s best get-out-the-vote strategy, you need to rethink not just your sales pitch, but your substance.
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