Andrew Coyne, writing in the Globe and Mail a few days ago, after covering ground that I have covered, over and over again, said that: “The first and most important step, then, is for Conservatives to develop some elemental self-confidence; to accept that they are in the persuasion game, and that the answer to electoral failure is not to ditch their principles but to find a way to make them more presentable to larger numbers of people. That’s not just a matter of messaging, but of applying conservative principles – limited government, markets, individual rights – to issues and concerns of relevance to today’s voters: the sorts of issues, like the environment, or inequality, that Conservatives have tended to duck.“
Bingo! Conservatives need not “ditch their principles;” they just need to explain them in ways that more and more Canadians can understand and want to hear. What Prime Minister Stephen Harper grasped was that many Canadians, especially new Canadians ~ you know the people who are, as Justin Trudeau says over and over again, working hard to join the middle class or just clinging to the bottom rung of it and who live, in HUGE numbers, in the seat-rich suburbs around Toronto ~ share many traditional Conservative values. Many Conservative values, but not all of them, and they often understand and express their values in different ways.
“Put that way,” Andrew Coyne says, “it sounds obvious. But the party will be unwilling to part with its base on these issues, perhaps out of fear that the base will part with the party, in favour of the still-kicking People’s Party or some other populist vehicle. I really don’t think the party needs to purge its social-conservative wing, as some have advocated. But social conservatives, like other elements of the party’s coalition, will have to understand the necessity of proportion, and respect for others’ opinions, and tone.“
Exactly! The values that make so many of us Conservative are good ones. They don’t need to change. But the “tone” does and the Conservative Party also has to embrace ideas that matter, a lot, to most Canadians … and that includes the environment and equality.
Michelle Rempel, writing in social media a few days ago, said, “our party has been cowed into … [accepting] … that somehow transactional politics are the only thing that we should be doing; that big bold transformative ideas on the right are verboten simply by virtue of them not being Liberal.” Her prescription is clear and simple, and I agree with it:
Conservatives have some bold policy ideas. A few Canadians will like many of them; many Canadians will like a few of them if they offer solutions to problems they face. I have talked about this issue ~ big ideas ~ from some time.
John Ibbitson, also writing in the Globe and Mail, makes a similar point. He asks us to imagine that the Conservatives win a “thumping” victory in the fall of 2021; and he imagines that the Tory benches will be filled with new faces ~ many from those suburbs around Vancouver and, especially, Toronto ~ and many of those new faces will be both female and ethnic. How, he wonders, did the CPC do it? How did they turn those seats from red to blue? His answer is: “First, by being Conservative, not Liberal. Canada does not need yet another progressive party; there are plenty on offer. A winning Conservative message must emphasize low taxes, balanced budgets and reduced spending, along with a strong emphasis on fighting crime and building up the military, while leaving social policy to the provinces, because that’s what provinces do … [and, he says, go back to our own, former, “big ideas,” for example] … The Conservative Party is, historically, a party of immigration. John Diefenbaker’s government ended the race-based screening of immigrants. Brian Mulroney opened the floodgates, setting an immigration target of 250,000 new arrivals a year. Stephen Harper’s government pushed it higher, to 280,000 in 2010. For that freeze-frame to come true, the Conservatives should be even more bullish on immigration than the Liberals, while cracking down on irregular migration across the Canada-U.S. border.” I know many Conservatives will disagree, but, as I have said, the CPC should get behind the Century Initiative: 100 million Canadians by the years 2100 ~ which means large increases in (carefully targetted) immigration, especially from the Philippines, India and China. I am serious about targetted immigration: we need to focus on countries that have a surplus of educated, sophisticated, hard-working people who already understand our basic institutions; we don’t need to accept migrants, holus-bolus, just because some United Nations group tells us to do so. We are a sovereign nation and we get to decide who crosses our borders and who does not.
I hate to think of how often I have talked about most of those issues.
John Ibbitson makes two important points that will annoy some Conservatives but with which I agree fully:
- First, he says, “The ease with which the new Conservative leader handles any French-language debate will be crucial to any gains in Quebec. Robust support for resource development, which includes lifting the moratorium on tanker traffic off B.C.’s northern coast, will anchor the party’s Western base;” and
- Second, “winning suburban ridings in Greater Toronto and Waterloo Region and Ottawa will require a commitment to reducing carbon emissions that earns the grudging respect of scientists and economists (even as they insist a carbon tax would have been easier and cheaper).“
That last point is critical. Almost all those suburban families have kids and almost all those kids come home from school, each and every day, telling their parents that global climate change is the BIG issue of the day. President and Mrs Trump might not think much of Greta Thunberg but teachers and students from Vancouver through Toronto and all the way to St John’s believe that she is telling the world an important truth. No one needs to like or listen to Greta Thunberg but everyone with the brains the gods gave to green peppers must acknowledge that she is enormously influential and her influence extends into most Canadians homes.
Then there is the issue of Donald J Trump. Many conservatives love him; most Canadians hate and fear him and his influence. Justin Trudeau has done very well by presenting himself as the AntiTrump, when, in fact, he and President Trump are, in many respects, very much alike: they are both instinctive autocrats who rode a few populist causes to power.
Canadians, I repeat are moderate. Some lean towards the progressive side, others towards the conservative side. The middle, the votes that can and do swing either way, is where elections are won and lost. The religious right and social conservatives do have alternatives to the CPC …
… including overtly religious parties, long-standing libertarians and newcomers, too. But, given that the alternatives never get close to power or even influence, most of the Conservative base will not go away if, when as I insist it must, the CPC selects a moderate, centrist leader who has a vision for Canada based on several big ideas about taxes, climate change, immigration and principled policies.
The way ahead for the Conservative Party has always seemed clear to me:
- Secure most of the (mostly) faithful base (100± seats West of the Ottawa River); then
- Add a few seats in Québec and Atlantic Canada to the 15± it already holds there; and then, in 2021 or ’22
- Win that big “thumping” victory by turning 60± seats from red to blue … understanding that 50± of those seats are in Ontario, mostly in and around the Greater Tronto Area.
It also seems perfectly clear to me that the Conservative Party‘s aim, its very raison d’être, is to offer Canadians better government. It isn’t, it cannot be, it mustn’t be about ideological purity ~ that’s a recipe for losing elections. The only way Conservatives can serve Canada is by winning. The only way to win at all is to win all across Canada but, above all, in the suburbs, especially the ones in and around Vancouver, Ottawa and, signally, Greater Toronto.