Chairman's Desk

Taking on incumbents is never easy — it usually isn’t a fair fight

From the get-go, it usually isn’t a fair fight. Most times, incumbency gives government a significant advantage as it seeks another mandate — a benefit that was on stunning display on election night in Ontario.

Incumbency provided the opportunity to present a pre-election budget which dangled all kinds of goodies, available only after a vote to return the Progressive Conservatives to office. It granted the ability to exploit the “rallying around the flag” effect from the pandemic and to dominate the news cycles for more than two years, effectively relegating opposition leaders to the sidelines.

Ontario’s campaign mirrored the last federal one, in which Justin Trudeau’s incumbent Liberal government was re-elected thanks to the failure of opposition campaigns to land any meaningful ideological blows or compete with an engorged government.

The dismal results from the efforts of Steven Del DucaAndrea Horwath, Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh might well lead one to conclude that opposition politics in Canada has become a fool’s errand. But that would be a mistake. Provincially, at least, the opposition should have been able to frame the election as a referendum on the affordability crisis, a crisis which is taking hold in every home in the province. That alone should have provided them with an effective conduit for harnessing public resentment.

But they failed, and failed miserably. The estimated 14-point drop in turnout is damning evidence that the opposition campaigns were completely ineffective in convincing Ontarians it was time to say “yes” to an alternative.

However, don’t assume the past is prologue. In fact, the race for the leadership of the federal Conservative party signals that things might be changing.

Friday was the last day to sign up members in that race. In the final week, the party rushed to hire extra staff; sales were tracking to smash previous records with estimates of an influx of roughly 400,000 new members, compared to the 269,469 memberships sold the last time.

Getting people to not just support but to join a party is an accomplishment in itself, and in this case, I believe it’s proof something is up. I think it shows that candidates in that race, Pierre Poilievre especially, are effectively harnessing the anger, disillusionment and sense of disconnection felt by many Canadians.

Now to the next phase. With the book closed on new member sales, it is time for each candidate to articulate bold new policy ideas that will form the basis of a platform that will keep Canadians saying both “no” to the incumbent Liberals and “yes” to a rejuvenated Conservative Party of Canada.

Regardless of who wins, the new leader will spend the next three years taking on a government that’s expert at using policy to achieve its political aims. For proof, you need to look no further than its decision to wait to roll out ready-made, preordained gun control legislation deliberately on the heels of a horrific mass shooting in the United States.

That said, it is a government long in the tooth, and one that’s experiencing waning popularity. While support for the Conservatives is encouraging, for that support to hold this leadership race needs to focus less on posturing and more on policy than it has done so far. Candidates now need to show they are the one who can develop the tools necessary to compete with a resource-rich incumbent and win.

Mercifully, there’s lots to work with. They can start with the bleak economic outlook and a policy orientation which, by the admission of former finance minister Bill Morneau himself, is focused more on wealth redistribution than on creating prosperity.

Taking on incumbents is never easy. To win, the new Conservative leader will need to be relentless in putting on offer a path to a brighter, better future for all Canadians. It is simply not enough to be, as former U.S. vice president Spiro Agnew once remarked, “a nattering nabob of negativism.”

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on June 5, 2022.

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