Justin Trudeau’s Liberals seemed entirely beatable in the autumn election campaign, thanks to the SNC-Lavalin affair, the wonky India trip, the blackface photos.
And yet the Conservatives lost. The party leader, Andrew Scheer, failed. So the knives are out.
Former Tory cabinet minister Peter MacKay – who was rumoured even before the election to be a potential replacement for Mr. Scheer, a rumour Mr. MacKay denied being party to – said this week that the Conservative Leader had a “breakaway on an open net” in the election but blew it by failing to address his socially conservative views. Conservative MP Mark Strahl, meanwhile, said the party is reviewing everything from staffing to policies after the loss.
But the problem facing the Conservative Party goes far beyond its leadership. “Conservatives have become a bit small in their thinking,” said Dennis Matthews, who was an advertising and marketing adviser to Stephen Harper when he was prime minister. The party, Mr. Matthews says, has settled for building a few percentage points of popularity on top of its existing base of about one voter in three. “We need to think bigger,” he said. “The party needs to make a bigger appeal to the country.”
To become a governing party, the Conservative Party of Canada has to grow up and advance a decade or three in its thinking. That does not mean making the party more wishy-washy, retreating to the Red Tory nostrums of the old Progressive Conservatives. Canada does not need a second Liberal Party.
The Conservative coalition must be blue: grounded in small government, low taxes and individual freedom. But unless it tells a better story on the issues that matter to voters today – especially on the environment, on immigration and on the rights of women and sexual minorities – then it won’t matter who leads the party. It will lose and it will deserve to lose.
The general consensus is that the Conservatives lost the election because they lost suburban Ontario – specifically the swath of ridings surrounding Toronto, a region called the 905, after its area code.
Middle-class suburbanites in the 905 tend to vote as a block, and because so many ridings are involved – about 30, depending on how you draw the boundary – the party they choose almost always forms the government. And the 905 has a multiplier effect: The party that does well there does well in other suburban Ontario seats and in the suburban ridings surrounding Vancouver.
Mr. Harper won most of the seats in the 905 on his way to a majority-government victory in 2011. Mr. Trudeau’s Liberals did the same in 2015 and repeated the trick on Oct. 21, securing 24 seats to the Conservatives’ six.
“We hit a wall in Ontario,” said Michael Fortier, a Montreal-based banker appointed to the Senate and Mr. Harper’s cabinet in 2006. He pointed out that Conservatives were able to win three elections while holding only a handful of seats in Quebec because of growing support in suburban Ontario, which the party has now lost. “We need to figure out how to get traction there.”
ELECTION RESULTS 2015 VS. 2019,
ELECTION RESULTS 2015 VS. 2019, TORONTO AREA
ELECTION RESULTS 2015 VS. 2019, TORONTO AREA
As Rachel Curran discovered, gaining traction in suburban Ontario means getting serious about the environment. When Mr. Harper’s former director of policy talked to voters in Ottawa-area ridings on behalf of the Conservatives during the election campaign, the environment came up as an issue over and over again.
“It was a priority – and not just for left-wing voters,” she said. “It’s a priority for swing voters and now for core conservative voters. And I think we have fallen behind there.”
Every poll shows that combating climate change is a key issue for voters across the country. “The environment came up as a heavy issue in every debate I did,” said Lisa Raitt, who has represented the Greater Toronto Area riding of Milton and its predecessor since 2008, but who lost on Oct. 21 to her Liberal opponent. “It’s a litmus test,” Ms. Raitt said. “Climate change may not be the reason you voted for someone. But it’s the reason you voted against someone.”
The Liberals imposed a carbon tax in Ontario and other provinces where the provincial government would not adopt one of its own or a cap-and-trade equivalent. The Conservatives were certain that suburban voters, many of whom commute to work by car, would rise up against the tax. But they didn’t, and the woolly Tory platform, which contained vague promises to regulate emissions and invest in new technology, convinced few.
“It’s carbon capture here and carbon capture there,” said Mr. Fortier. While technology offers long-term solutions, he says more concrete action is required in the short term. “Whatever measures we table need to be taken seriously by voters, and I’m afraid they weren’t.”
While continuing to robustly promote the oil-and-gas sector, on which so much of the Canadian economy depends, the Conservatives must come up with a climate-change plan at least as credible as any on offer by the Liberals if they want to win elections. Carbon capture here and carbon capture there won’t cut it.
Another core issue is immigration and diversity. Here, the party has done itself enormous harm.
When the Conservatives were last in power, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, now Alberta’s Premier, worked relentlessly and successfully to win over immigrant voters, reminding them that Conservatives, not Liberals, held the same socially and economically conservative views they did. Mr. Harper liked to boast that he was the only conservative leader in the developed world supported by immigrant voters.
In The Big Shift, Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, and I wrote that suburban immigrant voters in the 905 allied to the party’s traditional base in Western Canada could provide a stable coalition that would lead to repeated Conservative victories. But the Conservatives torched that bridge during the 2015 campaign by encouraging Canadians to report “barbaric cultural practices” and by mishandling the tragic death of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian child found on a Turkish beach, with their initial reluctance to take in more Syrian refugees. The Liberals also successfully demonized the Conservatives for legislation that stripped the Canadian citizenship of dual nationals convicted of terrorist acts.
During the subsequent leadership contest, more than one candidate argued for reduced immigration. Conservative MPs voted against Motion 103, which condemned Islamophobia. (Critics wrongly argued the motion could restrict freedom of speech.) And while Mr. Scheer supports robust levels of immigration, he did himself no favours by harping on asylum seekers crossing the border into Canada from the United States at unauthorized points of entry. “Our approach was much more about creating anger and creating fear, rather than saying this is a policy issue and here’s how we would deal with it," said Ms. Curran. As a consequence, immigrant voters may have come to fear the Conservative Party.
“Is it the norm now that they are Liberal voters?” Ms. Raitt wondered. Middle-class suburban immigrant voters and their descendants may vote Conservative in times of economic difficulties, because Tories are generally seen as handling economic issues more capably than Liberals, she said. But when people do not feel economically insecure, “they vote with their hearts.” And in their hearts, they no longer trust Conservatives.
Such mistrust is misplaced. The Conservative record in defence of immigration is robust. John A. Macdonald was an immigrant who envisioned a land filled with fellow immigrants from sea to sea. John Diefenbaker eliminated race-based restrictions on immigration. Brian Mulroney opened the floodgates, bringing in more than 200,000 immigrants a year – a policy Liberal governments copied. Mr. Harper kept the intake high, even during the financial crisis, because he saw immigrants as vital to the country’s economic future. But as Mr. Matthews points out, “Conservatives have to work harder in Canada to show they’re different on immigration from other conservative movements around the world, which in so many cases have turned inward and become xenophobic.”
Social values haunt the Conservatives above all other issues. During the election campaign, Mr. Trudeau repeatedly accused Mr. Scheer of wanting to restrict a woman’s right to an abortion. He also brought up an old speech of Mr. Scheer’s opposing same-sex marriage. As so often in the past, the Liberals accused the Conservatives of being in thrall to the social conservatives within the party, of harbouring some infamous hidden agenda, even though no Conservative government has ever acted on such an agenda.
Mr. Scheer insisted the same-sex marriage issue was settled and that his government would never introduce legislation to limit a woman’s right to choose. But in answering questions about these issues, he seemed evasive and uncomfortable. A devout Catholic, he appeared to be at war with himself every time he spoke, reluctantly, on the subject.
There are right-to-life MPs within the Conservative caucus. Some faith-based conservatives are uncomfortable with what they think is an LGBTQ agenda run rampant. Social conservatives were prominent within the Reform Party and its successor, the Canadian Alliance, and became part of the Conservative Party coalition.
By strength of will, Mr. Harper was able to keep the coalition together without pandering excessively to the demands of those social conservatives. Mr. Scheer struggles to convince people within his own party, let alone the broader public, that he has the same strength of will.
“The party has got to put the gay rights and abortion issue to bed, long before the next election is called," John Baird said. Mr. Baird served in the cabinets of Mr. Harper and of former Progressive Conservative premier Mike Harris in Ontario.
“The Liberals use this as a bogeyman issue to great effect," he said, "and it costs us dearly in the Ontario suburbs.”
One solution might be for the party to reject socially conservative values, which are held by only a minority of the population – polls consistently show that large majorities of Canadians support same-sex marriage and a woman’s right to an abortion – and instead become more overtly libertarian, dedicated to preserving and promoting individual freedom.
Lanark-Frontenac-Kingston MP Scott Reid has been a strong voice for a more libertarian conservatism for decades, arguing for the legalization of marijuana as far back as 2001. He argues that a more overtly libertarian approach would be “not only helpful, but critical” to the party’s future.
That danger is that social conservatives could forge their own party, embracing nativist, fundamentalist dogma that splits the conservative vote and corrodes public discourse. Such parties are on the march across Europe. Could one spring up here if the Tories become more socially progressive?
“It’s a risk,” said Leslie Noble, a consultant who helped write the manifesto that brought Mr. Harris to power in Ontario. “But we should be running on things that unite us as a party, such as fiscal issues, not on things that divide us or reflect the views of a minority.
"Folks may leave if that’s the only issue that matters for them, but hopefully the rest of our agenda will keep them with us. In any case, it’s what we have to do.”
There are signs that social conservatives would stay within the Conservative Party, even if the party refuses to endorse their views. Maxime Bernier created the populist, nativist People’s Party after failing to win the Conservative leadership. The party garnered a measly 1.6 per cent of the vote on Oct. 21.
Mr. Reid says Canada’s immigrant heritage and the large number immigrants here today limit the prospects for a nativist party. “Canadians are genuinely much more open to immigration than almost any country in the world,” he said.
Here, then, could be a Conservative Party for our time, one that believes governments should defend your freedom to live your life as you choose, to worship as you choose, to love whomever fills your heart, to have complete control over your own body.
Greater freedom means fewer, simpler, lower taxes and less regulation. It means a smaller government that lives within its means and does not seek to intrude in the market, in your affairs or in the affairs of other governments.
But as any good Conservative knows, with freedom comes responsibility, including the responsibility to protect the environment from human harm.
And as the party of economic opportunity, the Conservative Party should embrace high levels of immigration, recognizing that immigrants built this country and are its future.
All the values embodied in this modern notion of conservatism could be voted on and affirmed through a set of resolutions at the policy convention in April. In the long run, they may prove more important than the vote on the leadership review.
The alternative is to pander to those who would impose their morality on others, who are suspicious of newcomers, who believe fighting climate change is a conspiracy to destroy capitalism.
It’s one or the other. Time to choose.
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