• Mar 06, 2020
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The road to Toronto: pathway to power

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

Once the Conservative Party picks a new leader in Toronto on June 27, it will need a plan to leverage that individual’s strengths to make inroads in the Greater Toronto Area if it aims to seriously contest the next election. As longtime Conservative strategist Yaroslav Baran writes, Toronto likes to vote for nationally viable contenders who have a plausible Quebec strategy. 

The Conservative Party of Canada is in the midst of a leadership campaign. That is Act One. But selecting a leader is not the only critical job at hand. Act Two is establishing a tactical roadmap for the federal Tories to finally crack Toronto and mine its wealth of seats to build a caucus large enough to form government. While no prescriptions are absolute in politics, on a practical level it is ultimately not feasible for the Conservatives to win government without Fortress Toronto.  

Some federal Conservative tacticians try to write the region off, seeing it as a political dead zone for the party, arguing campaign resources are better spent squeezing out the remaining isolated swing ridings that still went Red last year in more fertile regions of the country. How do you do that?  Concentrate on a combination of demographic microtargeting (to boost Conservative votes) and “opposition research” (to suppress Liberal votes). That means more small-fry boutique policy and more negative campaigning.  

Yet we want our politics to be more than this.

One of the great ironies of the 2019 election is that the Ontario provincial election a year earlier proved Toronto is winnable for the Blues: the provincial PCs took half the seats in “416”—the City of Toronto itself—with 11 of 25 seats, and nearly swept the urban “905 belt” that arcs around the city proper with another 21 out of 25 seats. Torontonians are capable of voting Conservative.  

In contrast, the federal Tories won no seats in the City of Toronto in 2019, and lost seats in the 905. Yet, Andrew Scheer should have had the additional advantage of not being Doug Ford—he didn’t carry the personal baggage of a sometimes bombastic premier whose numbers have slumped in the last year. So, Toronto is possible; there’s no excuse for not doing better; but the question remains: how?

In 2005, when the newly-reunited Conservative Party of Canada held its first policy convention, the single biggest issue of contention in the party constitutional debates was a stand-off over the succession formula for future leadership elections. Many from the Reform side of the family argued for one-member-one-vote, with the idea that party members should be treated equally, and nobody should be either under- or over-franchised because of where in the country they live. Most from the PC side favoured a one-riding-one-vote system, fearing that mile-deep support in just a few areas—say, a combination of Calgary, Surrey and Brampton—could control the fate of the entire party. (For perspective, at the time, MP Art Hanger had more party members in his riding of Calgary North-East than all of Atlantic Canada combined.)

The latter approach won out. Interestingly, the primary champion of the riding equality formula was Peter MacKay—perhaps in prescient anticipation of his present challenge.

MacKay’s rationale for this formula was not just a fear of one faction of the party swamping the rest, but also, importantly, a conviction that a party striving for stable and long-term winnability must appeal to all parts of Canada. 

Indeed, the difference between a national party and a regional party is made precisely of this stuff. To be clear, regional parties are capable of a quick and aggressive rise to prominence, but history shows they tend also to be short-lived. Long-term viability resides with national parties that seek to represent the entire country. 

So, how to crack Toronto for the federal Conservatives? For starters, demographics matter. While no longer completely fair, the stereotype of the Tory politician is distinctly old, rural, born here, and white. In contrast, the profile of the successful Ontario Tories in 2018 reflected the face of today’s Toronto: young, urban and diverse. Consequently, so was its voter base.

Aggressive outreach to these communities will also be critical. The notable difference between the 2008 and the 2011 federal elections (which saw the Conservatives make the transition from minority to majority government) was the maturation of a thorough and earnest cultural outreach campaign, largely headed up by now-Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. In the 2011 election the road to a Conservative majority ran right through the Greater Toronto Area, with the Tories winning 21 of 22 seats in 905, and nine out of 23 in 416.

Quebec is also something of a back door to Toronto. Toronto voters, at the federal level, tend to be far more likely to cast a ballot for a party if they see it as Quebec-friendly. In an interesting quirk of history, Ontarians—and predominantly Torontonians and Ottawans—have come to see themselves as the arbiters of what is “acceptable” from a vantage point of national unity. Any political option seen as anti-Quebec, Toronto will reject as unviable. That means strong Quebec candidates, a new leader who quickly masters l’autre langue officielle, and a significant focus on Quebec during the election period. 

Then there is the overall question of party policy and the next election platform. To penetrate not only Toronto, but also Vancouver and Montreal, the policy must be a retooled and modernized expression of 21st-century conservatism.

As table-stakes advice, the party needs to continue to steer clear of the allure of populism that has lured other countries’ conservative movements into its short-term-gain embrace. In most cases, populist conservatism brings with it an ugly underbelly of intolerance. Canada’s conservative culture is a rare strain that has avoided the populist trap, and we should keep it that way.

A strong climate policy is a must. Urban voters, young voters, will reject a party that either ignores or pays mere lip-service to one of the most urgent issues of our age. The Tories’ next climate policy must not only be solid, it must be talked about by the party—not a box ticked (“Yep, we have a climate policy! Next?”), but an important feature of the platform. 

Environmental policy, writ large, offers an enormous opportunity for the Tories. Conservative governments have a strong legacy of achievement in air, land and water protection and remediation. You can look this up under “Mulroney, Brian”. 

Justice policy can be discussed from a conservative perspective, and need not have a hang-em-high connotation. How will we deal with impaired driving in a legalized cannabis world? How will we deal with gangs and guns in Toronto? How do we apply preventive measures in the policy mix, to avoid having to deal with individuals through the criminal justice system? These questions, on the forefront of Toronto voters’ minds, are natural winners for Conservatives—provided the policy is sufficiently sophisticated, and the communication sufficiently articulate.

Similarly, economic policy needs to be reimagined. Sophisticated voters will need a smarter message than simply, “Never met a tax that done nothin’ good!” We need to see an industrial development policy that addresses the post-heavy-manufacturing economy, that bolsters the knowledge economy, that works to retain skilled workers and attract the brightest minds from around the globe, that promotes and fosters patent commercialization and start-up success here at home, and that attracts foreign direct investment.  And then there are critical urban issues like transit infrastructure, congestion and home affordability. Urban voters are yearning to hear solutions.

Finally, critically, the bugbears that plagued the 2019 Scheer election must be strenuously avoided. Any hint of unease with LGBTQ rights will be noticed and will go over like a lead balloon with the voters of Canada’s metropolis. Similarly, there can be no signal that abortion policy will be reopened, either directly or indirectly. The bar is high for Conservatives in this policy space, and the new leader will need to send a clear signal that these matters are closed.

It is almost certain that the victor of the leadership race will be someone who already resides in the GTA. That’s a start. But that leader will have to lead—to actively demonstrate that federal Conservatives are not political aliens to the sensibilities and realities of Canada’s largest, most diverse and fastest-growing city. 

This means a new and modern vision of conservatism for Canada—one that looks, sounds and cares like the city it wants to win over, one that is true to its core principles, but has adapted them to an urban Canada of the 21st century.  

Contributing Writer Yaroslav Baran, Managing Principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa, was communications director of Stephen Harper’s 2004 leadership campaign, and ran party communications in the next three elections.

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