CPC and the politics of choice

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean

Conservative Party of Canada leader Andrew Scheer hasn’t exactly been a beacon of “unity” since the October election although he says his caucus is behind him. Despite Scheer’s determination to pit his over-sized regional support against his underwhelming regional support in other parts of Canada, Alberta MP Garnett Genuis said recently that he believes Scheer managed a feat by “moving the party forward“. I suppose it depends on which side of the perpetually warring factions you find yourself. Genuis’ comments aside, there seems to be a consensus that Scheer must go. 

The idea of a “united” Party isn’t new.  Alberta’s most successful government to date was a meeting of Progressives and Conservatives (Red Tories) in the early 1970’s. Federally, the first government of Canada in 1867, was literally called the Liberal-Conservative Party. They changed their name to  “Conservative Party” in 1873.

The party returned to the Progressive Conservative name in 1942 and managed to find themselves in government on occasion over the next 60 years. As Reform picked off PC support throughout the 90’s and the Canadian Alliance decided it needed to fight for the Reform vote in the early 2000’s, it took only two individuals to jam both the centre and the right into a blender and serve up the remains.

Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper managed to negotiate the merger of the Progressive and Social Conservatives with then PC leader Peter MacKay in 2002-03, and they succeeded; for a short time, at least.

Harper led the Party with a strict hand and forced uniformity of message and speech which kept the elected officials in line. Few loyalists saw the rejection of Harper coming in 2015 and even fewer saw how great the potential was for Scheer to lose in 2019.

To be fair, from the vantage point of Canada’s Conservative Heartland, no one questions why Reform-like parties aren’t accepted east of Manitoba. Premier Brian Pallister put it best when he likened national unity to a marriage; “you don’t build a strong relationship by threatening to leave every other week”. We talk a good game on the prairies of needing appreciation and understanding but we aren’t all that interested in reciprocating.

Which is also why the discussion of Scheer’s leadership potential is so interesting.

Right Now, the anti-abortion group who campaigned hard for the CPC, and claims to have at least 45 elected CPC MPs who will vote to legislate women’s rights back to the dark ages, is angry that Scheer didn’t support the Party’s policies strongly enough. The non-regressive Conservatives believe they need to bring the Party into the 21st century.

It’s the same tug of war that birthed Reform and Canadian Alliance and now it has also fertilized Wexit, whose current leader comes from the same Western Christian stock as Preston Manning yet lacks either the charisma or statesmanship. If you can keep people angry enough, though, they’d vote for Joe Dirt’s meteor if they thought it would get them what they want.

The social conservatives have invested a lot with the Conservative Party of Canada. They saw two electoral victories under Harper and that’s more than they thought possible in this day and age. It is highly unlikely they will give up on the possibility that they may one day be able to grasp power under a truly representative leadership.

That leaves the Progressive/Modern/Moderate Conservative membership in a very tough spot; politically-speaking. They can either try to outnumber the well-organized and motivated social conservatives at policy conventions and during the next leadership race, or they will have to take their ball and go find a new playground.

Back in 2017, Scott Gilmore, Macleans columnist, self-loathing Tory and husband to the one and only Catherine McKenna, embarked on a cross-Canada tour to see if he was the only one who felt like the Conservative Party of Canada had begun their maiden voyage and left him standing on the dock. I went to the Calgary meet and greet in early May of that year and I was slightly disheartened to find that most Conservative loyalists in the room were not interested in starting a new Party.

Even though I had no preferences federally, I knew the Party of Social Conservative Values wasn’t for me. I was hopeful there would be a multitude of choices of great policy and vision. Naive, perhaps, but hopeful all the same.

Unfortunately for Gilmore’s fact-finding mission, the CPC was in the middle of its leadership race at the time and the Schrodinger’s cat of potential leaders still held hope – if you were the progressive conservative-leaning kind of person. That hope was dashed on May 27, 2017, when the final two contenders were the social conservative Andrew Scheer and Maxime Bernier, the mad libertarian.

And that worked out… about as well as I thought it would. 

Since 2017, other moderate Conservatives have started to sound a lot like Gilmore did then: radio host Charles Adler finally acknowledged what was obvious to a lot of listeners; former Harper policy advisor Rachel Curran has been a strong proponent for bringing CPC policy fully into the current century; and Senator Jean-Guy Deganais left the caucus due to Scheer’s socially conservative views – all in the last month. It’s still too early to tell if this is a movement or a blip; the future allows for both possibilities.

The way I see it today is that the CPC has succeeded in becoming Reform Party 2.0. If history serves as a learning opportunity, it is not the path to governance. If the membership ever wants to see their way to victory again, they need to be able to count on moderate swing voters; voters who won’t prop up the loud and proud anti-women’s rights crusaders who are currently claiming the CPC as their own.

In order to do that, they will have to take a long look at who their Party truly represents.

This post is an opinion.

Deirdre is a reporter, pundit, podcaster, and political sociologist living in rural Southern Alberta.   

contact: [email protected], [email protected]

Twitter: @Mitchell_AB for all the commentary; @thisweekinAB for posts; @politicalRnD to guess “who tweeted that”?

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