After yet another disappointing loss, Canada’s federal Conservative Party is trying to figure out whether to throw their leader off a bridge or all jump together. They might consider defending their philosophy before abandoning all hope. I know it sounds crazy, but it just might work.
The tactical problem the Conservatives face is that they just ran an uninspired campaign led by Andrew Scheer against a badly wounded Liberal opponent, Justin Trudeau. And while they beat Trudeau’s Liberals in the popular vote and reduced them to a minority in the lower house of our Parliament (the upper house, being appointed, is of limited importance), they still came out with just 121 of 338 seats, a gain of only 26, while the urban sophisticate Liberals won 157.
The strategic problem is that this defeat was not unexpected except perhaps by those who suffered it. In Canada, the Conservative Party only wins a majority once a generation, then squanders it by drifting ineptly to the left. Since the First World War, only one Conservative (then Progressive Conservative) prime minister has won back-to-back majorities: Brian Mulroney in 1984 and 1988.
The philosophical problem is that Canada seems not to be a conservative country except for a boring, timid “conservatism” of inertia that makes us a liberal country because we’ve been one for so long. Either that or the situation we have in Canada today is right and conservatism is obnoxious.
Alarming as that thought might seem, or misguided, it is what the Tories have been told in a steady drumbeat since their defeat. Pundit after pundit, some ostensibly conservative and others nothing of the sort, have told them they lost because they’re too right wing.
Peter MacKay, the last leader of the old Progressive Conservative party before its 2003 merger with the upstart right-wing Canadian Alliance to form today’s Conservatives (and the Hill Times “Canada’s Sexiest Male MP” from 1999–2007 and in 2009), just called social conservatism a “stinking albatross” around their Catholic leader’s neck, while gruff populist National Post columnist Randall Denley said that “Conservatives need a policy approach that appeals not just to their base, but to Ontario voters who are fiscally responsible and socially liberal, people like me” including embracing climate change, abortion, and gay marriage.
The idea of being fiscally conservative and socially liberal is seductive. You can be all jiggy about gay pride, abortion, and the dissolution of marriage, yet be a true-blue conservative and win. But there is a tactical problem here.
If the Tories become the Liberal Party they might be rejected by voters who’d rather have the real one, especially if its main opponent just said it was actually right. Certainly, the plan has failed every time it’s been tried for over 50 years, which is bad. And there’s also a strategic problem.
The Conservative Party finds no constituency for many of its views outside its hated “base” so it dares not stand up for them or try to articulate them. But because it dares not stand up for them or try to articulate them, it finds no constituency for them. It’s a vicious circle. But it can’t repudiate its base because without core or casual supporters it sure won’t win elections.
Seen that way, the dilemma ceases to be uniquely Canadian. Instead, it’s the perennial problem for all parties that don’t occupy whatever happens to constitute the “mushy middle” where they operate. And there are two options: drift with the tide like, as Chesterton said, a dead thing, or plant your feet firmly against the running water. And certainly in Canada the left-wing parties have done the latter for a great many years.
Generally speaking, that plan has failed in the partisan sense. Canada has never had a federal NDP majority or even formal coalition with cabinet posts, and the party rarely wins provincially either. But strategically and philosophically it has won nearly every election in the last half-century because public policy has been dragged steadily, even relentlessly, leftward due to the firmness of the left, the opportunism of the Liberals, and the spinelessness of the Tories.
Thus, like similar parties at odds with mainstream culture everywhere, if Canada’s Conservatives want to stop being a punching bag without going into hiding, they need to be willing to adopt and defend contrarian positions with clarity and courage.
In fact, we know such an approach works tactically for conservatives in Canada for two reasons. First, in Ontario (a key federal battleground because it has more voters than any other province), right-wing Tories have won provincial elections several times, including just last year. It’s left-wing Tories who invariably lose, provincially and federally. The only majorities the Conservatives have won nationally since the Second World War have been won by campaigning to the right (John Diefenbaker in 1958 as a kind of high Tory, Brian Mulroney on cutting government waste in 1984 and on free trade with the United States in 1988, and Stephen Harper as a libertarian in 2011).
These victories have then been squandered strategically by running to the left, including big deficits under Mulroney and Harper. And then the party goes, gosh, we weren’t left-wing enough. Which is just plain silly. If they want to improve their prospects over time they need to win arguments, not just elections.
Then there’s the philosophical issue that many conservatives agree with contrarian Ted Byfield’s statement back in 1993 that “(t)he ‘economic conservative’ demands that the cost of government be cut, the deficit reduced, and the debts paid. But he does not face the fact that it was the pursuit of social liberalism that caused the deficit, the debt and the growth of government to begin with.” And many are pro-life and think selling out core principles for partisan gain is disgraceful, even if it works, and pathetic if it fails.
The bottom line for the Tories is that if you’re really left wing, you’re in the wrong party and should go join the Liberals or NDP if they’ll even have you. If you’re not, you should stand up for what you believe in and try to turn the tide.
Scary? Perhaps. But it couldn’t work any worse than what you’ve been doing for the past century. Which is surely long enough to suffer, and to learn.
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, commentator-at-large with News Talk Radio 580 CFRA in Ottawa, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.