Doesn’t anybody want this job? The field of aspirants to the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada spent last week growing shallower and thinner, with a trio of bold-faced names – Jean Charest, Pierre Poilievre and Rona Ambrose – all backing out before the starting line.
What remains is a short bench, with few players voters have ever heard of. It leaves former Progressive Conservative leader and Harper-era minister Peter MacKay standing out as, for the moment, the clear favourite.
There’s still time for others to jump into the race, and many Conservatives are dreaming of the return of the man who did the most to create the party, Stephen Harper. This play’s cast of characters is not yet set. But nor is it clear what kind of party the Conservatives want to be.
The party’s identity is the bigger question to be decided when members vote for a new leader in June.
The horse race to lead the party can’t be separated from the issue of where Conservatives want to take the country. Conservative politicians have competing compasses, and their takes on true north don’t agree.
For Canada to remain a success story, it needs a reasonable, humane and positive Conservative Party, one that seeks to unite voters of all backgrounds. Beyond our borders, from Hungary to the White House, many right-wing politicians have won election by embracing the opposite. That path to power is the political equivalent of a hit-and-run on the country’s future.
When it comes to its chances of forming the next government, Canada’s Conservative Party is in a position that is enviable, yet fatally constricted.
The left side of the political spectrum is divided but, on the right, the Conservatives stand alone. Their only competitors are the Bloc Québécois, which is limited to one province, and the People’s Party of Canada, which was a bust last fall. It leaves the Tories with a base of one-third of the electorate.
But, as this page pointed out during last fall’s election post-mortem, the majority of Canadians who aren’t part of the Conservative base are not only not voting for the party – they’re not even considering it. The problem is particularly acute in urban and suburban Canada, where all of the population growth is happening.
In the vote-rich Greater Toronto Area, there is now almost no blue on the map, and few ridings where the Conservatives came second in 2019. Things are worse in Greater Montreal.
The Conservatives, at least in their current iteration, have a low ceiling of support. They can only form government if the others parties, with a much larger combined base, oblige them by fatally splitting votes on the left and centre.
Conservatives need to worry about how to win the next election; for Canadians, the bigger issue is how the Tories would govern if they won.
Last fall, the Liberals’ best get-out-the-vote strategy was the existence of Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative administration in Ontario. Premier Ford came into office as a species of populist that right-wing parties have put forward in many other countries. He offered outsider status, a refrain of resentment, a distrust of expertise and experience, and a disdain for government.
The chaos sowed by Mr. Ford in his first year proved to be the Liberals’ top argument against voting Conservative. The Ontario PC government has since tried to change its rhetoric and its course, since it’s clear that, while unleashing Mr. Ford’s worst impulses can motivate the base, it turns off far more voters than it attracts.
The Conservative Party has a lot of soul searching to do.
Does it believe that climate change is best addressed by ignoring the problem, or by tackling it? Can the solution include carbon taxes – which began life as a conservative idea – or is the party so reflexively opposed to any and all taxes that even raising some taxes to lower others is forbidden?
Are there social programs it would be willing to create or expand, or does the Conservative Party exist solely to make government smaller and lower taxes? That’s not the Tory tradition in Canada; it’s the conservative movement imported from the United States.
Canadians need a Conservative Party that can offer more than just resistance to the Liberals and resentment of the current culture. If it can’t, the party’s next choice of leader may be irrelevant.