The king is dead. Long live the king.
Despite winning 6.15 million votes – the second largest vote count of any previous Conservative Party – speculation about Andrew Scheer’s replacement began immediately following the October 21st election.
Conservative MP and former Minister of Veterans Affairs Erin O’Toole is the new Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC).
Now, with a new leader based in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), many question whether the loss of a Western leader will damage the party’s connection with the disquieted region.
The current version of the Conservative Party was afterall born of a desire for the West to get “in” by allying with Eastern Tories. If they are locked “out”, it begs the question if the East-West alliance continues to make sense.
When P.C. Leader Joe Clark announced his resignation in 2002, Peter MacKay entered the race to replace him as the front-runner. Due to his backroom deal with opponent David Orchard, MacKay won the leadership race with 65 per cent of the vote. As details of the “Orchard Deal” surfaced however, MacKay came under intense criticism from within the party. The Globe and Mail described his leadership arrival as “stillborn”, reporting that the party had emerged from the leadership convention “grievously weakened and even less united than when it entered the convention.” Party division resulted in a merger between the Progressive Conservative Party and Stephen Harper’s Canadian Alliance on September 15th of 2003. Harper became the leader of the new party soon after.
Conservatives have always struggled with party cohesion, leading to numerous name changes since its inception as the Liberal-Conservative Party in 1854 under founding-father John A. MacDonald.
These include: Conservative Party (1867), Unionist Party (1917), National Liberal and Conservative Party (1920), Progressive Conservative Party (1942), and Conservative Party of Canada (2003), not to mention the interloping Reform Party of Canada (1987) and Canadian Alliance (1999).
The party has long faced pressure from a disgruntled West – predating the Reform Party. Beginning in the harsh economic climate of the 1920’s, it came to be viewed by disenfranchised Westerners as an Eastern establishment party which ignored their interests. This should sound familiar to those following the current Wexit narrative. Western alienation led to the rise of a number of protest parties including the Progressive Party, the United Farmers, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the Reconstruction Party, and the Social Credit Party.
In contrast to the morphing Conservative brand, the Liberal Party has always been, well, the Liberal Party.
Erin O’Toole was supported by Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and coming out of the gate is saying things that Westerners should be able to get behind. “The world still needs more Canada, it just needs less Justin Trudeau.” He made a point of announcing his leadership bid in Calgary, says that the party must remain conservative and not move to the middle, and is strong on the economy, resource development, and law enforcement. He supports continuing development of the Athabasca oil sands and promotion of Canada’s resource sector abroad, and opposes carbon tax (sort of).
“We have a crisis of confidence, not just in the resource sector, we see small manufacturers in Ontario expanding their operations in the U.S. because we’re raising taxes. We’re seen as a complex regulatory environment that’s not welcoming of investment. I will turn that around.”
O’Toole inspected pipelines before joining the military.
Will it be enough for western conservatives?
His campaign was scant on any talk of reforming or repealing Equalization, and did not mention once the prospect of reopening the constitution for something like Senate reform.
Holding one of only 50 Conservative seats east of Manitoba, O’Toole must be acutely aware that, for the moment at least, his power base lays in the Western provinces (with 71 Conservative seats). But in order to form the next government in Ottawa, the Tories will have to win more seats in the East. A lot more.
In order to do that, O’Toole will have to convince voters in Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic of his message. Substantial focus in the East could shift the current Western powerbase of the party, re-orient Prime Minister O’Toole’s priorities eastward, and leave Westerners in the same marginalized position that they are in today.
Without reform of the first-past-the-post electoral system, which effectively allows Ontario and Quebec to decide federal elections (when aligned), the West will remain on the outskirts of national power.
Appearing on the Western Standard’s Conservative Leadership broadcast, Wexit Canada leader Jay Hill said, “Now that he’s won [Erin O’Toole], he will focus his time where the votes are. Like Eastern leaders before him, he will promise whatever it takes to win over voters in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.”
Fielding candidates in 104 ridings across turbulent Western waters, Wexit may well look like a better ship to many Western voters.
The challenge for O’Toole will be keeping the party together against these opposing forces.
Ken Granfton is a freelance columnist