It’s no coincidence that the Foothills Conservative riding association in Alberta and the Carlton Trail-Eagle Creek riding association in Saskatchewan are the latest to push for an early review of Erin O’Toole’s leadership.
It’s also no coincidence that Saskatchewan members defied Mr. O’Toole and kept dissident Senator Denise Batters in their caucus, or that deputy leader Candice Bergen and former leader Andrew Scheer, both MPs from the Prairies, are tweeting their support for a convoy of truckers protesting against vaccine mandates.
The Conservative Party grapples with the growing estrangement between Ontario and Prairie voters. Both communities are represented within the party, and managing that clash of values challenges any Conservative leader.
As well, Mr. Scheer’s supporters are clashing with Mr. O’Toole’s. As leader, it’s Mr. O’Toole’s job to heal those rifts. Thus far, he’s failing.
The Conservatives are meeting this week to hear a postmortem on the 2021 election loss, and to plan strategy for the months ahead. There is much for the Official Opposition to home in on. Interest rates will soon rise to counter worrying levels of inflation, even as the Liberal government prepares to unveil new measures to reduce carbon emissions that are bound to increase fuel costs.
The size of the federal deficit, the housing affordability crisis, supply chain disruptions – this Liberal government is a target-rich environment. The Conservatives should be all over these issues.
Instead, the party is distracted by criticism of Mr. O’Toole’s leadership from within caucus and among party activists. And certain members of that caucus appear determined to undermine the party’s electability by supporting a movement to abandon pandemic restrictions, as embodied in the convoy of truckers en route to Ottawa.
Finance critic Pierre Poilievre: ”COVID has become a never-ending excuse for power-hungry authorities to replace our freedom with their control. Enough. Reopen our businesses, let our truckers drive and restore freedom for all.”
Ms. Bergen: “Conservatives have been opposed to federally mandated vaccines since Trudeau introduced them, and we oppose the mandatory vaccine on Canadian truckers … I support peaceful demonstrations against these mandates.”
Mr. Scheer: “Thank you Truckers! Trudeau is attacking personal liberty and threatening everyone’s ability to get groceries because of his overreach on vaccine mandates. He is the biggest threat to freedom in Canada.”
As with everything political, this is personal. Mr. Scheer’s supporters resent his ouster and are seeking, in turn, to oust Mr. O’Toole. Most dissident MPs are located in safe ridings, have no hope of ever making it into an O’Toole cabinet, and little to lose by seeking to undermine him.
But there is more to it than that, just as there is more to this convoy than a few disgruntled anti-vaxxers stirring up trouble.
One wing of the Conservative Party is rooted in Prairie values and culture. That culture traditionally places a premium on individual freedom and responsibility, which is why conservative Prairie governments have been slower to lock down and quicker to open up throughout this pandemic.
Ontario’s political culture, in contrast, tends to be more communitarian and pragmatic. Throughout the pandemic, the focus in that province has been on protecting the health care sector, which is why Premier Doug Ford, despite being conservative, has been quicker to shut down and slower to reopen than his Prairie counterparts.
Any federal Conservative leader must respect and accommodate the populist, don’t-tread-on-me base of the party anchored in the Prairies, while winning over the suburban Ontario voters that elect governments.
If Mr. O’Toole seems inconsistent – waving his arms and blathering untruths about Liberals shutting down the oil and gas sector one day; securing caucus support for legislation banning conversion therapy the next – that’s one reason why.
The convoy is another challenge: a righteous protest against authoritarian government in the eyes of Tory activists; a threat to peace, order and good management in the eyes of millions of suburban Ontario voters. Mr. O’Toole seeks neither to condemn nor praise the protesters, angering the base while perplexing the suburban centre.
Because we love a good dust-up, the media focus on the splits within the Conservative Party, while failing to understand that we are really describing a dangerous divide between two different regions of the country. The Liberals handle the issue by pretending the Prairies don’t exist. And that’s not healthy either.
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