There has been good deal of chatter on social media about an article David Akin wrote in the Toronto Sun which is headlined “Angry at party brass, grassroots Conservatives ready for change.” The bulk of the comment is from parts of that very grassroots and they are saying that they are not angry at Stephen Harper.
So, who’s right?
Both, I think: I believe there is a real, palpable but largely unfocused anger at the party establishment that ran a disjointed campaign: some parts were excellent, some were completely off track ~ it was, in my estimation, like two or three different campaigns all going on at once.
David Akin lays out three “charges;” Conservatives he says are angry:
- “at the way their party lost last fall’s election;”
- “that former leader Stephen Harper abused the power of the leader’s office;” and
- “that millions of dollars they donated were wasted on a computer system screwup at party HQ.“
It is the second one that has stirred up the most comment and I’m not sure he’s right at how the anger is directed. There is anger but not, I suspect, directed at Stephen Harper, per se. It is, rather, aimed at a campaign team that seemed, to me anyway, to have been poorly organized and badly led.
It speaks to a problem with party organization, starting at the top. He cites one example:
“The riding association in South Surrey-White Rock specifically singled out Harper and the party leadership for ignoring policies, adopted by unanimously by the members, to treat Afghanistan veterans better. Instead, the Conservative government started taking veterans to court.“
The party was, it seems to me, “smarter” than the parliamentary caucus, which includes the prime minister, which were, as I said yesterday, taking the doubtless well-intentioned policy advice of the civil service ~ bean counters and lawyers ~ but which was, as a result, not being very Conservative: the party, per se, was right, the parliamentary wing was wrong.
L Ian MacDonald, writing in iPolitics, focuses more on the anger resulting from the campaign, proper, noting that “the Conservatives made the baffling decision to change the focus from their signature issue — the economy — to identity politics. Just in case anyone found the message too subtle, they rolled out the barbaric practices snitch line. That was the tipping point; multicultural and suburban voters, courted by the Conservatives for a decade, deserted them in droves … [and] … the Conservatives also were shut out of Greater Montreal, downtown Vancouver, Ottawa, Winnipeg, St. John’s, Halifax and Saint John. They won only Quebec City, as well as Calgary and Edmonton in the blue heartland of Alberta. The Greater Toronto Area tells the story. Where the Conservatives held 30 out of 45 GTA seats in the old Parliament, they were reduced to only five out of 54 seats in the new House, all of them in suburban 905.“
In my opinion, the party, proper, ought to have the final say in the platform upon which ALL Conservative candidates will run: if you agree with our platform then you should try to win a Conservative nomination … once you sign up to be a Conservative you pledge, on your honour, to implement ALL of the party’s platform … or resign and sit as an independent. But, there’s always a but, the party must be equally and fairly represented by ALL Conservatives, not just by some factions. Policy should be the business of the party and politics should be the business of the parliamentary wing of the party.
Conservatives need to rethink the role and nature of party “leader.” The leader of the parliamentary caucus ~ the person we all hope will be our prime minister ~ is not, necessarily, the best person to be setting long term, strategic Conservative party goals and writing the platform for the next election and the one after that. (S)he is fully occupied with the daily, pressing business of governing or, at least, holding the government to account. The party president is, currently, both (relatively) unknown and, too often, a choice of the leader of the parliamentary caucus.
John Walsh, the current party president, is, without a shadow of a doubt an estimable man and a good Conservative … but who is he and how did he get there and what does he do for us, Conservatives? My guess is that one in one hundred Conservatives can answer any of those questions and not one in one thousand can answer all three. Perhaps it is more important to ask: what should he do?
Some answers are obvious. The party is an organization and we want a good business manager, which Mr Walsh, being a managing director and general counsel at a large Canadian pension fund and having, previously practised corporate law for 10 years at two of Canada’s leading law firms, clearly is. It is also a fundraising agency and, again, Mr Walsh appears very qualified to lead in that role, too. But, above all, it is a political movement ~ in its latest, current form it is the heir to …
… that is a broad and diverse heritage, some were hardcore fiscal conservatives and foreign policy visionaries, others were Red Tories of an almost Liberal bent, and still others were right-wing populists. But, we, Conservatives, are broadly but moderately right-wing in our social and economic views and, we hope, principled in our all our policy views. We want (we should want) to govern for the greater benefit of most Canadians, not in the interests of any special, defined groups. That also means, as others have said, that we, Conservatives, must stop “writing off” 100± urban seats because some of us are unwilling to consider and then adapt our views and policies the social attitudes of young urbanites.
What do these two conservative leaders have in common?
… both, Mrs Thatcher in 1990 and Mr Abbott in 2015, were challenged and defeated in party leadership votes while sitting as prime minister. The “grass roost,” people like me and most of my readers, had no say in that. And I am inclined to the view that the Australians and the British may have a better grip on the office and role of a parliamentary leader than do we (and the Americans). It seems to me that the parliamentary caucus is best equipped to pick the parliamentary leader and we, the grassroots Conservatives, not just the “activists” in our riding association are best equipped to pick the party leader and the key people who will develop our platform.
John Ibbitson and Steven Chase, in the Globe and Mail, say “the [Conservative] movement knows what 21st-century conservatism means: fiscal discipline, ever-lower taxes, respecting provincial rights, putting the victim before the criminal in the justice system, putting Canada First in foreign policy.” But, they go on, and I agree, that Conservatives must decide: “How do Conservatives confront climate change? How can Conservatives bring healing to relations with indigenous Canadians? Most important, which leadership candidate would do the best job of uniting the party and confronting a youthful, charismatic and popular Justin Trudeau? Before the party faithful can decide who can best lead them to victory in 2019, they must first talk among themselves about what they believe together, what they want to do together, what it means to be a Conservative After Harper.“
To me, that means reviewing how we make policies rather than focusing, too much, on how we do politics. I trust elected MPs, more than the grassroots, to decide how to do day-to-day politics and I trust riding associations to pick good candidates, but I think the party, writ large, needs to make policies that work all across Canada, in pretty much every riding. I believe we have too much focus on “the leader” and not enough on the policies that we, the party, want her or him to implement.