Erin O’Toole

Courtesy CBC

Since becoming the leader of the federal Conservatives, Erin O’Toole has worked feverishly to shed the remnants of social conservatism, libertarianism, and Western populism within the party. He has been trying to abandon an important part of the CPC’s legacy, namely, the elements of the Reform Party of Canada it inherited when the Canadian Alliance amalgamated with the old Progressive Conservative Party in 2003.

It is well known that no political party can form the government without winning in Central Canada. The math is pretty simple. As time and experience have so often demonstrated, that means catering to people in Ontario and Quebec, normally at the expense of the West. One needs to look little further than O’Toole’s enthusiastic embrace of a massive carbon tax, continued deficits, and increased federal spending. A Western Standard analysis of the Conservative platform found promises aplenty for Quebec, with little more than lip service for the West.

O’Toole has been playing this game well. In the National Post, Sabrina Maddeaux wrote about his efforts to create a “blue wave” in Quebec. It seems O’Toole’s efforts to refashion the CPC have been paying off for him there.

Maddeaux quotes Christian Bourque, executive director of the polling firm Léger, as saying: “In Quebec, you can’t be seen or perceived as being socially conservative. It’s a no-go. But, if you can convince Quebecers you’re a modern version of the Progressive Conservative party, more like Joe Clark or Brian Mulroney, there’s a chance. If you’re seen as just the Reform Party under a new name, it’s basically impossible to gain more seats.”

This explains why O’Toole has been so eager to remake the CPC into an image of the old federal Progressive Conservative Party. He wants to be more like Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney and less like Stephen Harper and Preston Manning.

People in the West remember Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney. In fact, Mulroney was a key factor in provoking Westerners to revolt in the creation of the Reform Party in 1987. Mulroney’s government favoured Quebec at the expense of the West at almost every turn: the CF-18 maintenance contract, the constitution, and conservatism itself.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise then that as O’Toole tries to imitate Mulroney, increasing numbers of Westerners – although far from a wave as yet – are turning to new political parties and movements. Today, many conservatives in Alberta have left the CPC to support Max Bernier’s People’s Party and Jay Hill’s Maverick Party. Derek Sloan says he is creating a new political party, but he is still running as an independent, and while he may be running in the West, he isn’t a Westerner.

There’s a sense in which the disaffected conservatives now supporting these groups are in many ways the same constituency as those who supported the old Reform Party of Canada. Indeed, the Maverick Party is led by a former Reform MP and Sloan is getting public support from other former Reform MPs like Art Hanger.

As the CPC shifts left and more overtly favours Central Canada, many Westerners instinctively realize that they need something new. While still not likely to win any seats, recent polling has shown the People’s Party making significant gains in Alberta. In the 2019 election, the People’s Party received 2.2% of the vote in the province, and it seems certain to double that in 2021, or more. By comparison, the Reform Party won 15.4% of the vote in Alberta in the 1988 federal election. That was just before it took off, so an optimistic PPC supporter could see grounds for hope.

At the same time, CPC support in Alberta has dropped from 69.2% in 2019 to about 44% now. That’s a huge drop, but the CPC won’t mind. Its leaders are happy to lose the support of Western hicks in exchange for support from respectable people in Toronto. Even at 44%, the Tories can sleep safe knowing that they will still win the overwhelming majority of seats in Alberta.

Who knows, it could be a winning strategy for the Tories. Erin O’Toole can tell people in Central and Atlantic Canada that the Western conservative base of his party is long gone, so they can now safely vote for him. Perhaps jettisoning the CPC’s Western base will be his path to power.

Meanwhile, Westerners are once again developing new political parties to defend their interests. If the CPC’s former Western base could create an effective alternative – whether it be the Maverick Party or the People’s Party – the West will acquire better representation at the federal level.

Were O’Toole to win a minority government, the new Western-based party could provide support to pass any legislation beneficial for the West, as the Bloc does for Quebec. That would be a very positive outcome.

However things turn out, it’s clear that since O’Toole is recreating the old Mulroney Progressive Conservative Party, a new party along the lines of Reform needs to take flight as well. The West is never going to get fair treatment from any party focused on Toronto and Montreal, so something new and different is needed.

Michael Wagner is a columnist for the Western Standard

Senior Columnist (Alberta)

Michael Wagner is the Senior Alberta Columnist for the Western Standard and Alberta Report based in Edmonton, Alberta. He has a PhD in political science from the U of A and has authored several books on Alberta politics and the independence movement.

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