There’s been a lot of handwringing, from Preston Manning to the “state-funded media,” over the federal Conservative leadership race. The tone of the race has often been nasty. And its content – boosting the trucker convoy, again? Touting crypto currencies? Sorry, which shadowy figure do you think runs Canada? – has been miles off the mark for a party that is, after all, the government-in-waiting.
But the biggest regret about the Tory leadership race is this: It’s barely started, and it’s already almost over.
Candidate debates? Two down, only two more to go. The opportunity to sign up new members? Closed as of June 3.
The leadership election itself isn’t until September, but the opportunity to win by growing the voter list ends in three weeks. The cake won’t be baked until the fall, but the list of ingredients will be locked in four weeks before the official start of summer.
Which is not a good thing for the Conservative Party. Or Canada.
The leading candidate, Pierre Poilievre, has taken the lead – at least in accumulating pixels and ink, both hostile and supportive – via his talent for saying the most provocative things. To crack the algorithm, he has eschewed moderation. Moderation is bland, and bland doesn’t go viral.
He’s doing what the French call “épater le bourgeois.” In this case, that means impressing ticked-at-the-elites voters. Mr. Poilievre called the Bank of Canada “financially illiterate,” which won him points among those voters. Former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge called that “bullshit” – which won Mr. Poilievre even more points.
The thing is, governing and marketing aren’t the same – a criticism that the Conservatives, on better days, make of the Trudeau government. But just as short elections encourage voters to go with gut over head, and to reflexively react because there’s no time to consider and reconsider, so it goes in this truncated Conservative leadership race.
Which is a shame, because there is so much that Conservatives, and all Canadians, could be talking over, fighting over, and maybe even getting over.
After two years of COVID-19 worries, economic worries, worries about whether the kids will be in school or zooming at the kitchen table, and worries about a real estate market where it’s difficult to afford a home in which to put that kitchen table, Canadians are seriously stressed out.
The cold economic stats say that things are really not all that bad. Yes, inflation is high, but the job market has never been stronger. And yet the average Canadian doesn’t feel half as good as all that. After eight seasons of hunkering down in the face of uncertainty, many Canadians find themselves bargaining between resignation, relief and inchoate rage.
And that goes doubly for voters on the right and centre-right of the spectrum. For them, there’s a sense not just of economic dislocation, but of social frustration and alienation. They’ve always been more demonstratively patriotic than most, yet the abrupt changes of the past few years have left many feeling estranged from their own country’s increasingly woke elite institutions – from universities and schools to the federal government and much of Bay Street. They’re discombobulated, and the vertigo is more than economic.
A lot of Canadians, especially the more conservative and blue collar, are thinking, to quote the movie Network, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more.”
Mr. Poilievre is going after the mad as hell, and trying to make them madder. He just might succeed. Many people want to smash the status quo. Those people are now increasingly on the right. That could profoundly reshape Canadian politics.
But conservatism, particularly of the Canadian variety, has usually been about the opposite of the things that get you noticed on social media: conservation; moderation; negotiation; building on the past to make a (moderately) better future. “Bland works,” as former Ontario premier Bill Davis once said.
If today’s Tory leadership race were longer, with more debates, and with party members forced to seriously consider and reconsider what they really want and how to get it, might the final result be different? Might we get, not a magnification of the anger, but more thoughtful ways to channel it into building a better country, rather than just owning the Libs?
Maybe. But it looks like there’s not enough time on this year’s leadership calendar for that.
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