• Sep 08, 2020
  • Insights

The Conservatives and post-pandemic politics

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

The Conservative Party of Canada has chosen Erin O’Toole to lead it into the next election. But the context of a pandemic that has killed thousands of Canadians and drastically realigned the country’s fiscal margin of manoeuvre demands a new perspective. Herewith some invaluable free advice from Earnscliffe Principal and strategy maestro Yaroslav Baran.

When a new party leader ascends the stage, it is normally against a jubilant landscape of excitement and renewal. Some party rebuilding is required (after all, leadership contests are often catalyzed by election defeat) but Canada’s politics and economy have been blessed with protracted relative stability, allowing new leaders to focus internally and cultivate a vision and brand without external encumbrances. No more. Erin O’Toole takes the helm of his party in an inverted environment: his party is strong, solvent and largely united, but the surrounding policy environment is unstable and unpredictable.

In a transformation of the status quo unleashed by a viral outbreak that became a global pandemic, today’s chief political concerns are contagion, unemployment that neared five million working-age Canadians, a $343 billion deficit, and paralysis of entire economic sectors—unimaginable dynamics just a year ago. 

How, then, does a new party leader begin his work? What are the opportunities, if any, to begin building? Following are nine prescriptions for the new leader.

1. Unite the caucus, and quickly. 

Despite the euphoria, leadership races are also divisive and expose fault lines. The biggest in this race were between the harder-edged “take back Canada” types (embodied first by Pierre Poilievre and later by O’Toole) versus a more moderate conservatism represented by Peter MacKay. The divide is more about style and tone than it is about actual policy, and it cannot be allowed to fester. This is best done by reaching across camps and welcoming the strongest MPs into the shadow cabinet, regardless of whom they supported in the race. Magnanimity and outstretched hands are the most effective political salves.

2. Do not obsess about the fiscal. 

With an economy struggling to recover from the pandemic, and a deficit hovering around $343 billion, Conservatives will have to suppress their instinctive urge to proclaim gimmicky (and unrealistic) timetables on how quickly they will rebalance the books. In the short term, the economic message should centre on job growth and labour force reintegration. These are a precursor to levelling off the support spigot anyway, so why risk the political exposure of sticking to an old script unsuitable to the times?

3. Recognize that values will be the strongest contrast point with the Liberals. 

Counterintuitively, the most rewarding policy battleground will not be the economy (a traditional strong suit for the Tories), as incumbent governments are being forgiven these days for not getting everything right amid a pandemic, and are being rewarded for attentiveness and compassion. Don’t try to compete there—particularly if your opponents wouldn’t think twice about outspending you. Draw the political contrast not on what you will spend on, but on who you are. 

Each government’s Achilles’ heel is well known the day it is first sworn in. We don’t know when it will fall, but we do know why. This government’s is elitism and an aloof out-of-touch quality—both themes that have been amply fertilized in recent months. O’Toole’s challenge will be to leverage the government’s repeated conflict-of-interest scandals to actively portray the pattern as a fraud against the government’s stated ideals, which are in fact more genuinely embodied in a modern, humble and middle-class conservatism. With the Aga Khan Island flap, forgotten French villas and sponsored trips, numerous conflict-of-interest censures, Trumpian attempts to lean on and fire attorneys-general, and miscellaneous public reminders that the law also applies to the ruling clique, a short five years have offered ample yarn to weave a cohesive “let them eat cake” narrative against the Liberals.

4. Recognize that Parliament will matter. 

New leaders often deliberate between getting into the House early and staying outside Parliament and getting to know the country (and allowing the country to get to know them). The theory is that Canadians don’t watch CPAC, so why bother when you could be meeting them instead. Not now. The government’s deals to dramatically curtail scrutiny and accountability, capped by a prorogation to shut down uncomfortable committee inquiries, present a rare opportunity to leverage the very concept of Parliament. 

5. Broaden the conservative tent to more fully include central and eastern Canada. 

O’Toole has an opportunity to carve out an alternative to what has been called “the Laurentian Consensus”. This can be a National Consensus—one that embraces a true diversity by including all parts of Canada, where not all people need to think alike, where all aspects of history, culture, and economic outlook are respected. And built on regular people. This means competing for blue-collar and middle-class voters who feel left behind, and building an entire election strategy around that. Harper did this successfully in 2006. It’s largely competitive with the NDP, but it works.

6. Work to bridge West and East. 

Despite the prime minister’s promise of building a Nirvana of federal-provincial relations and the all-hands-on-deck fed-prov unity necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, things are decidedly more fractured and adversarial than when Trudeau took office. O’Toole has the political experience and knows the players well enough to take this on. His style is more consensual than confrontational. He is ready to make deals rather than waste time in ideological battle. He also has the strongest network of experienced advisors in the land. Here, he can naturally shine. 

7. Remember the North. 

The issue set of Canada’s territories is a natural collection of strengths for a Conservative willing to put in the effort. Between Arctic sovereignty, addressing centuries-old marginalization, tech connectivity, sustainable resource development defined by Indigenous participation, modernizing the North’s energy profile, and environmental conservation, the North is a perfect opportunity to demonstrate a modern and sophisticated conservatism in a contemporary context.

8. Focus on what you stand for, rather than what you stand against. 

Too many conservatives today focus on the latter, translating into a perception that they are always angry and always outsiders. That, in turn, fuels a self-perpetuating cycle of outsider status that prevents the Conservative brand from being seen as mainstream. The cycle must be stopped. Oppositional conservatives tend not to have an understanding of how the power game works, tend not to have taken the time to develop a coherent worldview, and tend not to have a firm grasp of the ideological and philosophical underpinnings of their thinking and what they are trying to achieve. O’Toole must take care that that tone and approach not become the dominant one for his caucus.

9. Resist a negative campaign. 

There is a time and a place for everything. Given their recent controversies and polling, the Liberal Party will be flailing and running an aggressively negative campaign. This is a guaranteed opportunity to drive contrast. The angrier and more accusatory his opponents become, O’Toole should reinforce his composure and positive messaging. Such contrast is noticeable, and will play in his favour. 

One view holds that bolstering Canada’s conservative movement means aggressively cultivating it as something very distinct—a sharply separate worldview and agenda to compete with the Liberals’ practice of fusing their ideals and interests with a “Canadian” identity. 

An alternative approach is more incremental and humbler: Work to shed the remaining baggage that makes conservatism anachronistic and stodgy—particularly to young voters. Recognize the fiscal and policy circumstances of our times, and leverage the Liberal Party’s self-inflicted wounds against it rather than competing with an alternative worldview. Make the contrast less about policy differences, than about values and style. This is the winning road for O’Toole.  

Contributing Writer Yaroslav Baran, Managing Principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa, is a former chief of staff to the Government House Leader and senior communications strategist on numerous Conservative campaigns.

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