As is often seen after a Tory election loss, it didn’t take long after the 2021 election for calls demanding a leadership review to begin, with the latest high-profile request coming from Sen. Denise Batters.
Tensions among the Conservatives over the party’s leadership and direction are nothing new.
Mutinies and defections have plagued federal conservative parties since the mid-1960s. Dalton Camp led a grassroots campaign calling for a leadership review of Progressive Conservative Leader John Diefenbaker, who was replaced by Robert Stanfield in 1967. Stanfield’s successor, Joe Clark, lost the leadership to Brian Mulroney in 1983, only to regain it in 1998. Prior to that, the Progressive Conservative Party was reduced to two seats in 1993 as the breakoff Bloc Quebecois and ascendant Reform Party finished second and third respectively behind Jean Chretien’s Liberals.
This century brought more upheavals. Twelve MPs left the Canadian Alliance in 2001 to form the Independent Alliance Caucus in protest against Stockwell Day’s leadership. At the subsequent leadership convention in 2002, Day was defeated by Stephen Harper.
Political strategist Tom Flanagan helped Harper in his leadership bids for the Canadian Alliance and the Conservative Party, and later served as Harper’s chief of staff.
“Harper was able to keep the lid on as long as he was winning, and the same was true of Mulroney. But since the Conservatives have been on a losing streak since 2015, their internal struggles are more prominent,” Flanagan told The Epoch Times.
Following Harper’s departure, Andrew Scheer won the party leadership in 2017. A year later, Maxime Bernier left to form the People’s Party. Some Conservative Party insiders successfully ousted Scheer after he failed to lead the party to power in 2019. Although party futility feeds discontent, Flanagan says even governing leaders can face challenges.
“Successful leaders are sometimes overthrown when the party seems secure in government. Alberta PCs could take down Ralph Klein, and federal Liberals could take down Jean Chretien, because they thought their party’s hold on power was invincible. But previously successful leaders may also come under attack when caucus members are worried about their prospects for re-election, [such as] what’s happening to Jason Kenney now,” he said.
“All political parties experience attempts to overthrow the leader,” Flanagan adds. “Look at what happened to the Greens recently. [With the Liberals], Chretien intrigued against Turner, and Martin intrigued against Chretien. However, these internal machinations tend to break out into the open more often when parties are losing.”
Unique Challenges for Conservatives
University of Manitoba associate professor of political science Malcolm Bird says that having governmental power allows leaders to offer power to loyalists and deny it to challengers, which the Conservative Party cannot do in the present situation.
“Justin Trudeau has essentially stacked the cabinet with his friends,” Bird said in an interview.
“Why isn’t Marc Garneau in cabinet? Probably the most competent, capable person in the room. I suspect and I’ve heard that he’s not there because he was one of the few people who would tell Mr. Trudeau that maybe his ideas weren’t so great,” he said.
“[Excluding Garneau] might be preserving harmony within the Liberal Party. It definitely is not preserving harmony within the country.”
The Liberal government designated Sept. 30, 2021, as the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, dedicated to commemorating the grim legacy of the residential schools. Trudeau announced he would be taking a personal day in Ottawa, yet flew to Tofino, B.C., instead. Bird believes this incident illustrates how the Liberal prime minister is far more aloof from criticism than a Conservative leader.
“Perhaps you should participate in an event or two in the morning or in the afternoon, and then ride it to Tofino in the evening,” he said. “But nobody did that, and Mr. Trudeau didn’t think of it himself. That’s astonishing in the sense they clearly have no concern for image and optics, and that ties back to the privileged natural governing position [that Liberals enjoy].”
Bird believes conservatives more easily fracture because in many cases they keep to their principles and perspective rather than what may be popular for winning an election. This makes it difficult for Tory leaders to balance principle and pragmatism in a way that would be satisfactory for partisans and still then be able to gain power in the face of a majority culture and media that disagree with them.
As for the Liberals, “it’s unbelievable, the soft ride they get from the central Canadian media,” Bird said. “It really is amazing. But this generally goes for people on the left and the left of centre. Mr. Trudeau, given his past, if he was a Conservative prime minister he would have been turfed long ago, but somehow these things don’t really stick to him.”
Power Struggles Bring Renewal
Flanagan says that factional struggles, which are inevitable, are healthy on the whole because they help to prevent leaders from becoming too powerful. However, he adds that in authoritarian regimes, “the results can be devastating when leaders suppress factionalism by violence,[as did] Stalin, Mao, Castro.”
Bird says he believes the Reform Party helped reduce government spending and balanced budgets even though its competition with the Progressive Conservatives kept both parties from power.
“They were the ones to ardently advocate for Western interests and fiscal prudence. Now, I’m not saying that the Liberal government in the mid-’90s wouldn’t have done what it had to do without the Reform Party, but they certainly took that core idea from the Reform Party and implemented it,” he said.