Mitch Heimpel: I was wrong. Moderates won't vote for us
Nothing any Conservative says or does will convince you, the fabled centrist voter, to vote for us. Don't be shocked when they give up and look elsewhere
By: Mitch Heimpel
There will be no “pivot” to the centre from Pierre Poilievre now that he has been selected leader of the Conservative Party of Canada.
I spent years in the party but have shifted to work in the private sector, so I now fulfill the role of political spectator. And there is one thing I keep wondering about: What if there are no more centrists available to the Conservative party?
This isn’t a new debate. It’s been hotly debated by Conservatives for years. Those that argue for the motion insist that there is not some untapped reservoir of middle-of-the-road Conservative support out there. We’ve gotten all that we can. “Centrist” voters who have stuck with the Trudeau Liberals to this point have done so not because they are waiting for some more palatable version of the Conservative party, but because they are — wait for it — Liberals. Albeit often reluctant, self-hating Liberals.
Let me put it another way: who is going to run the CPC who is more moderate than Erin O’Toole?
I used to believe otherwise. The Conservative Leader's Office of which I was a part believed otherwise. And it argued, forcefully, for the existence of a bloc of accessible centrist voters for more than a year.
However, I'm confronted by increasing evidence I, and we, were wrong.
After Poilievre’s ascension, I watched as Canada's most-read columnists and high-profile economists debate Poilievre's stated intent to remove the current Governor of the Bank of Canada — as though replacing one economist with another was some grave threat to democracy. Reading the commentaries, I thought to myself: “these people are just never going to vote for us. They didn’t last time, they won’t next time, and there is no one ‘moderate’ enough for them who will be Conservative leader any time soon. It just isn’t going to happen.”
And that’s fine.
There are a lot of fair reasons an informed citizen could choose to vote Liberal over Conservative. That’s democracy. But the Bank of Canada issue is revealing. Again, sure, vote Liberal — for any number of totally valid reasons. But deference to democratic norms? Some strong desire to protect our fragile institutions from political interference?
If replacing the Bank of Canada Governor is beyond the pale, just wait until these people hear about a government that tried to interfere in a criminal prosecution against a corporation accused of corruption, or allegedly pressured the RCMP commissioner to release politically valuable information in the middle of a criminal investigation.
I suspect there are a number of people reading this and saying "Yeah, but..." To them, I can say only this: no matter what you may tell yourself, you are not opposed to Poilievre out of deference to our institutions. Other reasons? Sure! But if you'd rather Justin Trudeau be prime minister than Pierre Poilievre because you think our independent institutions will be better preserved and protected from political meddling, then you have the kind of imagination usually reserved for Disney cartoonists.
And this is what I’m coming to accept: that nothing any Conservative says or does will convince you, the fabled centrist voter, otherwise. You do not owe the Conservatives your vote. But it also means that they should stop trying to ever get it; and you shouldn’t be shocked and offended if and when they do indeed give up and look elsewhere.
Why isn't Pierre Poilievre pivoting to the centre? Because the political power in this country is at the poles. Despite what you’ve told yourself, you’re not an accessible vote for the Conservatives, and Poilievre and his team have accepted that. They’re looking for another path to power.
Let’s put it more poetically: the centre has not held. So where is Poilievre looking for that path?
His critics will tell you among extremists and bigots. There may be more truth to that than a lot of Conservatives want to admit. But there’s less truth to it than some might insist. Poilievre’s critics and supporters are going to disagree — vehemently — over how mainstream these people are. They're already doing this. And, they both have a reasonable point to make. But there are a lot of angry people nestled comfortably within the mainstream of Canadian society — enough to give Poilievre a real shot.
For the past four decades, politicians have courted this country’s self-described moderates. As a result, they became target voters, and their policy preferences ran roughshod over the electorate. As a result, this bloc has grown entitled, economically prosperous and thoroughly unmotivated to do anything to change any of the above. What we have in this country are not moderates, but more accurately "Status Quo-ists."
And, for a great and growing number of Canadians, the status quo is a problem. Maybe the problem.
There are a lot of people in this country, right now, who feel like success is a rope ladder. And that the people who've made it to the top have pulled up the ladder after them. Having taken that view, those looking up from below are expecting a solution. Of which there are two.
The first is to try and convince the people at the top to lower the ladder. This is, I think, the solution that most people who benefit from the status quo would prefer.
The second option is to simply knock down the people at the top. Poilievre's language and tone suggests he is open to doing exactly that. They're the "gatekeepers." They're the economists at the top of the Bank of Canada. They're the executives at the CBC, and the pundits reporting on Poilievre’s win.
This populism is absolutely going to manifest on the left, too. It already has. In the U.K., there was Corbynism. In the U.S., there was the Occupy movement, Bernie Sanders and A.O.C. The left will have to worry about itself, however. I can only speak to what I see from my side of the line.
The danger for "moderates" or "centrists" or whatever they've decided to call themselves is not just that the power is now at the poles. It's that they are, themselves, seen as defenders of a status quo which is now believed to benefit only them. Yes, there is misinformation out there, lots of it, and that’s a massive problem. But there are plenty of perfectly informed reasons to be angry. A society where you can't get a house, a passport, a flight or a doctor’s appointment is not one that is in good working order.
The centre has not held, in part because it is not the centre. It is the status quo. And, perhaps ironically for a conservative party, there are no more votes for them in preserving the status quo. The energy, and the gains, have drifted to the end zone. It is with people who believe the country is not working, and will never work for them. These people don't usually vote. The old political alignment — the one that has largely governed the country since the first Mulroney-Turner-Broadbent election in 1984 — is gone. We do not yet know what is going to take its place.
But, for the Conservatives at least, it's not in whatever notion of the ideological middle used to exist in Canada — and I spent years of my life trying to prove otherwise, and failed. Conservatives should stop wasting their time on it.
Mitch Heimpel has served Conservative cabinet ministers and party leaders at the provincial and federal levels, and is currently the director of campaigns and government relations at Enterprise Canada.
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