Political party conventions can be a great mechanism for party renewal and invigoration. These gatherings can unite the party faithful and build momentum.
With a federal election looming while national support for his party continues to dwindle, Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) Leader Erin O‘Toole desperately needed a breakthrough in the 2021 convention. But instead of pursuing unity, O’Toole and party brass decided to go to war with their own membership with a foolish policy resolution specifically stating that the party believes climate change is real. The resolution failed and blew up in the leadership’s face.
The CPC are now heading into election season with an angry and divided membership while their opponents have fresh ammunition with which to hammer the party using the climate change issue. This is a catastrophic development for the party and it was completely unnecessary when considering we have very recently watched another Canadian conservative party do this to itself.
The parallels are hard to ignore. Alberta’s Wildrose Party had been languishing in the role of the official opposition for two electoral cycles. Opponents to the party had effectively painted it as being composed of backward bigots and continually accused them of being anti-LGTBQ. Party operatives decided that what was required was an act of self-flagellation through entrenching a policy specifically saying that the party recognized the equal rights of LGBTQ people despite having a policy that already stated that the party respected the equal rights of all Albertans.
Debate on the convention floor was heated and members resoundingly rejected the proposal not because they opposed LGBTQ rights, but because it was a stupid policy. I was among those party delegates who voted down the policy and I have long been an advocate for LGBTQ rights including marriage rights well before it was a popular stance to take within conservative circles. The policy proposal was bad and it would have opened us up to all sorts of accusations through exclusion. Why didn’t we have a policy saying we specifically support black people or Inuit? Did that mean we were bigots if we didn’t make and enshrine a policy for each and every aggrieved minority on the planet?
The fallout from the convention was swift and predictable. Media headlines claimed that the party refused to recognize LGBTQ rights while neglecting to mention that no other party in Canada had such a specific policy. Members were divided and livid with party leadership. This was certainly one of the contributing factors that led to the disastrous floor-crossing by leader Danielle Smith and a number of her MLAs which led to the electoral oblivion of every one of them. None of this would have happened if the policy had never been put on the floor in the first place. Many senior CPC operatives were part of that Wildrose Party. Did they learn nothing?
Trust is more important than any policy document when it comes to voters. In Alberta, the unthinkable happened in 2015 as Rachel Notley’s NDP won a majority government in what is supposed to be Canada’s conservative heartland. While most Albertans had no appetite for the socialism within the NDP policy book, they saw Notley as a person they could trust while they saw the conservative options as being unprincipled and devious due to their recent machinations and opportunistic moves. The best policy set on earth means nothing if the person selling doesn’t project leadership and trustworthiness.
Rather than accepting the will of the membership at the CPC’s recent convention, O'Toole chided them and essentially said he will carry on the same course despite them. This is a breach of trust with the membership and an act of poor leadership. What is the point of member-driven policy if the party leader won’t adhere to it? If members won’t trust the leader, rest assured voters won’t.
The convention’s failed policy resolution exposed and deepened regional divides within the party. While Quebec and the Eastern provinces supported the resolution, Alberta and Saskatchewan strongly opposed it. Western provinces dependent upon their natural resource industries have already been feeling pretty battered through years of Liberal policy designed to shut in their industries. They certainly aren’t feeling any more optimistic as O'Toole appears to be determined to continue on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s path when it comes to climate policy.
Instead of holding an event where conservatives can feel united and enthusiastic, the CPC has instead managed to divide core supporters and make them more despondent than ever. Rather than leading and uniting, O‘Toole has taken careful aim at his own foot and shot it needlessly. Trudeau and company are smiling as they plan this year’s election. O’Toole has just made it that much easier for them.