Conservative Party politics in Canada have been generally more tranquil than Republican Party politics in the U.S. Though Conservatives have remained out of office since late 2015, the party won the popular vote in successive elections at the national level. Center-right parties, from Quebec’s Coalition Avenir Québec to Alberta’s United Conservative Party, presently govern eight of ten provincial governments across the country.
Yet the Canadian Right is experiencing a growing restlessness. Ongoing pandemic restrictions have led to a surge in online activism and the emergence of a harder-edged libertarianism. These nascent developments have found expression in the so-called Freedom Convoy, the thousands of transport-truck drivers and accompanying supporters currently parking themselves in Ottawa to protest vaccine mandates and other public-health rules. The high-profile protests, which began in late January, represent an end to the relative tranquility of Canadian Conservative politics.
The truckers called for the resignation of Liberal Party prime minister Justin Trudeau. Instead, their arrival at the seat of Canada’s government stirred up a debate in Conservative circles that culminated in the party’s 119 members of parliament resorting to a hitherto-unused law to sack Conservative leader Erin O’Toole. The extraordinary move necessarily raises serious questions about the direction of the Conservative Party and the state of Canadian small-c conservative politics generally.
Start with O’Toole’s ouster. Even before the arrival of the convoy, Conservatives had increasingly come to perceive the former leader, who led the party to defeat in the 2021 federal election, as insincere. In 2019, he differentiated himself from his main leadership rival, Peter MacKay, by emphasizing his own ”true blue” conservative credentials. Having won the party’s leadership, he began touting a newly “modern, inclusive and pragmatic” party and moved to the center on such issues as abortion, climate change, and public spending. That these major ideological compromises didn’t produce electoral gains only made matters worse.
After the election defeat, O’Toole did little to assuage these concerns. Instead, he seemed to affirm his critics’ accusation of political elasticity—including in his two-sided response to the trucker protests in which he both met with the protestors and sought to distance himself from their actions and messages. The Conservative parliamentary caucus invoked a new law called the Reform Act, introduced by Conservative MP Michael Chong in 2015, to vote him out. The law’s provisions had gone mostly unexercised, owing to Canada’s convention of strict caucus discipline and leader-driven politics. But with O’Toole’s leadership increasingly in question, one-third of Conservative MPs signed a letter to the party’s caucus chairman, triggering an automatic leadership vote. Dozens more of the party’s 119 MPs ultimately voted to oust him.
The process has created some tensions in Conservative politics. Institutionalists have argued that the law restores balance between party leaders and the parliamentary caucus, as envisioned by the Westminster model of Parliament. Populist voices contend that the Act’s provisions effectively substitute the discretion of MPs for those of grassroots party members, who were responsible for putting O’Toole in the role in the first place.
But the more immediate issue is what comes next for the party, which many feel is vacillating between a conservative and more moderate position. O’Toole’s predecessor, Andrew Scheer, came from the party’s right wing. He was seen as too conservative—especially on abortion and gay rights—to make inroads with swing voters in parts of central Canada and was similarly sacked after a single election defeat. O’Toole’s 2021 campaign strategy internalized this view by seeking to downplay any differences with the governing Liberal Party. That he underperformed Scheer’s 2019 election results by losing support to a new, upstart party on the right has led many to conclude that his approach was wrong for precisely the opposite reason.
The forthcoming leadership race should represent an intra-party debate about how to interpret these conflicting results, but most of the attention has fallen on Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, the front-runner to win the leadership contest. Poilievre’s worldview situates him on the right wing of the party’s ideological spectrum. He’s a libertarian critic of high public spending, government overreach, and loose money. His launch video, which has logged 4 million views, makes a Tocquevillian case for the individual and civil-society benefits of limited government and personal freedom. Yet his main advantage is stylistic and temperamental: Poilievre is by far the most effective Conservative at “owning the libs” at a moment when doing so carries significant political purchase with the party’s core supporters.
But can Poilievre expand the party’s support with moderate voters? The Conservative Party’s electoral problem is easy to diagnose but hard to solve. Its base is the largest and most durable of any of Canada’s major political parties. It has never gotten less than 30 percent of the national vote. Yet it is not enough. The party must find a means both to sustain its core support and build on it.
Any solution will involve a unique mix of temperament, ideas, policy, and style. That mix was best personified in the modern Conservative Party’s founding leader, Stephen Harper, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2015 and paired ideological credibility with core Conservative voters with a moderate disposition that satisfied swing voters. The real test for the party’s next leader is to show that Conservatives can achieve that Harper-like balance between conservatism and moderation again.
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