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Canada's Conservatives are “completely clued out” about the unpopularity of hard-right social policies and are essentially “campaigning against themselves,” two leading political commentators argued in an online panel discussion last Monday.
Answering questions from Canada's National Observer editor-in-chief Linda Solomon Wood, columnists Bruce Livesey and Sandy Garossino spent an hour tackling wide-ranging questions about why today's Canadian conservative movement has moved so far to the right, its hopes for retaking power in the face of an increasingly progressive populace, and how evangelical Christians and Big Oil got a stranglehold on the right.
“The social conservative base is enormously powerful,” Livesey told Solomon Wood and the audience of 100 participants on the Zoom webinar, part of Conversations, sponsored by Canada's National Observer. “The reason (leadership rivals) Peter MacKay and Erin O'Toole have taken the positions they're doing — which are ludicrous in terms of ever trying to get elected — is because the base has this enormous social conservative element. In order to win the leadership, you've got to pander to them.”
But that's precisely what has lost them repeated elections, and will only worsen their chances over time, he said.
Livesey — an award-winning investigative journalist with experience on CBC's flagship shows The Fifth Estate and The National, Global News' 16×9, and PBS's Frontline — most recently did an analysis on the state of the Conservatives for the National Observer entitled, How Stephen Harper is destroying the Conservative party.
He said he interviewed between 25 and 30 sources for his story, and other than a couple political scientists as experts, focused almost entirely on hearing from Conservative members past and present.
“I tried to basically interview just Conservatives … people within the party, both from when they used to be called the PC (Progressive Conservative) party all the way up to the current generation,” Livesey said. “There's a lot of people who wouldn't talk to me … It was a big challenge; given that I was going to talk to them about Stephen Harper, there seemed to be a bit of a concern.”
But some did want to talk, and could be broadly lumped into two camps: the long-ousted progressive wing of the party, once nicknamed “Red Tories”; and the more recent alumni and strategists of the Harper era.
Who took #cdnpoli's @CPC_HQ hostage? Top @natobserverpolitical analysts @Livesey416 & @Garossino tackle wide-ranging questions on how Evangelicals and oil barons got strangleholds on the party—and how Red Tories could retake their movement
“If you talked to the sort of Red Tories — the 'liberal' wing of the party — there was no surprise there that they think the party's stuck in a ditch,” Livesey said. “The more interesting thing was finding the younger generation who were around Harper in some capacity, who are beginning to realize — having lost two back-to-back elections — that something was wrong.”
What exactly is wrong, however, he found divisive amongst loyalists. Some expressed hope to find a better leader than Andrew Scheer to save their flagging fortunes. But others, Livesey said, had started to see problems in the party's offerings to voters altogether.
“That's the contradiction the party's in at the moment,” Livesey, author of the book Thieves of Bay Street, said. “The base just thinks, 'We just need the next Stephen Harper to lead us back into power.'
“Abortion and gay marriage — those are the two issues that get social conservatives all agitated, and they want to have something done about them. Harper was brilliant at keeping that element under a lock and key. Scheer was not … nobody trusted him on those issues. The social conservative base is an enormous problem for that party.”
Whoever wins the leadership of the party, Livesey predicted, must “basically ignore what the base is” if they want to win enough seats outside Alberta, the Prairies and rural Ontario.
Garossino, meanwhile, agreed that infighting over who can be the most hardline on divisive issues such as LGBTQ rights and abortion is only hurting the party more with each utterance and campaign plank.
The popular longtime columnist with Canada's National Observer spent years previously as a Crown prosecutor and trial lawyer and Vancouver community advocate. She is also a keen observer of Canadian and American political trends, admitting Monday she's a big nerd for electoral data and crunching riding numbers. While she and Livesey admitted few Tories are likely paying heed to this publication, they ought to at least pay attention to the dismal electoral data.
When it comes to hard-right social issues, the numbers don't lie.
“They're actually campaigning against themselves the more they play to that,” Garossino said. “It doesn't play in any of the areas that the federal Conservatives need to take power. They have got to get into the 905 — the (Greater Toronto Area) — and they've got to get into Quebec.”
According to the most recent polls, the Conservatives are indeed trailing behind the Liberals — despite Scheer's repeated attempts to portray Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a reckless spendthrift, contemptuous of accountability and the rule of law.
A new poll released June 28 by respected pollster Léger Marketing placed Liberals at 40 per cent support, double-digits ahead of Conservatives in voter intentions compared to the Tories' 28 per cent. (The survey of 1,524 Canadians gave the NDP 17 per cent support, the Bloc Québecois seven per cent, and Greens one point behind; the online poll's margin of error could be considered equivalent to 2.5 per cent.) The results mirrored another opinion survey last week.
But yet another poll by Ekos Research found an even starker divide when it comes to gender last week, with Liberals leading among women with a staggering 24 per cent lead over the Tories, which held a slight lead over the Grits among men.
Multi-poll aggregator 338Canada, meanwhile, ran 250,000 statistical election simulations using recent polls and predicted a 189-seat Liberal seat majority if an election were held now, with the Tories trailing at 94 seats (a party needs a minimum 170 seats to win a majority government).
But both Livesey and Garossino reminded participants in the Zoom event that key to electoral victory in Canada is commanding broad support across the most vote-rich, densely populated urban centres — particularly the Greater Toronto Area suburbs, Montreal, and B.C.'s Lower Mainland. It was a lesson former Prime Minister Stephen Harper understood despite his past social-conservative, Reform Party roots.
That's something Livesey believes the Conservatives have lost sight of completely. He has little hope the once-moderate stalwarts of the party will regain control any time soon because of the need to survive the hard-right base that serves as a gauntlet for would-be leaders.
“They're not taking into consideration the electoral math that plays into this,” he explained. “The Tories' base gets them about 30 per cent of the vote, but to win a minority, you need around 35, a majority around 40.
“That means you've got to convince ... the very seat-rich urban hubs like Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal … that you represent their interests. That is the programmatic problem with the party now. They have completely clued out to the fact that those voters don't want to vote for that particular platform.”
Stuck on Harper
In his June 25 analysis, Livesey argued former prime minister Stephen Harper remains the most powerful force in today's party, but may be, in fact, undermining “the very thing he created” as his successor Scheer steers the party sharply towards the far right on issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights.
It's something Tory supporters should be extremely wary of, particularly as the far-right administration in the pandemic-gutted United States faces “potential devastation of unbelievable proportions because of the failure of this one man,” Garossino said. But the roots of the crisis go back decades to Reagan-era right-wing neoliberal movements, she and Livesey agreed, as billionaires and corporations were effectively handed the keys to power in the U.S.
Today, with tens of millions of unemployed losing their private health benefits, the chickens are now coming home to roost in that country.
“If you look at the trajectory, this is the sum result of a program that began in the '70s and '80s to, in effect, ensure the state did nothing for the average American citizen,” Livesey said. “(It marked) the end of the so-called welfare state — the New Deal type of government — and the capture of the state by largely the billionaire class.”
But although the Tea Party hasn't taken hold to the same extent north of the 49th parallel, similar hardline right movements have found sympathy in many parts of Canada.
Canadians, and particularly those loyal to the Conservative party, ought to worry about similar political movements here gaining any more foothold than they have. But it was actually Canada's Reagan-era Conservative leader who garnered some positive attention in Monday's online discussion.
Faced with a stark ideological choice today, Tories might look for inspiration — and success — to former PM Brian Mulroney.
“The PCs recognized they had to be a centre party to win power. The person most genius at figuring that out was Mulroney, he won two solid majorities … and destroyed the Liberals in Quebec. They had the 'big tent' approach, that social conservatives, Red Tories, environmentalists, people from all walks of life, fiscal conservatives, could all be under the same umbrella." Livesey said.
“It worked until it didn't work.”
Mulroney was also considered a leader on environmental issues, and even stalwart Conservative architect Tom Flanagan told Livesey he hoped for some critical Tory reflection on their climate change and carbon pricing policies.
“There is increasing awareness they have to be better on that front,” Livesey said, “even if it is in a very cynical way.”
But it's not just the evangelicals trying to steer the Tory ship. Another powerful force in the country has leveraged influence extremely effectively. Livesey and Garossino said other than the Tories' social conservative base, the party also has been held “hostage” by the oil industry lobby and some of Harper's former entourage, such as Jason Kenney, now Alberta premier.
Garossino has frequently commented on the state of Canada's Conservatives, most recently in her May 27 column, Stephen Harper's power dissolves, in which she argued that Harper continues to “control his chastened party” from the sidelines, but as “the right’s energy and narrative has been seized by Trumpian ideologues,” the Canadian electorate has moved on and is no longer interested.
Canada's Conservatives ought to ponder those trends carefully before selecting their next leader, Garossino said, but she's not hopeful.
“To get to be a contender nationally, you have to get past the base, which is far more conservative than the Canadian public,” she said. “They're almost fighting against themselves.”
Could the Red Tories stage a Mulroney-inspired comeback — and retake the reins from today's increasingly unpalatable oil and religious party wings? That remains to be seen.
Editor's Note: Next Wednesday, July 8, Emilee Gilpin talks with Linda Solomon Wood about how Covid-19 is devastating Indigenous communities in Brazil. To register, go here. The interview with Sandy Garossino and Bruce Livesey is part of Conversations with Linda Solomon Wood, sponsored by Canada's National Observer. Conversations features topics around COVID-19, the economy, politics and climate change. If you'd like advanced notice about our fall line-up, subscribe here. To see the entire series of interviews in the Conversations series on video, head over to our YouTube channel.