Ten Lessons for the Conservatives as They Seek to Rebuild

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January 6, 2020

Ten Lessons for the Conservatives as They Seek to Rebuild

Written by Yaroslav Baran for Policy Magazine. Click here to read the original.

The conventional wisdom about parties that lose an election is that they need time in the ‘wilderness’ to reassess their priorities. The Conservative Party of Canada won the popular vote in October, increased its seat count and then dumped its leader. While the wilderness therefore may not be in order, some soul-searching still may be. Veteran Conservative strategist Yaroslav Baran provides this thumbnail post-mortem and action memo for moving forward.

Currently embarking on a leadership race, the Conservative Party of Canada is poised for collective introspection and renewal, the result of which will determine the likelihood of the party emerging from the next election with a mandate to govern the country.

Much has been written, stated and overstated about the state of the party in recent weeks. It is not teetering at the edge of an abyss. It is not fatally divided between factions—most notably social conservative versus the others. It does not suffer from a fundamental existential crisis. Conservatives know who they are, just as Liberals and New Democrats do. Moreover, not all members—within either of the parties—are the same. All political parties enjoy, and benefit from, an internal diversity that pollinates difference of perspective. 

In short, the vast majority of Canadian voters voted in the last election to oust Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government. A plurality of voters voted for the Conservative Party to be that vehicle of change. The party gained ground in a majority of provinces. It increased its seat count by more than any other party in Parliament. Proportionally, it had the second-largest growth. This is not a crisis—this is more than a halfway step, very similar (though admittedly not identical) to the party’s feat in 2004, when it brought the Martin government down to a minority and finished the job two years later. 

There is no crisis.

There are, however, important lessons to be learned. Depending on its collective choices, the party can set a one-election path to victory or mire itself in prolonged difficulties before it again sorts itself out and emerges with an efficient, disciplined and united machine ready to vie competently for power.

The following are 10 pieces of advice the Conservative Party would be wise to heed:

• Reconcile the role of social conservatives in the party. There is nothing wrong with social conservatism or social conservatives. They deserve no more ridicule nor scorn than any other group of Canadians.  Social conservatives should be welcome just like any other group, but any ideological or zealous wing of social conservatism must be held at bay. No special interests should be permitted to either try to hijack the party for its own narrow agenda, nor to bully the leader or caucus. 

• Get over the aversion to express the values for which the party stands. Many conservatives roll their eyes at “virtue signaling”—not so much because they disagree with the values themselves, but because they detest the constant talk backed up by little or no action. What conservatives need to better understand, however, is the value of—and need for—validation. Many Canadians and groups of Canadians do face systemic challenges and barriers. It’s a fact. We need to get over the mental tether to “equality of opportunity” and recognize that government can and should actively defend and protect. That includes gay rights and that includes women’s rights. We tend to herald certain values anyway—things like human rights and our governing institutions—so we are already in the signaling game. Well, if we are, then it’s inexcusable to not be proactive on both women’s rights and LGBTQ rights because we know there is lots still to be done.

• Climate change. The more quickly conservatives get past the idea that “our voters don’t vote on climate change”, the better. Yes, it is true that all parties have a different aggregated profile of supporters, and that different concerns rank differently among parties. But something has changed in recent years. Even if climate change is number five or six on the average conservative’s ranking of top concerns, it needs to be treated very seriously. For one thing, it is climbing as a concern for Canadians at large, so avoiding it only distances the party from the Canadian trendline—especially the young replacing the older cadre of voters as they die off.

The party needs to accept the full importance of climate change as a major concern, and not only have a plan but to actively talk about its plan. They need to demonstrate it’s not just a check box (“yes, we have a climate plan”) but that they genuinely recognize the full import. 

They would also be wise to reconsider their model. The party pledged to regulate large final emitters sector by sector, similarly to Barack Obama’s climate GHG plan. This can be effective but economists agree that a carbon tax is more efficient. It is also the quintessential small-c conservative approach. It harnesses market forces and follows a polluter-pay model. It’s by no means the only way forward, but the party may want to get past its political rhetoric on carbon pricing (a carryover from the 2008 campaign against Stéphane Dion), and give it a second look.  

• Taxation. On that note, the party would be wise to get over its general mantra that “all taxes are bad”. This is an importation from American libertarianism, and not a traditional Canadian conservative notion. Yes, conservatives tend to want taxes to be low and for state activity to be restricted to where necessary or overwhelmingly more beneficial. But taxation is a critical tool for achieving policy objectives. We have always had “sin taxes” and for good reason. The tax system is a powerful tool for incenting desirable behaviours and disincenting harmful ones. We provide tax credits or reductions for the good stuff, and levy fines for the bad. It’s not only legitimate; it’s smart. Let’s please move past the rhetoric—it makes the party sound ideological and naïve.  

• Reclaim environmental policy. The Conservative Party has a proud legacy in environmental stewardship. It’s time to get back to that. Be it protection of land, water and air, be it habitat remediation, be it fighting critical pollutants, or be it establishment of national parks, Conservative governments have in fact done more than any other on the traditional measures of environmental protection. It is time to reclaim that conservationist heritage and continue building on that legacy. This isn’t a Liberal issue. It is very much a Conservative one. It always has been. Again, let us stop hiding from issues we think don’t work for us, and embrace who we are—particularly as that is where the Canadian public is increasingly heading.

• Have a comprehensive policy platform. Before the last election campaign, the Conservative Party put tremendous energy into devising a non-carbon-tax GHG emissions reduction plan, then proceeded to not talk about it. Campaign managers were told that when residents note climate change as a top issue at the door, to not waste their time and move on. That is madness. Similarly, the 2019 platform had virtually nothing on Indigenous policy. This is a critical error and underappreciation of voters’ sophistication. Cost of living may well have been the appropriate “ballot question” in 2019, but voters want to know that the man or woman who would be prime minister has thought about, and has something meaningful to say, about everything.

The biggest mistake of the 2019 campaign was that it was a mile deep on tax credits and pocketbook perks, but it was only an inch wide in policy breadth. Fifteen years ago—even 10—you could win an election by laser-targeting certain more accessible demographic profiles. That simply is not enough anymore. Voters collectively will not reward a party that has only a partial agenda. They appreciate that governments need to be comprehensive, so rightly expect that from their politicians. And let’s not be allergic to big and bold ideas. We cannot assume that people only want small-stakes retail. The leadership race—and the next election—should not be shy about showcasing some vision.

• Bring in good, seasoned senior staff. The next several months will be chaotic. The party will be managing a leadership race. The caucus has an interregnum, so critics will feel emboldened. On the staff side, one leader’s office official notes “the kids have taken over the orphanage” since the post-election ouster of senior staff. The strongest people at the party’s disposal need to be brought in to take charge of this rudderless mess and keep the ship on course until after the leadership contest is done. They’re out there, and some of them are the best political strategists Canada has to offer. They need to be brought back in from the cold. Yesterday.

• Have a short race. Prime Minister Trudeau is governing in a minority parliament. As stable a minority as it might be, nobody knows when the next election is going to be. A prolonged leadership race will only delay a new leader’s onboarding and transition hiccups, defer the ability of a new team to gel, and postpone all the critical pre-election work of nominating candidates, raising funds and preparing a platform. The party currently has a convention booked for Toronto in April. This should not be a mid-campaign debate opportunity. This should be the culmination of the leadership race—voting time to select the new leader.

• Fix the balloting system. If at all possible for this race, the party would be wise to rethink its single preferential ballot for choosing a leader. Events, post-election, illustrate why. Andrew Scheer won the helm with an “everybody’s second choice” strategy. He was inoffensive, didn’t stick his neck out (beyond supply management) and was generally well-liked by all the other candidates, so he steadily inched up in each round of tabulation as opponents dropped off the ballot. This is a great strategy to win, but a poor one for building a strong loyal support base for when the going gets tough. There is indeed something to be said for a traditional delegated convention where the strongest faction wins and gets to govern for a while. It guarantees the new leader has an army of foot soldiers to later come to his or her defence. 

• Reach out to unions and Indigenous groups. There is no reason organized labour and Indigenous Canadians should be rolling their eyes or instinctively bristling when they hear the word “Conservatives”. A generation ago, the party had similarly weak ties with most ethnocultural groups, but recognized the many reasons that was a liability. It now has deep roots and new support bases in many communities. It needs to follow this same path of good-faith outreach with labour and Indigenous groups. There is plenty to work with, fruitful policy partnerships to be had, and plenty of headaches to be avoided if done well.

The Conservative Party is not in existential crisis. It is on an upward track. Continuing this trajectory, however, does require that it learn from the Harper decade and from the brief Scheer era—including the deficiencies of the 2019 campaign and the mistakes of the 2015 campaign, which was much worse. The party has all the tools and talent of a formidable and modern machine, but it needs to choose to learn and adapt. It cannot just try the same thing again but with a different face. The leadership contenders are starting to line up. Let’s hope that they—and the party hierarchy—have the wisdom to do what they ought to do to fashion a modern Conservative party for the 21st century.