For months now, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole has been talking about the need to “secure the future” for Canada. But if a pair of recent polls are even close to being right, he might want to start thinking about how he can secure his own political party’s future. After a June Abacus poll showed the federal Liberals with a 10-point lead on the Conservatives, Ipsos came out with an even more stunning result: a 12-point Liberal lead. Ipsos shows the Conservative Party of Canada polling at just 26 per cent nationally.

As The Writ’s Eric Grenier noted, that figure is almost unfathomably bad for a federal conservative party in Canada. “Not even Arthur Meighen in 1921, R.B. Bennett in 1935 or John Bracken in 1945 ever fell that low.” And while it’s being driven by weakness in Ontario (thanks, Doug Ford!) and a total collapse in the Maritimes and British Columbia, it’s even showing up in the Alberta numbers as well. Both the Abacus and Ipsos polls put O’Toole’s party under 40 per cent in Alberta, with the Trudeau-led Liberals within spitting distance provincewide and very much in a position to win seats — and maybe a bunch of them — in Edmonton and Calgary.

But the worst data point for Erin O’Toole in this buffet of bad news might be the one about voters over the age of 55, a demographic that has traditionally been rock-solid for the Conservative Party of Canada. After a year of listening to conservative-led provincial governments who sounded more interested in reopening their economies than protecting the lives of those most vulnerable to COVID-19, it seems boomers have had a change of heart. According to the Ipsos poll, the Liberals now command 40 per cent of their support compared to the Conservatives with just 29 per cent. As founder and poll analyst Philippe Fournier tweeted, “This is perhaps the most worrying subsample for the Conservatives. They simply can’t afford to lose older voters.”

At this point, it seems certain O’Toole’s Conservatives are going to lose the next election. If they want to be able to contest the one after that, they’re going to need to do more than find a new leader or throw a coat of metaphorical paint on their political brand. They’re going to need to fundamentally reassess what they’re offering to Canadians and why voters seem to be turning their backs on it in growing numbers.

That has to begin with an understanding that simply loathing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau isn’t actually a strategy, much less a winning one. They may hate him with the fire of a thousand suns, but Canadians remain far more amenable, with 42 per cent picking him in the Ipsos poll as the best prime minister (O’Toole and the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh tied at 23 per cent).

If the Conservatives want to get out of the political weeds, they’re also going to have to give up their growing addiction to Trump-like (or Trump-lite) politics. Anger and resentment may be the fuel that fires the engine in the Conservative Party of Canada right now, but it’s not getting the party where it wants to go. And while conspiracy theories about inflation, climate change and the “Great Reset” may resonate with parts of their base, the CPC’s willingness to flirt with them is alienating huge parts of the electorate that they need to actually win elections.

In fairness to Erin O’Toole and his predecessor, the Conservatives’ internal selection process practically requires leadership hopefuls to pander to the fringes. The combination of a ranked ballot (one in which people select both a first choice and a second, third and even fourth preference) and equally weighted ridings has produced two consecutive leadership races in which the eventual winner had to cater to the furthest reaches of its party’s fringe to win. Andrew Scheer couldn’t have won without the support of social conservatives like Bradley Trost and Pierre Lemieux, while Erin O’Toole’s victory in 2020 was clearly underwritten by Derek Sloan’s voters.

If the “modern, centrist” Conservative Party of Canada that Erin O’Toole has promised Canadians is ever going to emerge, it needs to dispense with a leadership race structure that so clearly rewards fringe voices and voters. But it also needs to dispense with at least some of those voters entirely. The anti-mask, anti-science, anti-decency portion of the Conservatives’ base is actively harming their ability to connect with more moderate Canadians, especially in the Greater Toronto Area, Vancouver suburbs and other vote-rich markets. Amputating that cancerous wing of their party could allow them to grow in other areas. Trading the noisy five-ish per cent on the CPC’s far-right for the 10 or more that might be available in the political centre is a risk worth taking.

If they don’t take that risk, they face an even bigger one: being reduced to third place in Parliament. If it’s any consolation, the Liberal Party of Canada went down this road as recently as 2011, and they found the courage to reinvent themselves by embracing deficit spending (and effectively outflanking the NDP) in the 2015 election. If the seemingly inevitable 2021 election goes as badly for Conservatives as recent polls suggest, they’ll be faced with the unpleasant irony of having to learn from Justin Trudeau. Talk about adding insult to injury.

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The Conservatives have another problem as far as I am concerned. They are seen to be the "oil industry party" in spite of the fact that the Trudeau Government purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline and are busy massively expanding same. With gasoline prices going through the roof and some headlines announcing "good news" for the oil industry I believe that many voters view things quite a bit differently. I must admit that personally I cannot put my vote behind any of the parties at the present.

That would be a great follow-up column: Who is Canada's real 'oil industry party?'

"In the US, there is basically one party - the business party. It has two factions, called Democrats and Republicans, which are somewhat different but carry out variations on the same policies. By and large, I am opposed to those policies. As is most of the population." (Noam Chomsky)
Likewise in Canada, Liberals and Conservatives are two wings of the same party representing Corporate Canada, the Big Banks, and the O&G industry.
In Alberta, Big Oil and petro-politics is the only option on the ballot. When it comes to new oilsands pipelines and throwing billions of tax dollars at the oil industry, the AB NDP and UCP are on the same page.
Kevin Taft's "Oil's Deep State: How the petroleum industry undermines democracy and stops action on global warming - in Alberta, and in Ottawa". The O&G industry has captured politicians in all mainstream parties: federal Liberals and Conservatives, and provincial NDP in the West.
The Liberals look like climate leaders only when they stand next to the Conservatives. Liberal climate policy looks reasonable only next to Conservatives' denialism. A good cop/bad cop scenario. The Conservatives' bad-cop climate policy scares Canadians into "confiding in" and voting for the Liberals' good-cop climate policy. The oil industry get what it wants either way.
The Liberals' climate plan is to "green" fossil fuels, not get off them:
- Increase fossil fuel production.
- Purchase of the existing Trans Mtn pipeline.
- Promotion and construction of the Trans Mtn Expansion Project.
- Expand markets.
- Greenlighting new LNG projects.
- Ramp up fossil-fuel subsidies.
- Stick taxpayers with clean-up bills, even for multi-billion dollar oil companies (e.g., CNRL).
- Grossly under-report oil & gas emissions.
- Creative accounting to wipe emissions from the balance sheet.
- Dubious carbon offsets.
- Aspirational net-zero targets decades out into the future (2050) with no roadmap to meet them.
- No plausible roadmap to emissions targets.
- Planned billion dollar investments in costly, inefficient, unviable, unproven, or non-existent technologies like carbon capture and SMRs (for oilsands industry).
- Accountability legislation without real teeth.
A plan to fail. Custom-made for, if not dictated by, the O&G industry and Corporate Canada.
A govt that pays lip service to climate change with an opposition in virtual denial. A dream come true for the fossil fuel industry.
The Liberals and AB NDP have proved far more effective than the Conservatives in delivering on Big Oil's and Corporate Canada's agenda. Trudeau & Co. have persuaded many Canadians that we can both act on climate and double down on fossil fuels. Have our cake and eat it too.
Trudeau and Notley moved the ball on the Trans Mountain pipeline down to the ten-yard line. Their signal achievement was to "push country-wide support for pipelines from 40% to 70%." Something Harper, Scheer, and Kenney could never dream of doing.
Either way, Big Oil wins and Canadians lose.
"...But with a government working in the interests of industry, citizens have been left out of the decision-making process, where the only way to register their voice is from behind the blockade line where they are marginalized, or worse, criminalized as radicals."

Canada's failed energy/climate policy was forged in the back room long before Trudeau entered office. (I originally wrote "before Trudeau came to power", but that would be misleading. Corporate Canada is in charge.)
"The Liberal party plays on voters’ desire for far-reaching transformation while guaranteeing the endurance of the status quo. The Liberals effectively act as a kind of shock absorber of discontent and anger towards the elite…
"So on climate, Trudeau was presented as this kind of river-paddling environmental Adonis. He promised that fossil fuel projects wouldn’t go ahead without the permission of communities. But the Liberals create these public spectacles of their bold progressiveness while they quietly assure the corporate elite that their interests will be safeguarded. So at the same time Trudeau was going around the country and convincing people that he was this great climate hope, the Liberal party had for years been assuring big oil & gas interests that there would not be any fundamental change to the status quo.
"As early as 2013, Trudeau was telling the Calgary Petroleum Club that he differed with Harper not so much about the necessity of exporting huge amounts of tarsands internationally, but because he didn’t think Harper’s approach — which stoked divisions and an incredible amount of resistance that turned Canada into a climate pariah — was the most effective marketing approach.
"The Liberal climate plan essentially is a reworking of the business plan of Big Oil and the broader corporate lobby. …The plan is to support a carbon tax and to effectively make it a cover for expanded tarsands production and pipelines. That was a plan hatched by the Business Council of Canada back in 2006, 2007. For 20 years oil companies had resisted any kind of regulation or any kind of carbon tax and fought it seriously. But they started to realize that it would be a kind of concession that they would have to make in order to assure stability and their bottom line not being harmed. The climate bargain that Trudeau went on to strike with Alberta of a carbon tax plus expanded tarsands production was precisely the deal that Big Oil had wanted."
In his book, "The Big Stall: How Big Oil and Think Tanks are Blocking Action on Climate Change in Canada", Donald Gutstein details how neoliberal "progressive" politicians like Trudeau and Notley subverted the climate change agenda and enabled Big Oil's "predatory delay":
"The Rise and Fall of Trudeau’s ‘Grand Bargain’ on Climate"
"Justin Trudeau’s grand bargain with Big Oil exposed in Donald Gutstein's The Big Stall"
"'The Big Stall' details how neoliberal think tanks blocked action on climate change"

Not just "seen to be". They have actively spent a great deal of time and money and effort pushing the message that they are the oil industry party. That's the big difference--Trudeau just DOES THINGS for the oil industry; he doesn't spend all that much time talking about how wonderful it is and how it is the future and how nobody should ever inconvenience it in any way. He keeps the favours mostly in the back room, says some fairly tepid things about why he's doing them, and then tries to change the subject to his great climate targets or whatever.
But the Conservatives want it to be known by all that they are pro-oil, and that as far as they're concerned all efforts to put civilization's survival ahead of oil profits must be crushed. They go to great lengths to make sure everyone sees them this way. I'm not sure it's the winning position they think it is.

Incidentally, the Conservative approach isn't "populism". To call it "populism" implies two things: First, that the, you know, populace, likes these positions. If it's not popular, if the populace don't want what you're selling, then I don't see how it's populist.

Second, that in some way, for good or ill, the ideas involved originate from the masses and are just being picked up, whether honestly or cynically, by the leadership. But that isn't true of the current right wing wingnut zeitgeist either--it's been fostered carefully. There's a whole lot of PR and think tanks and bots and sock puppets paid for by some big (often oil) money behind the current far right paranoid racist stuff, going back at least to the "Tea Party" which was seen as "populist" but which involved a whole lot of money and media. Talk radio, televangelists and so on were never an organic "public" thing, they were driving opinion more than being shaped by it, and the organizations and social networks of the Tea Party were heavily financed by people like the Koch brothers. And then you get Fox news . . . this right wing movement, although it sometimes threatens to get out of the control of its makers, is an elite-crafted thing which exists because at least some of the big wealth and power think it's useful.