What should the Conservatives look for in a leader?

ANALYSIS: Supporters want the Tories to move on from the battle over same-sex marriage and start taking climate-change seriously — but the party may not be ready to do that
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jan 10, 2020
The Conservative Party of Canada will vote for its new leader on June 27, 2020, in Toronto. (Darren Calabrese/CP)

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At a time when the federal Conservative party is looking for a new leader, it seems that conservative supporters largely want to put the battle over same-sex marriage behind them. According to a Leger360 poll released this week, only one in five CPC voters wants the next leader to oppose same-sex marriage — 36 per cent want them to support it. Given how much the issue motivated right-leaning voters in the not-too-distant past, it’s notable that 41 per cent say that the issue doesn’t matter to them at all.

These numbers come as the party licks its wounds after a disappointing result in the 2019 election: many prominent Tories have already been saying that Andrew Scheer’s successor as Conservative leader needs to clearly support LGBTQ rights.

But there’s what the numbers say, and then there’s what the numbers mean, and the two things aren’t always the same. Most obviously: LGBTQ equality rights are still an issue that sharply divides the Tories from other political parties in Canada. Disagreement among political parties is natural and healthy, but, on a handful of issues, the divisions are stark: yes, 36 per cent of Tories want their next leader to support same-sex marriage. But consider that 65 per cent of Liberals and 70 per cent of New Democrats support it.

Same-sex marriage, abortion, immigration, and climate change. These are the issues that distinguish the Conservatives from other Canadian political parties and on which the party has the most work to do to convince voters outside the tent to give it a chance. It’s worth mentioning that this was where Scheer failed: although the party won more votes than the CPC did in 2015 (and more votes than the Liberals did in 2019) and increased its seat count, he couldn’t convince skeptical voters in Ontario and Quebec to vote Conservative, even though some of his positions (including his opposition to the federal carbon tax) had substantial support.

Abacus Data also polled Conservative supporters last week about what they’re looking for in their next leader. According to David Coletto, CEO of Abacus, the Tories faltered less because of the popularity of specific stances than because of what voters in some parts of the country felt those stances said about Scheer.

“All of these issues rolled up, I think, to make Andrew Scheer appear out of touch, out of step with the times to a lot of voters,” says Coletto. “I don’t think this was a climate-change referendum — I don’t think people voted only on that issue — but it was an accumulation of events and perceptions that people built over the course of the campaign.”

The implications here vary: reaching out to voters in Ontario and Quebec may require some unambiguous positions on abortion and marriage equality (ambiguity killed Scheer, after all), but maybe not on climate change. Although, in 2019, voters weren’t entirely sold on the carbon tax, they do want a party that takes climate change seriously — or at least makes an effort to look as if it does.

Whether the Conservative-party process can actually produce a leader who can do even that much is another question entirely. Those sharp partisan divides noted above mean that winning a leadership race involves appealing first to people with views that are different from, and often opposed to, the views of the voters the Tories will need to reach in some eventual election. Will Conservatives in Alberta and Saskatchewan hold their nose and support someone promising serious climate action, in the hopes of winning votes in Ontario and Quebec? Or will they gravitate toward the loudest voice in the room railing against environmentalists trying to destroy the economy?

The Ontario Tories faced that choice in 2018, and they picked Doug Ford. And, it needs to be said, it worked for them, for a time: they won the following election, and they’ll get to be a majority government until 2022. But Ford quickly became, and remains, an incredibly unpopular premier — so much so that he almost certainly played a role in dragging down Scheer’s fortunes in Ontario.

The federal Conservatives can’t bet on Justin Trudeau being as unpopular in 2023 as Kathleen Wynne was by 2018, so voting for a candidate just because they’ve got the loudest voice and the sharpest elbows would be an even riskier proposition than it was for their Ontario cousins two years ago.

The Conservative Party of Canada votes for its new leader on June 27, 2020 — Pride weekend — in Toronto.

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