Leslyn Lewis and Erin O’Toole

Leslyn Lewis congratulates Erin O’Toole on winning the federal Conservative leadership

After months of campaigning, Ontario MP Erin O’Toole was elected the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) on August 23rd. Many of the best people in Alberta and the other Western provinces were actively engaged in the leadership selection process. Much was at stake because almost every Member of Parliament in Alberta and Saskatchewan is from the CPC, and it is perceived to be the best federal party to represent the West. But how many people remember that the leadership selection process adopted by the CPC was deliberately designed to thwart its Western base?

When the Canadian Alliance under Stephen Harper and Progressive Conservative Party of Canada under Peter MacKay were negotiating a merger in 2003, the leadership selection process was a key point of contention. This is all explained by Globe and Mail columnist John Ibbitson in his 2015 book, Stephen Harper. The Canadian Alliance had a “one member, one vote” system. The PCs under Peter MacKay absolutely refused to accept that system, because the large number of members in the West would dominate the new party. The Tories would never agree to form a new political party that would be predominantly controlled by Westerners.

The PCs developed a scheme to overcome the perceived Western problem. As Ibbitson writes, “the Tories proposed a system in which each member of the new party would cast a vote within his or her own riding. Each riding would be awarded a hundred points. If one candidate received 60 per cent of the vote in that riding, he or she would score sixty points in that riding. This meant that a riding in, say, northern Quebec, where only ten votes were cast, would have the same weight as a Calgary riding where thousands of votes were cast. On the one hand, the system would be less democratic; on the other, candidates would be forced to run a truly national campaign. And a candidate from the Progressive Conservative side of the party – Peter MacKay, for instance – would at least have a chance.”

At first, Harper rejected that idea. Harper then suggested compromise proposals, but MacKay refused to budge. So how was a deal reached? Harper gave in. Ibbitson writes that, “In essence, Harper had caved on everything. Leadership selection, convention votes – the Tories could have it all their way. MacKay was left with absolutely nothing to object to. If Paris was worth a mass, Harper had decided, acquiring the Progressive Conservatives was worth any concession he had to make.”

Henry IV had said that “Paris is worth a mass” when he saw that making an opportunistic change in his religious beliefs would enable him to obtain the French crown in 1593. In other words, the phrase justifies a sell-out for political gain.

Of course, the leadership selection process demanded by Peter MacKay is exactly what was used to select Erin O’Toole.

As Ibbitson pointed out, this means that – theoretically, at least – a Quebec riding with ten votes in the leadership contest carries the same weight as an Alberta riding with thousands of votes. How is that fair to Alberta or the West? It’s not. 

WAGNER: The deck is stacked against the West in Tory leadership votes

This year there weren’t any Quebec ridings with ten members outweighing Alberta ridings with thousands, but the disproportion was nevertheless very evident. Fifty ridings in Quebec contributed less than 100 votes each in the leadership contest, with the Bourassa riding registering just 28. In contrast, 24 ridings in Alberta had over 1000 votes each, with the Foothills riding registering 2079. Clearly, Quebec’s small CPC membership vastly outweighed Alberta’s large CPC membership in the leadership selection process. Alberta’s tremendous conservative strength was marginalized to a great extent.

As explained, the CPC’s leadership selection process was deliberately designed to provide an institutional mechanism to thwart Western influence within the party. How can a party with this sort of built-in unfairness to the West properly represent Western interests? 

It doesn’t. In fact, if the Tories had used a “one-member, one-vote” system that most political parties use at the provincial level, Leslyn Lewis would now be the party’s new leader. Lewis won the national popular vote, and carried all four Western provinces on the second ballot. But because the average Alberta constituency had 1,161 ballots cast and Quebec just 98, the vote of a Quebec Conservative was worth 12 times as much as an Albertan’s. This phenomenon also helped to propel Andrew Scheer to the leadership in 2017 over Maxime Bernier – who like Lewis – won most of the West. 

The Conservative Party of Canada might not be the “pro-West” organization many people consider it to be. Erin O’Toole will undoubtedly make some noise about the need to address “Western alienation” to shore up support in the West. But all of Alberta’s MPs save one, and all of Saskatchewan’s, are already Conservative, so he will be focusing on ways to win seats in places like southern Ontario and Quebec. This is the inevitable consequence of the current political structure and – as always – it will lead to the West taking a back seat to Central Canada in the electoral calculations of the CPC. 

The CPC already subordinates Western interests to Eastern interests in its own leadership selection process, so doing the same when developing policy and an electoral strategy will come naturally.

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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