Whither the Conservatives?

June 2, 2016   ·   0 Comments

NOT ALL THAT LONG AGO some pundits were pronouncing the demise of the Liberal Party, which in the 2011 federal election won support from fewer than one in five voters and wound up in third place, well behind the New Democrats.

Those pundits saw the federal Liberals’ future as foretold by events in the United Kingdom, where the Liberals were squeezed out by the Conservatives on the right and Labour on the left. There simply wasn’t space left for a middle-of-the-road party when the Tories and Labour both became more centrist, one exception being when Margaret Thatcher moved the Conservatives back to “right wing.”

However, those same pundits seemed to ignore or minimize the fact that the Liberals were doing fairly well at the provincial level, being in power in the three largest provinces (Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia) and strong in Atlantic Canada. The only spots where Canada’s “natural governing party” had faded to obscurity were the three prairie provinces.

We’ll leave it to historians to pronounce on the causes of the Grits’ success last October, when they swept back to power after a decade in opposition and grabbed a majority of Commons seats with essentially the same level of public support that produced a majority Conservative government four years earlier. Certainly, much of the credit should go to Justin Trudeau, but the Liberal platform promising “real change” and TV spots responding effectively to Conservative commercials pronouncing Mr. Trudeau as “just not ready” to be PM may also have played a significant role. With the Trudeau troops still enjoying a honeymoon with the electorate (even after the elbow incident in the Commons) it would seem that roughly half today’s eligible voters approve of the directions the new government is taking.

However, there is surely good reason for the smiles witnessed among delegates to the Tories’ convention in Vancouver last week.

For one thing, the polls showing the Liberals with about 49 per cent support also show the Tories as holding their own at about 30 per cent, with the Liberals’ gains since October being mainly at the New Democrats’ expense.

And as for concerns the Conservatives might have at having only one provincial government (Manitoba), we should point out that there is a conservative regime (the Saskatchewan Party) next door, while a probable merger of Alberta’s two conservative parties that will ensure NDP Premier Rachel Notley’s tenure is a one-term wonder, and the Liberal governments in Quebec and B.C. are essentially a merger of forces against separatists and socialists, respectively.

Only in Ontario do we see a majority Liberal regime that is clearly centrist. But history suggests Ontarians tend to vote Conservative when the Liberals are in office at Ottawa.

As we see it, the challenge facing both Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives and the federal Conservatives is how best to appeal to the “silent majority,” the uncommitted voters.

A good start for the federal Tories came with the strong vote at the Vancouver convention in favour of removing from party policy opposition to same-sex marriage, something that has long been a fait accompli without any evidence that its legalization has been a deterrent to heterosexual unions.

At the federal level, much will depend on who winds up winning the leadership contest next year. That person should concentrate on 2023 rather than 2019 as the year for the Tories’ return to power, since voters traditionally will give one party two terms in office before turfing them out. Provincially, PC leader Patrick Brown seems to be shifting the party away from the neoconservatism of the Mike Harris days, and it may be that he has been getting good advice from Dufferin-Peel’s Sylvia Jones, who has been doing a great job of criticizing the Wynne government’s bizarre decision to end support for  Intensive Behavioural Intervention (IBI) therapy for autistic children over 5 years of age.

Much as some Tories might yearn for a return to the right-wing policies of the Harris era, they should be reminded that the relatively bland conservatism of premiers Leslie Frost, John Robarts and Bill Davis kept them in power for four decades.

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