Has the Conservative leadership race reopened old divisions within the party?
by Jason Fekete (feat. Ian Brodie)
September 5, 2016
OTTAWA — The Conservative leadership race is opening up an old schism within the party: on one side, there’s concern some candidates might try to reawaken the debate over social issues like abortion and gay marriage; on the other, there’s concern some leadership contenders simply aren’t conservative enough.
Declared candidates Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux, and likely contestant Andrew Scheer, have strongly held social conservative views that some veteran Conservatives fear could alienate voters in a general election. Leadership hopefuls like Kellie Leitch and Michael Chong, however, have drawn the ire of some MPs and organizers for being too “Red Tory” on certain issues, and not representing “fundamental” Conservative values.
Meanwhile, there’s grumbling that Maxime Bernier — who doesn’t fit neatly in either camp, being nobody’s idea of a social conservative but having been the loudest advocate so far for aggressive free-market policies like ending supply management and privatizing Canada Post and airports — may in his own way be too extreme for many Canadians.
Conservatives have seen these battles before, dating back to the decade when the old Reform/Canadian Alliance parties and Progressive Conservative party split the centre-right vote before they united in 2003 to create the Conservative Party of Canada.
And while the political stakes are once again enormous, there are differences of opinion within the party over how destructive the conflict may prove to be.
“The fractures going on in the party (are) very real,” said Justin Burton, a 30-year-old Conservative Party member and founder of a think tank called Future. CPC. Leaders., which aims to connect young conservatives with Tory MPs.
“The ability to unify our party is going to be the biggest thing going forward that our next leader is going to have to be able to do.”
The heated debate among members at the recent Conservative convention over the definition of marriage demonstrated the fault lines that appear to be reopening, he said.
“It’s a scary time when we start hearing things like that … it almost felt like we were moving backwards instead of forwards,” Burton said. “It almost makes you feel like you’re turning into a fractured party again over these types of issues.”
Burton, who lives in Burlington, Ont., has been a Conservative member since he was 18 and has been running the fledgling think tank for about three years. Current and former Conservative MPs are flocking to him for help getting young supporters engaged in the leadership race.
Members who gather for riding association events are talking about the divide in the party, Burton said. Some complain it doesn’t feel like “our old Conservative party,” a perspective he said is unhealthy for the Conservative movement at a time it’s looking to attract new supporters.
The Conservative party must pay close attention to what’s happening with the Republicans in the United States, he said, and ensure it picks a leader who can appeal to a wide swath of Canadians in a general election.
“If you pick the wrong leader, you can fracture your party for generations to come,” he said.
On the other hand, Chong — viewed with suspicion by some true-blue party members over things like his support for carbon-pricing — doesn’t believe the old labels and categories work anymore, nor are they useful in helping understand modern political campaigns.
While Chong doesn’t call himself a social conservative, he has regularly fought for the right of MPs to speak in the House of Commons on issues of conscience.
“We’re a diverse party … but what unites us all is that we’re fiscal conservatives that believe in balanced budgets and lower taxes,” Chong said from Vancouver, where he was campaigning.
“I don’t fit into any neat category and I think that’s true of the modern Conservative party.”
The principal architect of the modern party is, of course, Stephen Harper. As Harper’s chief of staff, Ian Brodie was on the front lines during the early years of the Conservative Party of Canada as it tried to unite conservative voters under one tent.
After many years in opposition during the Chretien and Martin governments, the conservative movement was ready for a unifier like Harper, Brodie said.
“Harper was uniquely good at keeping all the conservative tribes together — better than anyone in the last 100 years,” said Brodie, now an associate professor in the Law & Society program at the University of Calgary.
“Now, some of the debates are coming back. That’s healthy. But I’m not sure there’s that much disagreement among the main candidates who are likely to run,” he said. “Leadership campaigns get personal, especially if they go on as long as this one is.”
John Reynolds, longtime Reform/Alliance/Conservative MP and co-chair of Harper’s 2004 Conservative party leadership campaign, said the former prime minister “was very tough” on MPs, but also did a “very good job” keeping everyone in line and united.
Now co-chair for Bernier’s leadership campaign, Reynolds said the Quebec MP, like Chong, would let MPs speak out on controversial issues and represent the views of their constituents through things like private members’ bills.
“Maxime is much freer on this. (MPs) have a right to speak out,” Reynolds said.
Harper was fond of telling Conservative MPs that the caucus is to the right of the membership, and the membership is to the right of the Conservative party’s broader voting base, which is to the right of the overall Canadian population.
The leadership race — and the venting over various candidates’ positions now getting underway in earnest — will be cathartic for the party — ultimately a healthy thing, said one longtime former Harper cabinet minister.
“The coil that is packed the most tightly explodes the most violently. It has been packed tight for a long time under Stephen Harper by necessity because of minority (governments), because it was a new party,” said the former Conservative MP.
“Now it has kind of come apart. That’s fine. Let it come apart … let everybody have their cathartic moment, get it out of your system. You’ll see how unpopular all these rogue issues are with the general public, then we can come back together.”