The ousting of leader Erin O’Toole this week was not a referendum on his performance, but rather symptomatic of larger fractures in the Conservative party.
A coalition that was founded to work in spite of — or even because of — regional and ideological tensions now appears incapable of agreeing upon a coherent set of principles for Conservative partisans, let alone Canadians more broadly.
O’Toole, the latest casualty of these tensions, was right to try and modernize the party, with policies characterized by inclusive social policy, a serious stance on climate change and a principled conservative vision for Canadian workers. However, his flailing efforts to appease competing factions created confusion for members, disappointment for voters and inconsistency for Conservative candidates.
As unfashionable as it might be in some circles, I continue to be a proud progressive conservative, and as a result am nothing but distressed with the party’s current positioning. While there were glaring flaws in O’Toole’s execution, his exit should be seen for what it is — a sign that the party has work to do to engage its members and to offer an approach to governing which could appeal to the vast majority of Canadians — rather than what it is not: some providential affirmation of vague social conservatism.
The task facing the Conservative party is not to ignore its history in a misguided attempt to turn itself into the political equivalent of a pretzel. Far from it. As Tories, we need to embrace our history, seriously consider what Canadian progressive conservatism means today, and find our backbone in the process.
Of course, we can expect the process to be a messy one.
A vocal minority within the party has generated intense media fascination, won excessive influence and kneecapped creditable efforts to reconsider the party’s stance on important issues.
The push-and-pull dynamics between populists and institutionalists, westerners and central Canadians, and social conservatives and progressives are not new. However, the rapid shift in the Canadian political centre, hastened by the pandemic, has laid those tensions bare.
The Conservative party’s inability or unwillingness to adequately respond can largely be attributed to its relative success in avoiding electoral catastrophe.
The Liberals, on the other hand, were shocked into change after a series of embarrassing electoral losses to the Harper Conservatives. Their worst-ever result in 2011 — including relegation to third-party status — allowed Justin Trudeau to lead the party to a remarkable renaissance by unapologetically embracing social liberalism, exiling members of the old guard and setting his sights on a younger, more progressive coalition of voters. The result? He was propelled to victory in 2015.
It turns out that a brush with annihilation is a powerful source of courage. If only our party could be so lucky.
Meagre losses have failed to give us that overwhelming mandate for reform. Quite frankly, many have become content with being the first runner-up — really the first loser — and taking painkillers to mask afflictions that actually require more complicated surgery. Rather, continued attempts to maintain an existing but declining base have meant the party has repeatedly failed to take the bold steps required in establishing a broader base that can actually win an election.
Canada needs strong voices who can address its growing affordability crisis and articulate a coherent foreign policy. Voices who can promote economic dynamism that propels young Canadians to enjoy the same opportunities as their parents, or (imagine) even better ones.
I hope that the soon-to-be-announced leadership race is defined by honest conversations about the Conservative coalition, and an acknowledgment that the loudest voices in the room or on social media are sometimes only that.
Maybe, if we are lucky, we will get a new leader who will finally challenge Conservatives to pursue a true north star — one of genuine, admirable and inclusive Canadian conservatism.