One of the more difficult tasks in current Canadian politics is to define the Conservatives.
The ideological wingspan of the party stretches from Red Tories who cling to the progressive traditions once promoted by leaders like Stanfield and Clark, to the social conservativism and pompous populism of Ontario Premier Doug Ford. It engulfs the considerable residue of the western Reformers and, for now at least, an upstart anti-immigrant splinter group given voice – or tweet – by Quebec MP Maxime Bernier.
How can a political party with that much bandwidth stay focused and unified? It’s not easy, but all the various parts come together in common contempt for Grits. That too has a range, from simple disdain to outright loathing.
Conversely, the NDP is easy to define, out there on their social democratic island, only occasionally connecting to the political mainland when a bridge is built by a popular leader. Liberals are philosophically amorphous, perhaps more than the Tories, but at heart everyone knows the Liberal Party exists to win and govern Canada. Ideology is made to fit that purpose.
Tories are happy to recite the Conservative mantra that more unites than divides them, yet the progressives in the party – and more than a few of the political pros – bristle visibly when social conservatives insist on pushing anti-abortion resolutions. That richly symbolic issue was neatly put to rest years ago by Stephen Harper, but with him gone it has returned.
The divisions in the party will be papered over as seamlessly as possible this week when the party gathers in Halifax for its last convention before next year’s federal election. The party hierarchy hopes to leave Nova Scotia united and with election preparations in high gear.
Party insiders don’t lie awake fretting their internal ideological divisions. Those are explained away as representative of the various conservative political traditions of the country. The east coast is a bastion of Red Tory progressivism, which resonates elsewhere, too.
The western populist conservatism that gave rise to the Reform movement is alive and well across the Prairies to the foothills and echoes, en francais, in the libertarian philosophy heard from some Quebec Conservatives.
Whether potentially divisive policy resolutions – like the one that would reverse the party’s hands-off position on abortion law – make it to the convention floor depends on their fate in one of three breakout groups that will rank, recommend or kill resolutions before they get to the full convention.
There’s also a potential dust-up over money. Some members advocate changes to the management of the Conservative Fund Canada, the party’s highly successful fundraising mechanism. Dating back to Harper and his absolute control, the fund’s directors are named by the leader. A constitutional change has been proposed to give the party’s national council, with representation from every province, power to appoint the fund’s directors.
The prominence of some potentially divisive policy resolutions and the attempt to decentralize fundraising are symptomatic of a change in leadership style and a shift in power in the party.
Stephen Harper ruled the Conservative Party he helped create – with former Nova Scotia MP Peter MacKay – with an iron fist.
In his first year as leader, Andrew Scheer has loosened central controls, in some cases by choice, while others are slipping from him because he doesn’t command the authority, or the fear Harper engendered.
But this convention is really all about getting the party ready to fight Liberals, and that prospect has more than a few Conservatives worried.
The source of their anxiety isn’t so much the popularity of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government – it is lukewarm and uneven – rather, it’s the NDP’s apparent slide under the novice leadership of Jagmeet Singh.
Tories don’t like the idea of fighting Liberals head-to-head in places like Greater Toronto, the southern mainland of British Columbia and yes, down east.
But NDP support appears to be on the wane and may be on the verge of collapse in those places and many more.
The electoral chances of Conservatives improve significantly when the centre-left vote is split between Liberals and New Democrats, but with the NDP stuck at its traditional highwater mark, with support from fewer than one in five voters nationally, that split may not materialize in 2019.
Although polls have the Tories and Liberals in a virtual deadlock, Conservatives know that in seat-rich Ontario, voters are likely to hedge their bet on Doug Ford’s Conservatives by backing Justin Trudeau’s Liberals next fall.
If that happens, for the near-term at least, you can define Conservatives as the party of opposition.
Jim Vibert, a journalist and writer for longer than he cares to admit, consulted or worked for five Nova Scotia governments. He now keeps a close and critical eye on provincial and regional powers.