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To win, Conservatives needs to set aside their Harper-era strategies, embrace a more modern outlook and find ways to persuade younger generations to support them

Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay are the two lead candidates for the federal Conservative Party leadership.The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

The federal Conservatives will announce the winner of their leadership race on Sunday. Most everyone expects either Peter MacKay, a former senior cabinet minister and co-founder of the party, or Durham MP Erin O’Toole will lead the party. But in one sense, that won’t tell us much at all.

Mr. MacKay and Mr. O’Toole have broadly similar platforms. (Cut taxes, control spending, fight crime, support the military.) Both are middle-aged white men. Melissa Lantsman, who had various roles in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government and who helped run Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford’s election campaign, calls them “two sides of the same Conservative coin.”

During the leadership campaign, neither of them confronted the core question: What does Canadian conservatism mean in our time? What defines the Conservative Party of Canada? And why should the millennials, who when combined with Gen Z are now by far the largest voting block in the country, support it?

The answer emerging from some of the best minds in the conservative movement, and from the dynamics of the leadership campaign itself, will confound many small-c conservatives, including this writer, who believe in fiscal conservatism but progressive social policies.

The Conservatives may need to do the exact opposite. Electoral success amid the insecurities of today may lie in embracing a responsible version of social conservatism, and in recognizing that the Conservative Party must be, at its heart, populist.

The Conservative leadership race: the candidates, policies and many similarities between the leading contenders

A Conservative supporter entertains a young child at Andrew Scheer's campaign headquarters in Regina on Oct. 21, 2019, the night he lost the federal election. Mr. Scheer would announce his resignation nearly two months later, triggering the current leadership contest.Carlos Osorio/Reuters/Reuters

The federal Conservatives have a large base. About 30 per cent of the electorate, consisting primarily of voters in the Prairies and in rural Ontario and British Columbia, will vote Conservative no matter the circumstances, no matter the leader, come hell or high water, according to most polls and most election results. No other federal party has a base that large and that loyal. But the Tories also have a low ceiling – the party has never won the support of more than 40 per of the vote in any election since the current incarnation was formed in 2003.

Conservative election strategy has been to win over a few percentage points of persuadable voters above the base by offering this tax cut or that tough-on-crime proposal.

The approach failed in the 2019 election because Conservative strategists and the party’s leader, Andrew Scheer, were trying to recreate the electoral coalition that brought former prime minister Stephen Harper three victories, including a majority government in 2011, not realizing that the coalition no longer exists.

“They’re stuck using the Stephen Harper playbook,” says David Tarrant, who was a communications strategist in both the Harper and Ford governments. “They are not responding to the fact that the country is always changing, and politics is always changing.”

Stephen Harper pauses while addressing supporters at a 2015 election-night gathering in Calgary.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

A decade ago, the millennials – which the Washington-based Pew Research Center defines as anyone born between 1981 and 1996 – emerged as a voting block.

Today they and Gen Z, the generation behind them, form a larger congregation of voters than either the boomers or Generation X.

Progressive parties – the New Democrats and Greens, as well as the Liberals – believe they own and will always own the millennial and Gen Z vote, because these younger voters are more socially liberal than their parents.

But the Great Recession of 2008-09, advances in new technologies and the ongoing concentration of wealth within a privileged elite have left many younger workers struggling in a gig economy that was shattered by the arrival of COVID-19.

Justin Trudeau clearly believes that these voters, many of whom currently depend on CERB (the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit) and other federal emergency wage and job supports to get by, will welcome more government support.

“This is our chance to build a more resilient Canada, a Canada that is healthier and safer, greener and more competitive, a Canada that is more welcoming and more fair,” the Prime Minister said at Tuesday’s press conference.

Ian Brodie, shown in 2008, was chief of staff to Mr. Harper.Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

To Ian Brodie, who was chief of staff to Mr. Harper in his first government, Mr. Trudeau’s remarks smack of class warfare. The Liberals, he tweeted after that press conference, “will speak to people who weren’t terribly badly inconvenienced by the shutdown, promising to use other people’s money to remake Canada in a way they describe as fairer and greener.” Conservatives, he said, “speaking for people who paid a terrible price in the shutdown, will talk primarily about recovering jobs, business income, schooling and normalcy.”

The divisions are not only income-based, but geographical as well. If the Conservatives dominate in the Prairie provinces and the hinterlands, the natural habitat of Liberals is in the more affluent enclaves of the larger cities, especially Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver.

The two sides fight for votes in the scores of suburban ridings in between these two solitudes. Because there are so many of them, suburban ridings determine the outcome of elections.

Another division could be between the public class, who live on the avails of taxation, and the private class, who pay the taxes. The public class includes the school teacher, transit worker, public servant, nurse, student, artist, social worker, first responder, city worker and the like. Most of them would welcome a further expansion of the state, which would benefit their class.

The private class includes the store clerk, store owner, accountant, factory worker, office manager, salesperson, truck driver, marketer, oil worker and others trying to hang on to their job and as much of their money as possible.

“You have to identify the segments of the population who feel left behind by the downtown elites,” says Ms. Lantsman. “You’ve got to identify the people who are left behind and make sure you’re taking care of them.”

A sign on a closed store in downtown Toronto criticizes the shortcomings of the Canada Emergency Business Account, one of the federal COVID-19 relief measures, on April 16.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

The key for Conservatives is to convince younger workers in insecure jobs – the Precariat, some call them – that the Conservative Party is their party, not the party of the fat cats in the board rooms, where Liberals are more likely to be found.

For that reason, conservative parties across Canada have been most successful when they embrace what you might call “controlled populism.” Successful Conservative governments are in it “for the little guy,” as Mr. Ford puts it. But being in it for the little guy doesn’t mean subsidies and supports: For conservatives, it means private-sector job creation and greater social mobility.

Social mobility focuses on helping people get an education, get a first job, get a better job, buy a home, raise a family – not through subsidies and supports, but by creating the economic conditions that make mobility possible.

Promoting social mobility is the very core of modern conservatism for Sean Speer, who was Mr. Harper’s senior economic adviser and is today a fellow at the Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa-based think tank.

“It’s a message that is inclusive,” he says.

And it contrasts, he said, with the Liberals, who are “so focused on income redistribution, which is so static, so fixed-pie, that there is a whole caste system and the purpose of government is to redistribute from those who are successful to those who aren’t successful.”

Controlled populism also accepts the need for immigrants to grow the population and power the Canadian economy. Support for robust levels of immigration distinguishes Canadian populism from its darker counterpart in the United States and Europe. In 2018, Mr. Ford’s Progressive Conservatives won most of the ridings with high levels of immigrant voters.

As for the New Democrats, who claim to represent the economically marginalized, Ms. Lantsman dismisses them as the “Lost Party of the Woke Torontonian,” long divorced from the labourers and farmers who were their original supporters. NDP partisans would hotly disagree. But the truth is that, with only 16 per cent of the vote in the last election, and with the party’s finances in dire straits, the party of Tommy Douglas and Ed Broadbent and Jack Layton has never seemed to matter less. Future elections may involve, not just Liberal-Conservative or Liberal-NDP switch voters, but NDP-Conservative switchers. It already happens in the West; it could come to Ontario as well.

Leslyn Lewis, a lawyer from Milton, Ont., is predicted to be close behind Mr. O'Toole and Mr. MacKay in the leadership contest.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

Many Conservatives believe that, however fiscally conservative, the party must be socially moderate: must accept a woman’s right to choose an abortion, must defend LGBTQ rights. Andrew Scheer’s visible discomfort when queried on such issues contributed to his defeat in the 2019 election.

But the strength of Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis’s campaign has surprised many. She is pro-life and opposes legislation that would ban conversion therapy on LBGTQ people. But she also has a PhD in Law and a Masters in environmental science. She is expected to come in a strong third and could even place second. Everyone agrees that MP Derek Sloan, another social conservative, will place last.

As a black woman, she caters to “the desire within the party itself to break out of the stereotype of the Conservatives being a party of white men,” says pollster Dimitri Pantazopoulos.

But the success of Ms. Lewis’s campaign also suggests that Conservatives can no longer pretend that social conservatism is a fringe element within the movement.

“It doesn’t mean you have to agree with them,” said Mr. Pantazopoulos. “But it does mean you have to listen to them, accept that their point is valid and that they need to be heard.”

Ms. Lewis, who was virtually unknown when she entered the Conservative leadership race in February, raised almost as much money as Mr. MacKay and Mr. O’Toole in the last quarter, and beat them both in the number of donors, with more than 10,000 people contributing.

How does the next Conservative leader account for the undeniable power of social conservatives within the party without alienating voters, especially younger voters, who would reject – probably for a lifetime – any party that sought to limit the rights of women or of LGBTQ Canadians?

One way to bridge the gap might be to focus on the fundamental importance of the family as the foundation of Canadian society: making it easier to afford being a couple and to have children – perhaps through income splitting – and to care for older relatives.

As Mr. Speer puts it: “If you get married, find work, buy a house and have kids, your likelihood of living in poverty is basically nil.”

Progressive Conservative Premiers Doug Ford and Jason Kenney of Alberta attend a Stampede Breakfast last summer.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

Provincial governments have the task of providing the services that Canadians depend on – education, health care, roads and public transit, and the like. Most provinces – including all three Prairie provinces, two Maritime provinces and Ontario and Quebec – currently have conservative governments of one sort or another, which suggests Canadians are comfortable with governments of the centre-right.

The popularity of provincial conservatives gives hope to federal Conservatives. As well, the WE Charity controversy and the resignation of former finance minister Bill Morneau have damaged Mr. Trudeau and his government. Canadians may not warm to the Liberals’ bold plans for new spending, with the deficit approaching a staggering $350-billion this year and with more to come next year.

A well-run campaign and a thoughtful platform based on a return to fiscal responsibility, private-sector job creation, support for elder care as well as child care, continued robust immigration – with a greater emphasis on economic-class over family-class immigrants – help for the agriculture and natural resource sector – especially for oil and gas – improved education and entrepreneurial opportunities for First Nations, help for car commuters, and promises to co-operate with rather than confront provinces in fighting climate change, could go down well.

Mr. O'Toole and Mr. MacKay wait for the start of June 17's Frenhc leadership debate in Toronto.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

Beyond presenting a coherent vision of conservatism that will appeal to young and suburban voters, Mr. O’Toole or Mr. MacKay must bring something more valued this year than at any time in the past: authenticity.

“It’s not something you can build or manufacture,” says Howard Anglin. Mr. Anglin is principal secretary to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, but for the purposes of this essay he speaks only for himself.

Even before the pandemic struck, there were signs that voters were growing increasingly impatient with the scripted message tracks that dominate political discourse. COVID-19 heightened the demand from politicians for straight, honest answers to fair questions. Many politicians did their best, from François Legault in Quebec to John Horgan in B.C.

Ottawa is still trapped in the same-old, same-old. Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives routinely call the Liberals corrupt and incompetent. Compared to past Canadian governments, and many other governments in the developed world, they are neither.

But Mr. Trudeau also plays the old game. Unlike Mr. Ford or Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe – or, for that matter Germany’s Angela Merkel, or New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern – Mr. Trudeau speaks with words that everyone knows are studiously crafted, scraped of meaning, and sometimes less than entirely true. The next Conservative leader has an opportunity to connect with voters by being “a lot less scripted, a lot less calculating, a lot less political, a lot more human,” as Mr. Anglin put it.

Will Peter MacKay or Erin O’Toole manage the feat? If so, whoever wins Sunday could be the next prime minister.

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