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Why the Conservative Party Should Remain Optimistic

Why the Conservative Party Should Remain Optimistic

Nobody knows Ottawa better than Paul Wells, the senior editor of Maclean’s magazine and former national affairs columnist at The Toronto Star. In more than two decades on the Hill, Paul has covered seven federal elections, three prime ministers, and a big piece of Canada’s history. Fresh, funny and authoritative, Wells speaks in both official languages on all of the matters of the day, from the nation’s position in the global economy, to the inside scoop on what’s really happening inside the Parliament buildings and beyond. In this piece for Maclean’s, Paul writes on the race for leadership in Canada’s conservative party:

In the last week of April, 13 people took turns on a stage in the Bluma Appel Theatre, in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, to talk about the future of the country. The participants were candidates to lead the Conservative Party of Canada. This would be the last time they would meet for a debate organized by the party before members would begin voting by mail-in ballot to pick a new leader, whose name will be announced on May 27.

The Bluma Appel boasts a seating capacity of 868. It’s a cozy room. The Conservative party had spent the week warning members that the event was sold out. This was optimistic. Most of the upstairs balcony seats were empty. By comparison, in 2006, the Liberal Party of Canada, then freshly out of power, had their last debate in Roy Thomson Hall, a few blocks farther uptown. That hall was not full to capacity either, but it was also three times as large.

So here were maybe 600 people on hand to hear 13 candidates describe how they would govern. As their debate began, a small girl in the audience, perhaps three years old, kept shouting “YAAAAAAAAY,” until her parents finally extricated her from the venue. The toddler’s brief outburst marked the evening’s high-water mark for conspicuous enthusiasm.

“Friends,” said Erin O’Toole, a round-faced and grey-haired former RCAF captain who was briefly Veterans Affairs minister in Stephen Harper’s last government, “this race just got real. Elvis has left the building.”

Everyone knew who was wearing the sequinned jumpsuit in this analogy. On this very day, hours before this debate began, Kevin O’Leary, a huckster and pitchman on assorted U.S. cable television shows, had announced he was quitting the leadership race. It made sense that O’Leary was early to get out. He had been late to get in, joining the race in January, fully eight months after his most prominent rival, Maxime Bernier, had launched his own campaign. And O’Leary had at times seemed barely to be running for anything, skipping debates if their timing or format displeased him, popping up in New York City or Florida more often than in most Canadian venues.

Yet O’Leary was, by some of his own opponents’ best reckoning, the race’s front-runner, right up to the day he quit. This state of affairs hints at deeper pathologies. That a distracted resident of TV-land could wander into the race, attend listlessly to it in only one of the country’s official languages and still manage to dominate what was already the largest field of candidates in any national leadership race in the past century of Canadian politics suggests it was an easy field to outshine.

Still, the party is well shut of O’Leary. Lord knows what fate would have befallen the party if O’Leary had stayed in and won. He would not have been likelier to get his act together after an accidental victory than he had been earlier. His departure is good news for a party that could use some.

As the rest of the field gathered on the Bluma Appel Theatre stage, it was clear that each candidate was still taking the measure of a race without O’Leary. If they had anything in common, it was that almost all of them were running, each in a different direction, away from the memory of Stephen Harper. This campaign resembles nothing so much as an aerial shot of a little-league soccer team racing away from the kid who farted.

Brad Trost, from Saskatoon, and Pierre Lemieux, from small-town eastern Ontario, served for a decade in poorly lit corners of Harper’s governing Conservative caucus. Both chafed at his refusal to allow debate over abortion. They are running as unapologetic social conservatives. Trost has said he wouldn’t march in gay Pride parades as the party’s leader. Lemieux told the Toronto crowd he wanted to be the candidate of Conservatives with “faith values, social conservative values, and with life values.”

Kellie Leitch was Harper’s minister of Labour. She worries that he was not suspicious enough of immigrants. Her promise to “interview” every newcomer or visitor to Canada to check their allegiance to “Canadian values” landed her a cover story last fall in this magazine. At first it seemed she might use the notion as part of a full-throated cultural nationalist candidacy, along the lines of Donald Trump’s campaign or the populist anti-immigrant parties of Europe. Instead, she’s been in a holding pattern, repeating her screening pledge without explaining it or adding others of comparable shock value. She’s stuck, campaigning on her guts without seeming able to follow or even find them.

Erin O’Toole, Lisa Raitt and Andrew Scheer are running closest to the Harper legacy—none proposes a major shift away from him on policy—but all are eager to let you know they would be more cheerful than the former boss.

Scheer had to stay out of partisan politics for years as Speaker of the House of Commons, but he’s thought to be well to the right of the other two—a young disciple of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. That sits well with Conservatives, and by the end of 2016 he had more endorsements from fellow MPs than any other candidate. But Scheer’s campaign has been cautious, even timid. This spring, O’Toole overtook Scheer on MP endorsements with a more focused campaign, even attracting endorsements from a few MPs who once supported Scheer.

At least from 2008 on, Harper governed with pure scorn for anyone who would limit the exploitation of Alberta’s oil sands in the name of meeting Canada’s carbon-emission targets. So much of Harperism was bound up in that set of policies: skepticism about climate change, laissez-faire dogma, a revolt against the policy-generating East on behalf of the wealth-generating West.

Michael Chong is running against all of that, which marks him as a brave man if nothing else.

Chong wants a carbon tax to get Canada on the right side of history with regard to climate change. He’d use the revenues to pay for big income-tax cuts, making him, in his eyes, the only “real conservative” in this race. None of his opponents agrees. In Toronto, they lined up to disavow his carbon-tax pledge, using their scorn for Chong as a totem of their own credibility as resource boosters. He was like home base in a schoolyard game: take a whack at Chong’s carbon tax, talk about something else. His stubbornness, at least, was something to behold.

The final disavowal of Harper comes from Bernier, and in some ways it’s the most personal. The loping divorcee from the Beauce was dumped from Harper’s Cabinet in 2008 over security indiscretions. But his real crime in the boss’s eyes was indiscipline, and Harper never really pardoned him. In a caucus perilously thin on Quebec talent after 2011, Harper still refused to give him a senior Cabinet post.

Now Bernier is running as the candidate who writes off Harper’s entire economic legacy as weak sauce. He’d end the supply-management scheme that props up the dairy and poultry cartel in his own province. He’d end corporate welfare, and explicitly decries bailouts for Bombardier that the Conservatives delivered in power. He’d cut taxes far beyond anything Harper contemplated.

It’s when he hints at a strategic sense or a willingness to do things in stages that Bernier is least credible. At the Toronto debate, he said he’d offer to eliminate supply management if U.S. President Donald Trump opened the U.S. market to Canadian softwood lumber. Perhaps he wanted to sound like a canny bargainer. But his tit-for-tat isn’t credible: as prime minister, Bernier would dismantle supply management by sundown on his first day in office, just for the economic orthodoxy of it.

Chong, for one, finds it all horrifying. Bernier would cut spending by five times as much as Paul Martin cut it at the height of the mid-’90s deficit crisis. He’d end the “federal role in health care” by replacing cash transfers to the provinces with the delegated taxing power to raise their own health care money.

“That will hand the next government to the Liberal Party of Canada,” Chong said. On other occasions, he’s said the same thing about Leitch’s immigration policy. Which is what most of the others have said about Chong’s carbon-tax policy.

So here’s a party that only recently ended a decade in power, but whose candidates to replace its only leader are disavowing, in word or manner, the way he led them. Each is persuaded the others would lead the party to ruin. Among them, it’s hard to find anyone with the stature to become a prime minister. It’s much easier to find standard-bearers for your choice of extremism: smaller government, a revived abortion debate, suspicion of immigrants.

But that’s looking on the dark side of it.

If I had one bit of counsel to offer Conservatives this season, it would be: be of good cheer. Judging by the recent standards of governing parties that get tossed out after a decade, this one’s in passable shape. Its temptations toward extremism seem to be mostly self-correcting. And though its leadership field may resemble 13 dwarfs for now, that’ll change.

Compare the post-Harper Conservatives with the Liberals after the fall of Paul Martin and the Progressive Conservatives after Kim Campbell. In the latter case, it’s no contest: by 1993, the PCs had already won the last election they ever would and were still a decade away from amalgamation with the Canadian Alliance. The party had two seats in the Commons and would peak at 20 in the 1997 election before drooping to 12 in 2000.

Martin won a few more seats in 2006 than Harper in 2015, but his internecine battle with Jean Chrétien left a factionally divided party that wouldn’t really recover for almost a decade. Weary of insider battles, the Liberals let themselves be tempted for years by newcomers and outsiders—Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff. Sick of players, they fell for a man to whom any thought of strategy was alien, Stéphane Dion.

We are sometimes told today’s Conservatives are too far outside the political mainstream to be competitive. We are, in fact, sometimes told that by my colleague Scott Gilmore, who has lately been wandering the land looking for signs of a Red Tory revival. But the relative electability of the Harperite and Red Tory strains of Canadian conservatism is not a hypothetical question. It was tested for a decade, and the more moderate strain lost every time.

In 1993, Preston Manning’s Reform Party won 2.9 points of the popular vote more than the Campbell Conservatives. In 1997, Jean Charest came to within a point of Reform, but by 2000 it was a rout: Stockwell Day’s Canadian Alliance, running on a platform that was probably closest to where Brad Trost is today, won more than twice as many votes as Joe Clark’s reincarnated cult of no-personality.

Given the limited fertility of the arc of the political spectrum lying between Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau, fans of a middle path reply that their patch of earth is at least more aesthetically pleasing. Sure, Harper won three consecutive elections, but he did it in ways that were distasteful. The Conservative Party of Canada is xenophobic, we’re told, even though under Jason Kenney it made major inroads among immigrant communities. It’s anti-gay, we’re told, although Bernier, Raitt, Chong and Steven Blaney have all voted for trans rights, and even Pierre Lemieux has said he would not revisit same-sex marriage if, in some unimaginable designated-survivor scenario, he managed to become the party’s leader.

Anyway. This debate is fun to prosecute, but the “self-loathing Tory” side seems lately rather undersubscribed: Elections Canada returns show that in the first quarter of 2017, the Conservative Party of Canada managed to raise $5.3 million, almost twice the $2.8 million raised by the Trudeau Liberals. Is that the result of all the leadership fundraising? Nope. Donations to leadership candidates are counted separately, and among them the Conservative candidates raised another $4.6 million.

None of this is a guarantee that the Conservatives are on track to win the 2019 election. In fact, ample precedent suggests the Liberals should be hard to beat next time out. The Liberals just won a majority in 2015. Since Confederation, only two governments were swept in with a majority and then swept right out of power at the next election: Alexander Mackenzie’s in 1873-78 and R.B. Bennett’s in 1930-35. It’s much more common for voters, having installed a government with a mandate that strong, to let it stick around for a while: Wilfrid Laurier, Robert Borden, Pierre Trudeau, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien.

Justin Trudeau may lose his second election, but a party that plans to matter for a long time to come would do well to pick a leader who can survive a defeat. The Conservatives would never admit that’s what they’re doing, but the youngish and optimistic field of front-runners in this race seems well suited to the task.

What’s striking, in conversation with Conservatives, is how varied their allegiances are. I’ve met party members who were hesitating between Chong and Trost, or between Bernier and Scheer—between candidates whose philosophies seem to put them at opposite ends of some ideological divide. But that’s healthy, because it suggests the party isn’t broadly split along any single factional line.

The Chrétien-Martin and Mulroney-Clark feuds have no equivalent in today’s Conservative party, and unless the new leader is Kellie Leitch, who seems to have durably alienated all of her rivals, the field should have little trouble coalescing behind a new leader.

So, yeah, the party looks like hell in this leadership campaign, but which party looks great in a leadership campaign? Some of the candidates are of modest intellectual and moral stature, but in a 13-person race, it’d be a surprise if that weren’t the case.

The next leader will be unknown to most Canadians and lead a party full of people who’ve spent weeks badmouthing him or her. But that is the natural way of things in politics. In every Canadian election since Confederation except one—the 2015 election, when Justin Trudeau’s Liberals came from third place to win—the leader of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition has been the only person who defeated the incumbent. After May 27, that person will be the Conservative leader. After a couple of lousy years, Conservatives can be forgiven for permitting themselves a little optimism.

Paul Wells/Macleans/May, 2017