On Saturday, a surprisingly united Conservative Party will choose a new leader. Will that leader propel Conservatives to victory over Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the next federal election? That will depend on one thing above all: whether the party is willing to turn away from its rural roots and embrace the suburban.
Stephen Harper expanded the Conservative Party beyond its Western and rural Ontario base, making it the party of suburbs, of immigrants, of contemporary Canada. To succeed, his successor must do likewise.
To win government, “you have to be an urban party,” says Peter Woolstencroft, profesor emeritus in political science at the University of Waterloo, who has long studied Canadian conservatism. The problem is that many of the 13 leadership candidates have been playing to the Conservative base – more rural, more white, and further to the right than the general population – in their effort to win the leadership.
“There is always a tension between speaking to your base and catching the waves of change,” Prof. Woolstencroft observes. Resolving that tension will be the greatest challenge for the next leader.
But first, the good news. The Conservative Party of Canada is remarkably healthy. The solid contingent of 99 MPs has been ably led by interim leader Rona Ambrose. Almost 260,000 Conservative Party members are eligible to vote for the next leader, thanks to strong membership sales in recent months. The party surpassed the Liberals in fundraising by almost two to one in the first quarter of this year.
“The party is very strong,” says William McBeath, who is training and marketing director at the Manning Centre, a conservative think tank, and who has worked on Alberta and national conservative campaigns. He believes Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has become vulnerable, thanks to big deficits and trade threats from south of the border.
“There used to be a sense that the Liberals could count on two cycles,” Mr. McBeath says. “Not any more. Now there’s a real sense we could win in 2019.”
Veterans of Tory civil wars marvel at the party’s unity today. If you’re old enough, you may recall the bitter fight in the 1960s to unseat John Diefenbaker as leader, or Brian Mulroney’s efforts in the 1980s to undermine Joe Clark. And everyone knows about the schism that created the Reform Party, which dominated the right in the 1990s before its successor, the Canadian Alliance, merged with the Progressive Conservatives to create the Conservative Party of Canada.
Now, if polls and prognostications are correct, Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, a former cabinet minister in the Harper governments, is poised to lead the party.
“If you had told me that, one day, the Canadian Alliance would join with the Progressive Conservative Party and that in 2017 they would be seriously looking at electing a francophone lawyer from Quebec, I’d have bet a lot of money against that,” declares Paul Rhodes, who was an adviser to Ontario premier Mike Harris in the 1990s, and who worked unsuccessfully to make Tom Long leader of the Canadian Alliance in 2000. “To me it seems so different from the party we once knew.” And, he believes, far preferable to that past.
Durham MP Erin O’Toole and Regina-Qu’Appelle MP Andrew Scheer are also thought to be in contention. One of them – or even one of the 10 other, lesser-ranked contenders – could pip Mr. Bernier at the post by being everyone’s second choice on the ranked ballot.
“The party is being offered the choice of going in a new direction with Bernier. Or it could continue the incrementalist policies of Stephen Harper with Scheer or O’Toole,” says Howard Anglin, who was deputy chief of staff to prime minister Harper. Either Mr. O’Toole or Mr. Scheer would be safer choices, Mr. Anglin believes, although he finds Mr. Bernier’s “higher risk, higher reward” platform “quite exciting.”
Even without a permanent leader, the Conservative Party continues to earn the support of about three voters in 10 in most polls. But to win power, it needs the support of another one-voter-in-10. That voter lives among the nearly eight million Canadians who inhabit the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, along with Guelph, Cambridge and Kitchener-Waterloo to the west.
Or she might be found among the nearly three million who inhabit British Columbia’s Lower Mainland.
The Conservatives won a majority government in 2011 with low-tax, pro-business policies that attracted voters – many of them new Canadians – in the suburban and exurban ridings outside downtown Toronto and Vancouver. In 2015, with rhetoric that railed against “barbaric cultural practices” and the like, the Conservatives lost in most of those ridings to the Liberals, and as a result lost government.
The new leader must reconnect the party to these suburban shires and immigrant communities, for those ridings determine the outcome of elections. Otherwise, the Tories will forever languish in opposition.
“A leadership race is very different from running a national election,” explains Rachel Curran, former policy director for Mr. Harper, and who today works at his Harper & Associates Consulting. “What candidates are trying to do now is appeal to a core group of committed party members. But once someone has emerged as the new leader of the party, he or she is going to need to switch tack entirely, and look at what it’s going to take to win a national election in 2019.”
And that means winning the “hugely important” ridings outside Toronto and Vancouver, she says. “You’re not going to win government without significant support from those communities.”
In that sense, Mr. Bernier seems a strange choice. He has warned that “immigration policy should not aim to forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada, as radical proponents of multiculturalism want,” which sounds like something you might have heard from the Reform Party circa 1988.
That sort of thing may play well among Conservatives in Quebec and in rural parts of the rest of Canada, but it is death in Brampton or Surrey.
If urban and suburban Canadians want to see the federal government download the responsibility for funding health care to the provinces, as Mr. Bernier advocates, they haven’t revealed that desire. Nor is there much evidence they would embrace Mr. Bernier’s proposal to gut the CBC and Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. It remains to be seen how they feel about the Beauce MP’s plan to lower and flatten income-tax rates.
That said, “our party is used to a leader winning a leadership on very strong views and then taking account of where they’re standing and taking account of the country and deciding which of those views to put forward to the electorate,” says Ken Boessenkool, a consultant who, over the years, worked for everyone from Reform Leader Preston Manning to Mr. Harper to B.C. Premier Christy Clark. Stephen Harper in 1999 was a very different beast, philosophically, from Stephen Harper in 2006, when he won his first federal election.
The party platform will likely evolve from Mr. Bernier’s dogmatically libertarian stance to something closer to the views of mainstream conservative voters and potential voters before the next election.
Nonetheless, University of Alberta political scientist Steve Patten believes the party will face fundamental challenges in both policy and personality.
On policy: “Is there a willingness to present a modern policy platform with broad electoral appeal?” he wonders. Many of the ideas that have been put forward by the candidates “are dead ends if their goal is to grow the Conservative Party’s base of support,” he believes.
As for personality: “There is no evidence that any of the Conservative leadership contenders has captured the public’s imagination or managed to establish an image that attracts support by inspiring confidence,” he suggests, although he adds that leaders grow on the job.
Mr. Boessenkool doesn’t minimize the challenge facing the party. “We have to face the historic and current reality that Canadians are very tolerant of majority government and very intolerant of changing their government too quickly,” he points out. Going into the next election, he predicts the party will “have a fairly serious uphill battle, but it’s doable. It’s going to take a combination of luck, circumstance and the perfect campaign.”
The next leader will need to assuage the bitterness of those who supported defeated candidates, unify the caucus, and prepare to do battle in the House of Commons with Mr. Trudeau. But the greatest challenge will be to make the party attractive to the suburban middle class, including suburban immigrants.
If the winner does turn out to be Mr. Bernier, he would do well to travel to a riding outside Toronto or Vancouver with a large immigrant population. And stay there. And listen. And learn.