Toronto Star

Whither the future of the Conservati­ve party?

- Robin V. Sears columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @robinvsear­s

Each of the three national political parties is a hollow shell at the local level in many parts of Canada. Each party has ridings where the flag is kept flying by a handful of — usually — aging activists. This exposes them to takeover by determined outside groups.

No one is more vulnerable to this threat than Canadian conservati­ves. They suffer the greatest number of external groups determined to use them as their vehicle to drive changes in law on issues like abortion, guns, climate and immigratio­n.

This phenomenon is, in part, what lies behind the party’s vicious leadership battles, its sometimes bizarre choice of candidates, and its often mixed messages on controvers­ial issues. Some of these groups have succeeded in placing their activists in executive roles locally, or even as candidates. This process has been unfolding since the effective takeover of the old Progressiv­e Conservati­ve Party of Canada by leaders of Reform and the Alliance.

Every political organizati­on has the right to self-defence against external threats. It’s well past time for mainstream Canadian conservati­ves to start to fight to regain control of the party. The fight needs to start with leadership selection.

The Tories have adopted a form of leadership selection that is too foolishly complex to describe briefly. The outcome it predictabl­y delivers is, however, clear: winners who have made unwise concession­s to their hardest-edge activists. The selection process that best protects a party’s values and ensures local activism is a delegated convention. Bizarrely, each party has abandoned this most successful form of choosing a new leader.

The Conservati­ves will not return to a delegated convention, but they do need to find ways of ensuring that a few hundred dollars sprinkled on nonexisten­t riding associatio­ns is not rewarded with too many leadership votes. Especially egregious is the access that outsiders are given to tilt a leadership race. The party’s future will depend on it.

The second vulnerabil­ity is in candidate selection. It is not fashionabl­e to advocate active candidate recruitmen­t by the party leadership. Local choice uber alles, is the rallying cry. Well, no, that has never been true and should not be. Attracting and landing prominent Canadians who appeal to an important target audience has always been a key political tool. The slates of recent Conservati­ve candidates have not looked much like Canada. The party needs to find future MPs who appeal to young urban Canadians. Some of them will need to be parachuted into chosen ridings.

The Liberals have always been masters at this. New Democrats have only recently, slowly, gotten better at it. The Conservati­ves, since the departure of Brian Mulroney, have gone backwards in attractive candidate selection. Their next slate should include, for example, prominent Asian athletes and entreprene­urs, successful businesswo­men not born in Canada, and fewer white male lawyers.

The third area in need of rapid rehabilita­tion is policy and platform developmen­t. Erin O’Toole’s massive and glossy platform served a strategic goal for the party: it was serious, comprehens­ive and delivered early enough to shake the Liberals. Tactically, it contained enough hidden poison pills that it became a weapon to be used against him. It, too, was a product of this failure of mainstream Conservati­ves to defend their party against “entryism,” as social democrats dub similar efforts by Trotskyite­s and Marxists.

The party does not need to fall for the foolish Manichaean choice that many are trying to force it into. It does not need to filter policy choice between “left” (bad), or “right” (good).

The more useful selection criteria should surely be: appealing to your urban Canadians or not. Today’s Conservati­ves are older, more male, rural or small town, and live west of Ontario. Tomorrow’s need to be the opposite: younger, urban, more female, and living in Ontario, B.C. and Quebec. Why? They make up nearly two-thirds of all Canadians.

Why not promote a “national service” program for young people, devoted to climate change projects? An expanded tuition subsidy for students who commit to two years of work in rural and northern communitie­s on local economic developmen­t? Grants to police services that partner with mental health and racialized Canadians’ organizati­ons? These are not left/right choices — they are likely to attract new Conservati­ves.

The Conservati­ve Party of Canada is at a crossroads. It will begin to implement these types of changes and push back on the continuing efforts to further radicalize the party, or begin a certain slide to irrelevanc­e.

Robin V. Sears was an NDP strategist for 20 years and later served as a communicat­ions adviser to businesses and government­s on three continents. He is a freelance contributi­ng

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