For months now, the federal Conservatives have been fixated on where they’re sitting. This week, they may finally start talking about where they stand.
The welcome realignment in the posture of the Conservative party coincides with two major developments in the political calendar this week.
On Wednesday, activity in the Commons will wind down significantly and move to a lighter summer schedule — despite months of Conservative complaints that the House isn’t sitting often enough through the pandemic.
That same night, the party will hold the first of two big debates among the contenders vying for its leadership.
The four would-be Conservative leaders — Peter MacKay, Erin O’Toole, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan — will face off in Toronto in two encounters: first in a French-language debate on Wednesday, then an English-language event on Thursday.
They will be fielding questions sent in advance to the contenders; no live audience will be present, in deference to continuing physical-distancing rules.
Reopening is happening everywhere in Canada — including in a so-far-lacklustre Conservative leadership race. Many Conservatives will be hoping that this week is a turning point in that reality.
The COVID-19 crisis got in the way of Conservative plans to replace Andrew Scheer by the end of this month, as well as even loftier aspirations to trigger a fall election and topple Justin Trudeau’s government as soon as the new leader was chosen.
The leadership now won’t be decided until later in August, and at least one of the major contenders, MacKay, said recently that an election this fall is no longer a priority.
Languishing in opposition is always tough on parties, but being the chief critic of the government during a pandemic is a special kind of political purgatory.
For at least the first couple of months of the COVID-19 lockdown, Canadians weren’t in a mood for the kind of partisanship that usually prevails in Ottawa.
Worse, how do you criticize a government that is churning out money and aid to frightened Canadians?
Add to this the larger, national picture, where the opposition’s usual provincial allies were otherwise occupied. Conservative premiers such as Ontario’s Doug Ford and Alberta’s Jason Kenney were busy assuming an even larger role on the national stage than they already did, further marginalizing their Conservative cousins at the federal level.
On any given day through the crisis, Ford and Kenney appeared more simpatico with Trudeau than they did with Scheer and the Conservative caucus in Ottawa.
All of this added up to an almost impossible role for Scheer, who opted to focus his attention on his safe place — the House of Commons, where he had served as speaker, and which he still appears to see as his centre of gravity.
For better or worse, Scheer has made his demand for more sittings of the Commons into the main Opposition crusade during the pandemic.
Last week, he and the other federal Conservatives turned that into a deal-breaker, refusing to grant quick passage to pandemic-relief legislation because the Liberals wouldnít budge on holding more sessions in the Commons.
Here’s the fundamental problem: Pandemic-preoccupied Canadians aren’t agitating for more Parliament. They’re worried about their health, their economic future and matters being raised by the surging debate over racism in Canada.
More Commons sittings just aren’t currently on the agenda of the average citizen.
In fact, on this subject, federal Conservatives find themselves today where the Liberals were about a decade ago, when Stephen Harper’s government prorogued Parliament (twice) and was also found in contempt of Parliament on the eve of the 2011 election.
Liberals at the time could not believe that Canadians weren’t as upset as they were about these offences against democracy. But they weren’t: Harper’s government was rewarded with a majority in 2011 and the Liberals were knocked to third place in the Commons they argued was so crucial in the life of this country.
So the time has arrived to retire the not-enough-sittings refrain. Where the Conservative party will stand in a post-pandemic Canada should be the question of the summer.
The old reliable party positions — smaller government and lower taxes — don’t entirely fit with how the pandemic created the need for lots of government and lots of debt, which may require higher taxes to fix.
The pandemic has also exposed tension between international and domestic forces, the haves and have-nots in a world of income inequality, not to mention health-care spending and the social safety net.
Oh, and climate change hasn’t gone away as an issue, either.
Lively debates on any or all of the above will give the Conservatives some much-needed exercise — not unlike the rest of the country, stirring from sedentary pandemic existence into the reopening stage.
As we’re all discovering, standing is much better than sitting.
Susan Delacourt is a columnist with Torstar Syndication Services.