Conservatives must mend internal divisions to avoid fracturing again
Three weeks ago, Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole was ousted in an unprecedented vote triggered by her own caucus under the terms of the Reform Act. Since then, much has been written about all that ails the Conservative Party and the future of the Canadian Conservative movement in general.
Since its formation more than 18 years ago following the merger of the Reform-Canadian Alliance and Progressive-Conservative parties, the Conservative Party of Canada has found itself at a real crossroads.
For the first time in its history, its very existence is called into question. While conservatives won’t speak those words publicly, many are now wondering if this relatively new political entity can remain a united party following the unceremonious ousting of Erin O’Toole.
In other words, can the Conservatives hide enlargement and apparently irreconcilable regional and ideological differences?
Make no mistake: O’Toole’s public dismissal was a symptom of the party’s lingering identity crisis and failure to reach consensus on how the modern Conservative party should position itself in the era. post-Harper.
During the first decade of its existence, the party faced many growing pains, but its ultimate success was the result of the leadership of former Prime Minister Stephen Harper. While in government, regional and ideological rifts remained within the party, but Harper mediated those differences within the caucus by throwing more than the occasional bone at each faction within the party.
Harper appeased the socially conservative wing in 2014 when he announced his government would not fund global abortion services; he won the favor of foreign policy conservatives for his unwavering support for Israel and the Canadian Armed Forces; he impressed libertarian-minded conservatives when, in 2010, he announced that his government would eliminate the long form census; he convinced many red conservatives that he was a true pragmatist by implementing an aggressive stimulus plan throughout the Great Recession of 2008-09; and he pleased economic conservatives with the many international trade deals signed under his leadership.
Since the 2015 election, however, the Conservative party has remained paralyzed – mostly preaching to its political base, which is increasingly populist and out of step with mainstream Canada.
To its credit, the party remains the most ideologically diverse in Canada. But this diversity is accompanied by strong regional, ideological and cultural divisions that seek to further fracture the party. If the next Conservative leader is unable to iron out some of these glaring differences, the Conservative movement could be on the verge of splitting again, as it did in the early 1990s.
As the Conservatives contemplate their next leadership race, they must begin to meaningfully address two major tensions within their party and movement:
East versus West
Even when in opposition, the Conservatives enjoy respectable electoral support in almost every region of the country. But their broad electoral representation is a double-edged sword, as the profile of a small-c Conservative voter from region to region varies widely in a way that has never been the case for the Liberal Party of Justin Trudeau.
The brand of conservatism that easily forms majority provincial governments in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario contrasts sharply with the conservative populism that has dominated Western Canada since Preston Manning’s Reform party stormed the political scene at the late 1980s. Somehow, Harper managed to cleverly weave together these disparate conservative factions throughout his 11-year reign as party leader.
Much has been written about an increasingly polarized electorate in this country, but the impressive victories of moderate center-right provincial governments in recent years suggest that the political center remains fertile ground in Canada.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault leads a small-town Conservative government that has defined progressive positions on climate change and child care, while overseeing this country’s toughest pandemic management policies.
Even in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford has been forced to lead an interventionist government due to the pandemic. While its support has fluctuated over the past two years, Ford still leads in nearly every opinion poll.
Whoever leads the Conservative party in the next election will have to bridge the significant regional and ideological differences within the party. The new leader must reverse the perception among central and eastern Canadians that the Conservatives remain a western-based and western-influenced party. Only then can the party tap into the large base of moderate-to-small-c Conservative voters east of the Manitoba border.
Pragmatism versus Trump-style populism
Harper wasn’t a populist any more than 20e-Progressive Conservative prime ministers of the century like Brian Mulroney, Joe Clark and Kim Campbell. Since 2015, however, conservatives have increasingly embraced a strain of right-wing populism that significantly overlaps with the Trump-style populism that has corroded the US Republican Party in recent years.
The occupation of downtown Ottawa by an assortment of far-right extremists and anarchists has only exacerbated the Conservative Party’s dangerous flirtation with Trump-style populism. Recent events have underscored the inherent ideological tensions that prevail among conservatives – a schism that more often than not pits urban, pragmatic and socially liberal Conservative MPs against their more rural, ideological and socially conservative colleagues.
These obvious tensions have been there since the convoy violently passed Ottawa at the end of January. Prominent moderate Conservative MPs like Pierre Paul-Hus from Quebec and Michael Chong from Ontario spoke out forcefully against the convoy, while some of the party’s most influential figures gave the protesters a warm welcome.
Interim leader Candice Bergen, former leader Andrew Scheer and leading leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre have all publicly flirted with the convoy and its organizers. In an effort to humiliate Trudeau and align themselves with his fiercest opponents, they prioritized short-term political gain over the Conservative Party’s long-term reputation.
Not so long ago, the Conservatives were seen as lucid realists: the party of law and order and managerial skill. Their refusal to support the government’s decision to invoke Mulroney’s Emergencies Act, and their initial — and, in some cases, ongoing — support for the convoy is anathema to the values they once stood for.
It is not the eternal division between red conservatives and blue conservatives; it’s a split between a variety of principled conservatives and those willing to embrace Trump-style populism at all costs.
Unfortunately, much of the leadership of the Conservative Party seems geared towards meeting the needs of a demographic that does not understand a fundamental tenet of any democratic society: with freedom comes responsibility – the responsibility to get vaccinated and to follow the basic rules of public health. Insisting against “vaccine vendettas” and accusing the prime minister of divisiveness is dangerous and politically short-sighted.
Despite continued challenges from the party, until last month the Tories did not face an existential crisis. But all that has changed now following the strong divisions unleashed in recent weeks.
The convoy descended on Ottawa with the express intention of overthrowing a Liberal Prime Minister. Instead, protesters unwittingly sent a torpedo through the Conservative party, exposing a bitterly divided party that now risks disintegrating again.
Andrew Perez is a communications and public affairs professional from Toronto who has volunteered for Liberal parties at the federal and provincial levels. You can follow him on Twitter @andrewaperez.
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