Conservative Leadership Hopefuls Haven’t Learned From Harper

The state of the leadership race suggests the party lacks the unity it once had

Past Prime Minister of Canada, and leader of The Conservative Party, Stephen Harper. (Flickr/ London Summit, Photo by Richard Lewis)

With the Conservative leadership race to replace Andrew Scheer ramping back up, members should be worried that their party hasn’t learned from either the 2019 election or from the leadership of Stephen Harper. If the membership and their leadership candidates don’t learn quickly, their movement could dissolve as it did in the 1990s.

The current candidates aren’t looking very promising. Although he’s not likely to win the leadership race, Ontario MP Derek Sloan had to walk back comments he made about Dr. Theresa Tam implying that she was working for the Chinese Communist Party. Peter MacKay has decided to say that, as Prime Minister, he would work towards reversing the Liberal firearms ban, something which is a contentious issue for Conservative voters.

In the last election, Andrew Scheer talked about how he wouldn’t attend pride parades. The reaction to this showed that middle class suburban and immigrant voters were simply not as comfortable with the Conservatives as they had been in 2011.

Between 1993 and 2003, the conservative political movement was fractured. Votes were split between the Progressive Conservatives and Reform/Alliance. Today, the party is in a similar situation. Reform was partially created in response to what many Western Canadians viewed as alienation from central Canada, just as the Conservatives are now functioning as a western block party. Both of these parties were engaged in what Stephen Harper described as “civil wars.”

This conflict was most noticeable in the Progressive Conservative leadership race. It came down to David Orchard and Peter MacKay, who was viewed as the most likely winner from the beginning. He is also a “red tory,” and is one of the Conservative MPs who voted in favour of legalizing same-sex marriage in 2006.

During this leadership campaign in 2003, MacKay failed to get over the 45 per cent threshold during the leadership convention. It was then that he went into a backroom meeting with David Orchard, who had a lot of support from prairie province members and their advisors. Upon exiting the meeting, Orchard said he had made a gentleman’s agreement with MacKay, and he urged his supporters to go to MacKay, who became leader.

The details eventually came out, and among allowances for environmental protection and a NAFTA review, the big one was “no merger with Alliance.” MacKay would completely turn on this five months later, merging the party with the Alliance led by Stephen Harper. A subsequent election would result in the Conservatives having 99 elected MPs with the Liberals holding on with 135.

But the real change for the Conservatives happened at the 2006 convention, where policies on same-sex marriage and abortion were shelved to make room for discussion on tax cuts and pocketbook issues. It was during the election later that year that the Conservatives were able to take advantage of an RCMP investigation against Ralph Goodale for insider trading, among other issues like the sponsorship scandal. Harper himself was broadly viewed as a policy wonk, rather than someone who wanted to become a  party higher-up.

There are several factors that enabled the Conservatives, led by Stephen Harper, to win successive governments. External factors such as the Liberal scandal and, in 2011, having a weak-looking leader with no charisma definitely made it easier. More importantly, Harper was able to take the populist and socially conservative elements of his party and suppress them to the point that average Canadians could get on board with their direction.

Given that the Liberals have Justin Trudeau and the NDP are in survival mode with a lack of funding and only 24 MPs, the Conservatives will need to present themselves carefully to have a chance. And they have to be willing to lose single-issue voters hoping to reverse abortion rights to do so.

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