The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canada’s Conservative Party is in shambles

Erin O'Toole, leader of Canada's Conservative Party, speaks during a conservative caucus meeting in Ottawa on June 23. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

Ahead of Canada’s 44th general election — to be held by 2023 — the Conservative Party is in shambles. Its leader, Erin O’Toole, is the least popular of the federal party leaders. In a recent poll, 40 percent of respondents said they have a negative view of him, compared with 20 percent who have a positive view. The CBC’s Poll Tracker has the Liberal Party, currently governing in a minority Parliament, on the cusp of a majority win. And the Conservative voter-floor is sagging. It’s even conceivable, though not likely, that the near-ceaselessly third-place New Democratic Party could end up with more seats than the Conservatives.

Writing in the National Observer, Max Fawcett reminds the Conservative Party that to succeed, it must move beyond its hatred for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. In Maclean’s, Andrew MacDougall, former head of communications for prime minister Stephen Harper, counsels O’Toole to “do the hard yards of defending the principles liberals used to hold dear.” He says the party “must listen to voices outside of its existing base and find new ways of appealing to a broader subset of Canadians. O’Toole needs to stick to principles, not pray for miracles.”

They’re both right. Will the Conservative Party listen? I doubt it.

O’Toole and the current iteration of the Conservative Party are built for another era. The party is caught in the past, flat-footed, wed to the extremists within its ranks, led by sugarless scones who lack the moral fortitude necessary to drag their side into the latter half of the past century, let alone the cutting edge of this one. In other words, the Conservative leadership can’t read the room — and even if they could, it’s not clear they could persuade the rest of the party to join them.

In July, 62 Conservative members of Parliament out of 119 voted against a bill that would essentially ban the hateful, cruel, homophobic practice of conversion therapy. Among those who opposed the bill are top Conservatives, including deputy leader Candice Bergen and shadow Cabinet members James Bezan, Ed Fast, Marilyn Gladu, Garnett Genuis, Rachael Harder, Andrew Scheer (the former leader) and Shannon Stubbs. Months earlier, 54 percent of delegates at the party convention voted to defeat a motion, supported by O’Toole, to add wording to the policy book recognizing that climate change is real and urging further action to combat greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, jobs and industry critic Pierre Poilievre is busy on Twitter equating socialism with Nazism, and O’Toole is bleating nationalism as the country faces its past and present colonialism and genocide.

The Conservative frame for the upcoming election is “Secure the Future,” a five-point plan that promises the party will secure “jobs,” “accountability,” “mental health,” “the country,” and “our economy.” It reads as if an intern read an internal poll suggesting Canadians wish to feel secure and ran with it. It portends doom at a time when many Canadians, increasingly fully vaccinated and living in jurisdictions with falling covid-19 case counts, are keen to embrace a little hope. Dour pessimism doesn’t meet the moment, though it’s consistent with a party whose health critic Michelle Rempel Garner, in November, suggested it was possible the country might not get vaccines “until 2030.”

Observers often think the left in Canada is fractious and wont to split into squabbling factions. In truth, it’s the right that tends to suffer from such weaknesses — as its history of splintering into different parties between the 1980s and early 2000s reminds us. And while Harper managed to unite, govern and lead a quarrelsome group to victory, there’s no indication that anyone since him has the same capacity — or will anytime soon. The current leader isn’t helped by unpopular, incompetent leadership by conservative premiers in Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba.

As the cliches go, campaigns matter, anything can happen during an election, and the only poll that matters is on election day. But trends also matter, as does past performance, each of which indicates bad news for Canada’s right.

Admittedly, I’m all for it as someone who, having to choose, prefers (in order) for New Democrats or Liberals to succeed where socialists aren’t available. The exception is for a few Tory MPs that do the Commons a service, whom I’d name except for the fact that endorsing them would do a disservice to their reelection bids.

In short, Canada’s Conservative Party is a mess. It’s a big tent that is, quite frankly, too big, led by a leader who is unwilling or unable to control its most toxic factions, behind the times and distracted by culture war nonsense that plays to the fringes but alienates everyone else. The deficiencies are a gift to the Liberals, who are poised to form a majority government on the back of a successful domestic vaccine procurement strategy, a pandemic abating at home and a complacent plurality of the population that is all too happy to default to the “natural governing party.” Plus ça change ... part of our heritage.

Read more:

David Moscrop: Canada’s Conservatives need to take a harder line on the far right

J.J. McCullough: Canada is abandoning national unity for ‘managed disunity’

David Moscrop: It’s time to bring Canada into the 21st century

Alicia Elliott: The racist legacy of Canada’s residential schools is still reflected in current policies