Ever since Brian Mulroney single-handedly destroyed the venerable Progressive Conservative Party, the ‘new’ Conservative Party of Canada has been an improbable successor. Cobbled together and held in an iron grip by Stephen Harper for nearly a decade, it is now on the verge of collapse, torn asunder by the divisions that Harper’s willpower and the discipline of power managed to paper over for so long.
Remember the electoral decimation of 1993, after Mulroney’s failed dalliances with constitutional reform, when the Tories were reduced to TWO seats in parliament? Remember the two regional fringe parties that rose from its ashes – Reform/Alliance in the west and the Bloc in Quebec? Remember Peter MacKay selling out the PC Party to the Alliance in a “merger” which saw the tail wagging the dog? Remember what happened when Harper left?
First Andrew Scheer and now Erin O’Toole are dancing as fast as they can, trying to keep the merger together and not succeeding. The problem is simple. There is no glue to hold it together. Absent the force of Harper’s willpower and the self-discipline that being in power imposes on most backbenchers hoping to make it into cabinet, there is no underlying philosophy – the very thing political parties are usually based on. Harper himself was a true believer in a very right-wing, anti-government American-style conservatism, and he brought many acolytes with him from western Canada. Many more social conservatives were already in the Reform movement of Preston Manning and Stockwell Day, and went along with Harper for the ride. Their views clashed with the traditional moderate views of the Tories who dominated the party in the Atlantic and central Canada, but there was no question the far right was in the driver’s seat. Both Scheer and now O’Toole owed their very leadership to that far right contingent, and they knew it. Indeed, a new battle — to see who can be further to the right – is also brewing.
Kept in check when the party was in power, the competing groups within the Conservative Party are now engaged in a civil war that is becoming more public with every passing day. The result is total confusion. Ordinary Canadians can be forgiven for asking “What on earth does this party stand for? What are its fundamental values and beliefs? What are the important issues it represents and is defending for Canadians in parliament? Do its members even know what Canadians are actually thinking?”
Three recent examples of this internal conflict also demonstrate just how irrelevant the party has become to national politics:
These people are still fighting the vaccination battle they lost in the 2021 election. Opposed to vaccine mandates and vaccine passports, and opposed to a hybrid model of parliament but refusing to say if their MPs are vaccinated, the new Conservatives don’t seem to realize the caravan – and public opinion — has moved on. In the face of the Omicron variant and a fifth wave, the vast majority of Canadians are debating the merits of a fourth shot, not whether to get their first one.
These people are taking a stand on an issue no one else is even talking about. It may come as news to Conservative MPs, but ten feet off Parliament Hill the “issue” of whether the government should allow the opposition to see unredacted versions of documents with national security implications is not on anyone’s radar. Needless to say, neither is the type of committee nor the composition of its members. And when the Liberal government points out that their proposed solution is virtually identical to the one Harper himself implemented in an earlier national security crisis, but is now being rejected by his successors, heads shake and eyebrows are raised. Why on earth are they choosing to die on this particular hill? And why would the party that prides itself on its support for the military now take a position that threatens Canada’s very credibility with NATO and the Five Eyes pact?
These people are dinosaurs who continue to deny climate change and support fossil fuels at all costs. This is, after all, the party that barely a year ago at a national convention decided it could not support a motion stating that climate change is real. The party continues to oppose the Liberal government’s plan to reduce carbon emissions, despite overwhelming popular support and constitutional rulings acknowledging their authority to implement it. Now we have been treated to the spectacle of a deranged Erin O’Toole ranting in a prepared video about Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault’s ‘plan’ to shut down the oil industry in eighteen months, (a blatant lie), which is being replayed endlessly on social media for its entertainment value. [i]
And who is in charge of this implosion? Clearly not Erin O’Toole!
Having waited breathlessly for the party’s own evaluation of its performance in the 2021 election, we learned from their report this week that what went wrong was basically Stephen Harper’s fault. Apparently his sins from the 2015 campaign, such as a snitch line for barbaric practices, served to alienate the immigrant communities in suburban Canada that the party needed to win some six years and two elections later. And, rather than attach any blame to O’Toole as leader, the report fingers his aides, who “over-managed” him during the campaign and failed to let him be himself. Really? Does this sound like a leader?
Evidently his caucus does not think he is in control.
Conservative MPs are pretty much doing what they please these days. Certainly they are paying no attention to their leader. A bunch of them decided on their own to create a “civil liberties” caucus continuing the anti-vax protests and O’Toole said nothing. And, having finally decided to take action by expelling Conservative Senator Denise Batters from the Conservative caucus after she launched a petition calling for his removal as leader, O’Toole sits by as first the Conservatives’ Senate caucus and now their western MPs’ regional caucus decide to let her back in. He says he has “no problem” with that. Actually, he has a BIG problem. Now one western riding association after another is sending missives to the national party headquarters asking to have the leadership review moved up from next year to next month. Where will it end?
The Last Straw – Supporting The Truckers’ Convoy.
Apparently many Conservative MPs and party members did not get his memo. O’Toole spoke on a Monday about moderation, and tried hard to avoid making any comment that might be construed as outright support for the misnamed “Freedom Convoy.” He, at least, appeared to know that the overwhelming majority of Canadians have no sympathy for this misguided venture. But his leading caucus members were having none of that. Within days, former leader Andrew Scheer, Deputy Leader Candice Bergen and Finance Critic Pierre Poilievre (a putative leadership hopeful) made it clear that this equivocating was not acceptable to them. Their aggressive tweets in favour of the truckers and hangers-on forced O’Toole to try again on a Thursday, the day before the convoy was due to begin arriving in Ottawa. This time he threw in his lot with them. In one of the more laughable moments (“Let me be perfectly honest with you for a minute”, he told the invited media reps) he announced he would be meeting with some of the convoy organizers at a secret location “off the Hill”, having spoken minutes earlier about the need for accountability and transparency. No wonder the assembled scribes were speechless.
When traditional conservative-minded supporters like columnists Andrew Coyne and John Ibbitson disown the party as having been taken over by a bunch of “yahoos”, when media commentator Chantale Hebert declares on national television that O’Toole has “lost the moral authority to lead,”[ii] and when opinion polls show pit bull Pierre Poilievre is the first choice among the party faithful to replace O’Toole, you know the party is in deep trouble. Even staunch Liberal supporters know a healthy democracy needs at least two strong nationally representative political parties that are capable of forming a government. At the moment, there is only one.
[ii] https://thestarphoenix.com/news/national/coyne-tories-brought-down-by-their-own-cynicism. See also https://www.cbc.ca/player/news/tv%20shows/the%20national/at%20issue and “O’Toole Takes Big Gamble by Courting Protesting Truckers”. Globe and Mail. January 29, 2022.