National Column: Tory movement lost as defeats pile up

The Conservatives’ defeat on Oct. 19 will not go down in history as the worst electoral beating the party has ever endured, but it has driven Canada’s conservative movement further into the political wilderness than at any other time in its recent history.

It is not just that the Conservatives lost control of the federal agenda for the foreseeable future but also that they are all but a spent force on the provincial scene. That’s obviously bad news for the parties that make up the right, but it is also a loss for the national conversation.

By the time Canada’s premiers join Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Paris climate conference, Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall will probably be the only conservative first minister still standing.

Once the voters of Newfoundland and Labrador go to the polls at the end of the month, polls suggest the province’s Tory government will be history.

For the first time in the living memory of most voters, there is not a Conservative government at the helm of one of the four larger provinces and no prospect that one will be elected anytime soon.

The Liberal governments of Ontario and Quebec, and the New Democrats in Alberta are all in the first half of majority mandates. Regime change – should it come to British Columbia in 2017 – is more likely to bring another NDP government to the fore than a more conservative one.

In the short term, Manitoba offers the Tories their best (and only?) hope of bolstering their presence at the federal-provincial table.

But it will take more than a provincial victory or two to fix the malaise that ails the Conservative movement.

Harper’s brand of conservatism was massively rejected in Atlantic Canada last month, and it never took root in Quebec. The party’s recent seat gains mask a drop to the lowest Conservative score in the popular vote (16 per cent) in Quebec in a decade.

In a set of byelections this week, the Coalition Avenir Quebec – the closest thing to a provincial Conservative party in Quebec – did even more poorly.

Ontario and Alberta are homes to conflicted and divided Conservative houses.

Since Mike Harris retired more than a decade ago, the Ontario Tories have failed to find a path back to power or, for that matter, to agree on a course to get there.

In Alberta, the warring factions within the Conservative movement have taken their differences to the electoral arena in a fratricidal battle that neither side is poised to win.

It will be interesting to see how the internal tensions in the two provinces that have been the pillars of the federal Conservative party will play out in the upcoming campaign to select Harper’s successor.

If the past is any indication, those vying to succeed Harper will more likely be auditioning for a spell in the role of leader of the opposition than for the job of prime minister.

After the Trudeau, Mulroney and ChrÈtien/Martin decades, it took almost 10 years for their respective parties to regroup and stage a successful bid for government.

In fact, the Conservatives should not assume they hit rock bottom on Oct. 19.

The Liberals, who went from bad to worse under Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, can testify to the perils of that particular delusion.

Meanwhile, though, a Conservative vacuum of this magnitude on the federal-provincial scene is unprecedented.

Pierre Trudeau sat across from William Davis in Ontario and Peter Lougheed in Alberta. Jean Chretien was paired with Ralph Klein and Harris. Those strong premiers, hailing as they did from provinces that no federal ruling party could ignore, provided a counterweight to the Liberal government of the day, and often forced it to up its game.

Over the Chretien decade, a lot of the intellectual impetus for groundbreaking federal policies came from the right. It was provincial Conservative politicians who broke the trail to balanced budgets and the
Reform Party planted the seed of what became the Liberals’ Clarity Act.

But the Harper Conservatives always seemed to bring less policy heft to the exercise of power than their party in opposition. They had lost their identity some time before they lost their place in government.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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