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Op-ed: Conservative future post-Harper uncertain

April 10, 2017 — 

As professor Royce Koop argues in an op-ed he wrote for the Winnipeg Free Press on April 8, 2017: 

At certain perilous points during Stephen Harper’s time at the helm of the Conservative party, the question was asked: what would the party look like post-Harper?

Now we know. The Conservative leadership race has exacerbated many of the divisions that Harper effectively kept welded together. Factions that I had forgotten existed in the party—or never even knew existed—now command the attention of a very long roster of leadership contenders.

For far too long, analysts viewed the Conservative party as a coalition of the two parties that merged to form it in 2004. On one hand were Harper’s Reformers and Canadian Alliance members, mostly Western Canadians who were both on the right and rambunctiously populist. On the other hand was Peter MacKay’s Progressive Conservative Party, which by 2004 had been largely reduced to centrist “Red Tories.”

But this leadership race shows us that this simple binary view of the Conservative party as a coalition of its two founding parties is hopelessly out of date. The only real representative of the Red Tories in this race is Ontario MP Michael Chong, whose campaign has spun its wheels.

It is clear from watching this leadership race unfold that Harper’s time as leader transformed the party from what it was at the time of its founding.

Vancouver commentator J.J. McCullough, in a column published last week, chided the Conservative leadership candidates as lacking both imagination and originality. Since most of the leadership candidates had only ever experienced public office under Harper, McCullough argued, the best they could do when running to succeed him was to take some aspect of Harper’s appeal and try (sometimes clumsily) to make it their own.

Thus, Kellie Leitch has adopted the cultural conservatism that manifested itself in Harper’s much-publicized decision to ban wearing the niqab during citizenship ceremonies. Kevin O’Leary represents Harper’s oft-spoken but not oft-practiced commitment to free markets and small government. Maxime Bernier has developed the libertarian side of Harper’s appeal as seen, for example, in the previous government’s decision to abolish the mandatory long-form census to protect Canadians’ privacy. And Brad Trost is an emissary of the Harper who courted the support of social conservatives.

As one wag on Twitter put it, the leadership contenders could be viewed as Harper’s 14 horcruxes. This is an unflattering reference to the Harry Potter universe, in which dark wizards such as Potter’s nemesis, Lord Voldemort, can achieve immortality by transferring parts of their souls to horcruxes.

The central point of McCullough’s column is a warning: if the imaginations of all its leadership contenders are limited by the horizons Harper established, then the Conservative party itself is also stuck within the confines of those horizons.

Could any potential leadership candidate have avoided falling into this trap? One obvious answer is MacKay, who helped to bring the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative Party together but whose political career pre-dated Harper’s leadership. As a Conservative cabinet minister, MacKay sometimes took on the role of protector of the Progressive Conservative heritage of the party.

MacKay declined to enter the current leadership race because he wished to spend more time with his family. Columnists surmised that he perhaps thought the party incapable of winning the next election, and so decided to sit it out and instead contest the leadership when Trudeau was more vulnerable in the future.

But is MacKay really so distinguishable from Harper? As Harper’s Minister of Justice, MacKay was far from progressive. Indeed, with his emphasis on tough-on-crime policies, he was often indistinguishable from his predecessor, Vic Toews.

It’s also far from self-evident that MacKay would have been successful if he had entered the race. While he carries a certain mystique as the former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, winning the leadership of a near-destitute party against a competitor like anti-free-trade campaigner David Orchard, as McKay did in 2003, is a far cry from winning the leadership of the present Conservative party.

Parties may come apart during leadership races. The question is whether they can come back together once the ballots are counted. Without Harper’s strong hand, the Conservative party has certainly come apart, and it’s unclear whether a new leader will be able to effectively bring it back together.

Ironically, Harper, long so effective at maintaining the coalition that is the Conservative party, may now be a legacy that prevents the party from regrouping in such a way that it can effectively challenge Trudeau in the near future.

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