OTTAWA — In 2019, federal Conservatives sought to draw voters in their direction with the slogan: “It’s time for you to get ahead.”
But they didn’t get enough of those voters to form government, and so 2020 finds the Conservatives needing to figure out how to get ahead themselves.
“There is an opportunity for the party to define or redefine itself, reconfigure its identity, figure out what it is, and then move forward,” said Semhar Tekeste, who worked for the Conservatives both in Opposition and in government, and is now a public-affairs consultant.
They have three places to figure that out: in the House of Commons as the official Opposition, in a leadership race, and at a policy convention scheduled for November.
At the centre of all three, in one way or another, is the current leader of the party, Andrew Scheer.
When he was elected leader in 2017, he was billed as “Stephen Harper with a smile,” a nod to the leader who led the party from 2004 until 2015 and won three elections.
But the party has been running on much the same platform since Harper first formed government in 2006, said Dean Tester, a Conservative strategist who has worked on several party campaigns, including that of Scheer’s main rival in the 2017 race, former minister Maxime Bernier.
“Is running with that platform enough to get it done in the 2020s? Can we win with the exact same coalition and same policies with a different face? To me, I don’t think so,” he said.
The question of how and where what the party stands for gets decided is fundamental for the Tories. Many had been looking forward to a planned Toronto policy convention in April as a time to debate new ideas, but that gathering has been punted to November to await the leadership race.
Who wins that could have an impact on what ideas actually get off the convention floor.
Take supply management. That a party whose ideology is rooted in free-market capitalism continues to advocate for government control over the supply of some agricultural goods is a sore spot for many, and abolishing it was the centrepiece of Bernier’s leadership campaign.
But to farmers who believe their livelihoods depend on it, supply management is a sacred program. Those farmers helped propel Scheer to victory in the leadership race by just a hair over Bernier.
So, in 2018, an effort at the party’s convention to abolish support for supply management never made it to a vote.
On the other hand, in 2016, the party’s grassroots were successful in getting language that opposed same-sex marriage deleted from the party’s official policy handbook. The interim leader of the day, after Harper’s losing election, was Rona Ambrose, who has been publicly in favour of same-sex marriage, and is now considering whether to take a run for the permanent job.
Scheer saw his personal opposition to same-sex marriage become a lightning rod during the campaign. In post-mortem meetings, he heard repeatedly from local campaigns that his personal views cost the party votes.
That was one element of the mounting criticism that led to Scheer’s announcing in mid-December he’ll step down as soon as his replacement is chosen.
Though Conservative MPs voted to have him stay on as leader in the meantime, Tekeste said she’s not sure how he’ll be able to convincingly do that.
“Where does the official Opposition leader’s office go from here? How does it stay relevant within the caucus until the leadership race?” she said.
Scheer’s departure, though officially the product of Scheer’s own quenched fire for the job (and mounting discontent with his leadership after the election), also came as questions were being raised about how he was using party funds to cover personal costs, including tuition for his children.
He has yet to address that issue publicly, with his office continuing to say it has no comment on the matter, including whether he is still receiving a stipend from the party. He and his family will continue, however, to live in the Opposition leader’s official residence of Stornoway.
“We plan on being the strongest and most effective opposition in our country’s history,” said spokesman Simon Jefferies.
“We are going to continue to fight for the taxpayer, fiscal responsibility, national unity, and for a position of strength on the world stage.”
Classic lines of attack from the Conservatives are on foreign policy and finance, and over the winter break, Scheer has used his social-media accounts to go after the Trudeau Liberals on both.
But the Conservative critics on those files are angling for the leadership — Pierre Poilievre, who holds the finance post, and Erin O’Toole at foreign affairs. They spent their holidays making calls and lining up campaign teams.
During the 2017 contest, Ambrose made critics give up those posts if they ran for the leadership. Whether Scheer will do the same may depend on when the race officially begins.
A committee led by former Conservative cabinet minister and one-time leadership contender Lisa Raitt is setting the rules, and the timeline, for the vote. Raitt is working alongside Dan Nowlan, who ran the 2017 contest, which had 14 names on the ballot.
A sustained debate on whether the rules should be set to narrow the field has been underway for days. A higher entry fee than 2017’s $100,000, a requirement for more signatures on nomination forms, and even a rule that a candidate have been a member of the party for more than just the six months required in 2017 are all being discussed. Decisions on all of those and a voting date could come by mid-January.
Where there appears to be unanimity is that whomever seeks the job must bring a robust set of policy ideas to the table.
Many insist more enthusiastic support for LGBTQ rights and a more ambitious approach to climate change must be among them, though there are others who insist hewing closer to the Liberals in either area is wrong — morally, strategically, or both.
Bernier himself warned as much in a fundraising email to supporters of his new People’s Party of Canada, suggesting that so-called Red Tories are out to hijack the movement and bring back the era of big government.
In recent days, failed Conservative candidates and current MPs alike have been trying to spark a discussion about what a refreshed suite of policies could look like. Among them is veteran MP Scott Reid, who was first elected to the House of Commons as a member of the Canadian Alliance and is now one of the longest-serving members of the party.
Reid is in the midst of a series of essays exploring themes he hopes leadership candidates take to heart and borrow for their platforms: democratic reform; finding a balance on issues of inclusiveness, equality and civil liberties; and the need for a clear vision on the economy and the environment.
“Not only will these suggestions help the borrowers to attract the support of median Conservatives like myself; the borrowers will also (I believe) stand a much better chance of winning the next election,” he wrote in his first essay about democratic reform. (He calls for an elected Senate, citizen-initiated referendums and greater powers for MPs versus party leaders.)
The leadership race can’t just be about winning that next election, argues Tester.
“For many Conservatives, myself included, there is a much bigger challenge,” he said.
“Are we going to be a party that seeks power for the sake of power, or are we going to be a party with a comprehensive vision for the country?”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 2, 2020.