We’ve got a bit more than a month left in 2019 and as Canadian politicos start to ramp up for the return of the House of Commons and the starting of the new minority Parliament, all Canadian parties are well into their reviews of the campaign that was. It’s a different exercise for everyone and it’s different after every campaign. Sometimes that review is a bit of a higher level exercise and other times it’s a more existential one. And given the minority reality that we have in the House of Commons, these internal discussions hold a higher importance for how we see the country governed for the next little while.
The party that seems to be going through the most public discussion of the past campaign right now is that Conservatives. Despite picking up more seats, they ran a rough campaign and blew probably one of the best chances to win government that we’ve seen in a while. Given some of the issues that hit the Liberals during that campaign, they couldn’t have had much more go in their favour. But instead they ran a campaign that many in Ontario would remember, like ones ran by John Tory and Tim Hudak in the past, where they seemed to have a great shot at winning, only to shoot themselves in the foot. In those cases too, there were leadership changes and talks about how anyone else would have won that campaign, comments that were not off at the mark at the time. But this time in Ottawa we’re seeing something different, deeper and seemingly more consequential going on that’s making people sit up and notice:
Yesterday I talked a bit about this on the Arlene Bynon Show, but after that conversation we saw the last two of those stories come out. While we are seeing the usual calling for Andrew Scheer’s head, the kind of thing you’d see after such a campaign, we are also seeing some deeper fault lines come to the surface. You can see that a bit of a breaking point has been reached here, one that obviously needs to be addressed. That issue comes back to a basic building block of this current Conservative coalition; the role of social conservatives in their party.
Let’s face it, Conservative leaders like Andrew Scheer, Doug Ford and Jason Kenney all owe their leaderships, at least in part, to strong support from various social conservative groups. In the case of Scheer, it was their support that gave him the 51%-49% edge to win his leadership. That’s meant that they’ve had a large effect on party policy and on who has been running for them. That has also created this odd situation that they’ve had since the PC/Alliance merger, where they said they wouldn’t touch social issues as government but haven’t stopped private members from moving these items in the house. Long story short, they kept saying these issues are decided, wouldn’t reopen them, while at the same time allowing individual members to move legislation to do the opposite. It’s a situation that seemed to work for them under the leadership of Stephen Harper, mostly because of how he led that caucus.
But after Harper left, the battles started a new to pick the new leader and something became pretty clear; the social conservatives were active, organized and pushed the more traditional Red Tories aside. With a strong showing by the likes of Brad Trost and the weaker showings by more progressive Conservatives like Lisa Raitt, it seemed that their party took that harder turn to the right.
That lead us to the situation we saw in this last campaign, where Scheer fumbled and bumbled his way through direct, honest questions on his views on Abortion, Same Sex rights and alike. Of course, then the video of his speech on same sex marriage came out to drive home the reason for asking the questions. He made no apologies and raised no regrets for those comments and went pretty far out of his way to avoid doing so. That kind of “performance” raised even more questions and was a big part of the reason why they lost, despite facing a Liberal campaign that was in the process of imploding.
To those of us who are not Conservatives, the reason for that loss and the big deal about Scheer’s non-answers are relatively clear. Firstly it wasn’t believable that his party wouldn’t re-open such issues when groups like Right Now were openly courting and supporting candidates. They were even trying to get anti-abortion staff hired by the Conservative party. They weren’t doing that just for the heck of it; they were doing it to advance their issue so to say that the party isn’t going to respond that just doesn’t ring true.
Secondly when it came to LGBTQ rights, Scheer’s comments about his views on them and same sex marriage rang just as hollow for the same reasons; when you have the likes of Charles McVety and Tanya Granic Allen backing your party, whose supporters helped put you in your job, pushing against equality rights for the LGBTQ community, it’s hard to believe they will have no impact. That’s even harder to believe when you won’t directly answer the question about your own views.
But probably the biggest reason comes down to a more existential issue for the Conservatives when it comes to social conservatives and their issues; society has evolved and moved on. As Melissa Lantsman and Jamie Ellerton pointed out in their Globe and Mail piece last week, Canadians have evolved when it comes to our views on LGBTQ rights and Abortion. To simply say you’re tolerant of LGBTQ people isn’t enough now, and thankfully so. The fact is that the majority of Canadians see our acceptance of the equality rights of LGBTQ people as something that makes us a stronger country. So when you have a party that refuses to embrace that, as they try to straddle this situation to try to make social conservatives happy, it simply isn’t viewed as credible or accepted. For the Conservatives, this is where the existential issue comes into play, because as Canada has evolved you’re seeing that you can’t maintain this position they have for over a decade.
And to that point, you’re seeing both Red Tories and Social Conservatives now calling for Andrew Scheer’s resignation and for a new leadership race. That call for resignation is appropriate by any objective standard in our political history, but the irony is that I have to wonder what this leadership race would become. Would it be the search for the mythical leader how can rise above the basic political physics of this moment, or will it turn into a battle for the soul of the Conservative Party (or to end it as we know it). I lean more towards the latter because Stephen Harper isn’t walking back through that door.
Also I don’t see anyone out there who has the ability to make that marriage between Red Tories and Social Conservatives work anymore. It’s clear that Red Tories are tired of having to apologize and make excuses for the views of Social Conservatives, while the Social Conservatives are not interested in compromising their beliefs anymore to simply win campaigns. Something has to give here and this seems like the moment when it will in some way.
Society is always evolving so it stands to reason that the make up of our political coalitions should evolve over time to stay relevant. Those that don’t evolve become irrelevant and eventually die out. Those that do manage to change with the times while still holding onto the core values that make them who they are. Canadian society has evolved and it seems that when it comes to social issues, the Conservative Party has fallen behind the evolutionary curve. Now we are seeing the battle start between those who want to correct that and those who are fine with it. We’ll see how this all plays out but Canadians are paying attention and the result will have a big say on what our political landscape looks like in the future.