Tories get leader but not big tent party needs

Toronto Star - - FRONT PAGE - Chan­tal Hébert

Con­nect the dots that lead to Andrew Scheer’s nar­row Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship vic­tory and what you have is a tri­umph of re­tail pol­i­tics over big ideas.

Stephen Harper’s Con­ser­va­tives lived and even­tu­ally died on the bat­tle­field of bou­tique poli­cies tai­lored to spe­cific seg­ments of the elec­torate. Those same dy­nam­ics ul­ti­mately de­ter­mined the out­come of the for­mer prime min­is­ter’s suc­ces­sion on Satur­day.

In the end, two un­re­lated but iden­ti­fi­able groups tipped the bal­ance in Scheer’s favour: the party’s so­cial con­ser­va­tive wing and a well-or­ga­nized dairy farm­ers lobby.

The re­li­gious right had not one but two stan­dard-bear­ers in the lead­er­ship lineup and both Pierre Lemieux and Brad Trost, de­spite not hav­ing served in Harper’s cab­i­net, fin­ished ahead of five for­mer Con­ser­va­tive min­is­ters. To­gether they won 15 per cent of the vote on the first bal­lot.

Scheer did not court the re­li­gious right over the course of his lead­er­ship cam­paign, but on is­sues such as abor­tion and same-sex mar­riage, he has voted along so­cial con­ser­va­tive lines for as long as he has been an MP. The bulk of Lemieux’s and Trost’s sup­port ended up in his col­umn on the last bal­lot.

Maxime Bernier’s lead­er­ship plat­form read like a hit list of sa­cred cows. The Canada Health Act, which al­lows the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to have a say in the pro­vin­cial man­age­ment of medi­care, was one of them.

But it was his com­mit­ment to end the sup­ply man­age­ment sys­tem in the dairy and poul­try in­dus­tries that at­tracted the most at­ten­tion. It earned him a lot of favourable ed­i­to­rial cov­er­age and sub­stan­tial sup­port in some re­gions of Western Canada. On Satur­day, Bernier came first in Al­berta and Man­i­toba. But it also blunted his edge in his home prov­ince.

Bernier’s strate­gists had ex­pected a Que­bec jug­ger­naut to lift him over the fin­ish line. It never ma­te­ri­al­ized. He won Que­bec but not with­out a fight. He col­lected 55 per cent of the prov­ince’s sup­port over­all. In his own Beauce rid­ing, a seat he has car­ried with more than 60 per cent of the vote in good and bad Con­ser­va­tive times, Bernier lost to Scheer and his dairy in­dus­try al­lies.

And in At­lantic Canada, where gov­ern­ments are ma­jor play­ers in the econ­omy, his lib­er­tar­ian ide­ol­ogy did not sell well.

It took 13 bal­lots for vic­tory to slip from Bernier’s grasp, but the strong man­date he would have needed to put his pol­icy stamp on the party was long gone by the time he con­ceded de­feat to Scheer. Had he wo­ken up on Sun­day morn­ing with a man­date as frag­ile as that handed to Scheer, Bernier would have lacked the le­git­i­macy to sell a hos­tile cau­cus and a du­bi­ous party on his con­tro­ver­sial sig­na­ture poli­cies.

It was not just Bernier’s big ideas that bit the dust on Satur­day.

Kel­lie Leitch be­lieved she was onto some­thing when she set out to talk the party into brand­ing it­self as a cham­pion of Cana­dian iden­tity. She wore her pro­posal of a val­ues test on would-be im­mi­grants like a badge of hon­our and con­tended that it put her on the right side of pub­lic opin- ion and in the top lead­er­ship tier. Barely 7 per cent of the mem­ber­ship sup­ported that con­tention.

For all in­tents and pur­poses, she leaves this cam­paign a spent po­lit­i­cal force.

Michael Chong tried to talk his party into re­nounc­ing its anti-car­bon-pric­ing mantra. He pleaded with the Con­ser­va­tives to re­con­nect with the ma­jor­ity of vot­ers — in par­tic­u­lar the younger co­hort — who sup­port a more proac­tive cli­mate change strat­egy. About one in 10 Con­ser­va­tives fol­lowed his lead.

Some of Scheer’s first post-vic­tory fight­ing words were aimed at Justin Trudeau’s car­bon pric­ing scheme. Not only would the new Con­ser­va­tive leader re­verse it, but he con­tends that Cana­di­ans should not pay the GST on home heat­ing bills. If any­thing, the lead­er­ship cam­paign has cast in stone the Con­ser­va­tives’ de­ter­mi­na­tion to con­tinue to take a pass on the defin­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sue of the era.

The in­flu­ence of the re­li­gious right within the Con­ser­va­tive fam­ily is not matched by an equiv­a­lent im­pact in the bal­lot box. Over the years, flirt­ing with re­stric­tions on abor­tion and the party’s re­sis­tance to same-sex mar­riage have cost the Con­ser­va­tives more votes than they have at­tracted.

As for the dairy farm­ers who mo­bi­lized against Bernier, they are at best fair-weather friends who can­not be counted on to au­to­mat­i­cally sign up for the larger 2019 Con­ser­va­tive bat­tle against sup­ply-man­age­ment-friendly par­ties such as the Bloc, the NDP and the Lib­er­als.

Al­most two years af­ter their 2015 de­feat, the Con­ser­va­tives have a per­ma­nent leader, but not the big­ger tent they need if they are to beat the Lib­er­als in two years. On that score, Scheer’s vic­tory is even less im­pres­sive than its mod­est size sug­gests. Chan­tal Hébert is a na­tional af­fairs writer. Her col­umn usu­ally ap­pears Tuesday, Thurs­day and Satur­day.

Lead­er­ship can­di­date Kel­lie Leitch be­lieved she was on to some­thing as a cham­pion of Cana­dian val­ues, Chan­tal Hébert writes.

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