National Column: Tories poisoned own well in B.C.

by Chantal Hébert

The federal Conservatives are gathering in Vancouver this weekend to praise Stephen Harper today and – if they are smart – to start burying some of his signature policies over the rest of their national convention.

It will be the first time Harper addresses his party and – by the same token – Canadians since his election-night defeat. It will also be the last time he speaks to the Conservatives as an elected politician. By the time the party picks his successor a year from now, the former prime minister will be long gone.

More so than Harper’s parting words, his departure – expected at the end of the spring session of Parliament in just a few weeks – should clear the way for a post-mortem the Conservatives can ill afford to avoid.

Last October, a mismanaged election campaign only compounded the decade-long mismanagement of some core policies. Few of those are more closely identified with Harper’s leadership than the party’s
dismissive approach to climate change. On his watch, it became part of the Conservative brand and an albatross around the party’s neck.

If the post-Harper Conservatives need strategic reasons to now make their peace with the top-of-mind environmental issue of the era and end their war on carbon pricing, the foundering of their full-speed-ahead pipeline agenda should provide it.

By focusing single-mindedly on getting more bitumen oil to tidewater to the exclusion of climate change mitigation, the Conservatives did not just set back the pipeline projects they were purporting to promote; they also poisoned their own well.

Last October, Harper’s approach paid few dividends in the parts of Atlantic Canada where projects such as TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline otherwise enjoy widespread support. His candidates were beaten across the region.

It failed even more spectacularly in British Columbia. Going into the last campaign, B.C. was a long-standing pillar of Conservative support. On the scale of the party’s past presence in the province, Canada’s Conservatives are paying a visit to a field of ruins this weekend. Here are some numbers:

The Conservatives came out of the last election holding only 10 of 42 B.C. seats – seven fewer than the Liberals and four fewer than the NDP. It was the worst Conservative showing in at least three decades.

The year Stockwell Day lost to Jean ChrÈtien and the last time a divided conservative movement took on the Liberals in 2000, the Canadian Alliance won a majority of B.C. seats (27) and almost 50 per cent of the province’s popular vote.

Between 2011 and 2015, the Conservative share of the vote went from 45 per cent to 30 per cent. Over Harper’s majority mandate, the party lost almost 150,000 B.C. supporters.

More than one ingredient went into the mix of the Conservative debacle. In B.C., as everywhere else, voters were fatigued with the 10-year-old government and its leader. The retirement of high-profile minister James Moore highlighted a weaker provincial team. Not since John Turner ran for a Vancouver seat in 1984 and 1988 had the Liberals had a leader who could – as Justin Trudeau did – boast a personal connection with the province.

But British Columbia was then and is now the ground zero of the pipeline debate, with not one but two high-profile projects – Northern Gateway and Kinder Morgan – on the radar. Its Liberal government
pioneered a carbon tax in 2008. If there was a place in Canada where the federal Conservatives’ quasi-daily rants against such a tax stood to come across as little more than gross fear-mongering, B.C. was it.

Those rants, combined with constant pipeline cheerleading, did much to advance the notion that a Harper-led government could not be an honest broker in the search for a balance between environmental protection and energy development.

An Abacus poll published this week found that about 30 per cent of British Columbians are outright supporters of the pipelines. That matches the proportion that voted for Harper last fall. But another 30
per cent say they could come onside under certain conditions related to the protection of environmental and indigenous interests. It is that sizable middle-of-the-road constituency that the Conservatives drove to Trudeau over the course of Harper’s watch.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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