Stewart Prest: The fault lines in Canadian politics run right through the conservative coalition

On issue after issue, right-of-centre party leaders feel compelled to make compromises for fear of alienating a core constituency.

By: Stewart Prest

There is a malaise afflicting right-of-centre parties in Canada. The coalitions that support them seem uncomfortable, even dysfunctional, combining groups who don’t share common ground on many of the key debates of the day. 

On issue after issue, right-of-centre party leaders — and those auditioning for the part — feel compelled to map out compromise positions for fear of alienating a core constituency; or stake out bold positions to satisfy some faction of the right-of-centre coalition, only to have to embarrassingly retreat; or say nothing of substance at all. They continually muddle along, pleasing no one and alienating just about everyone at one time or another.

Worse still, there’s no easy way out of that dilemma for them given the constraints of Canada’s first-past-the-post system. Ironically, the instinct to keep the right united, so crucial to the successes of the Harper era, is what is hurting those same parties today.

On the surface, such parties remain competitive. The Conservatives once again picked up more votes than the Liberals in this year’s federal election, even if that support once again failed to translate into more seats. Doug Ford is premier of Ontario, having taken over from the exhausted Liberals in 2018. Jason Kenney’s United Conservatives continue to govern Alberta, even if the NDP has surged in recent polls. There’s apparently some disagreement over exactly who the premier of Manitoba is at the moment, but whoever it is they’re definitely from the province’s Progressive Conservative party. 

And yet, despite these successes, something is clearly off. We see evidence of this across the country.

For instance, the federal Conservatives spent the last election stuck between positions designed to win over moderate voters and those meant to hold onto principled (or populist, depending on your perspective) conservatives. 

The Conservative campaign was marked by a series of impromptu on-the-fly edits and clarifications of the party platform on topics from gun control, to vaccine mandates, to the carbon tax. 

The political gymnastics have continued in the weeks since the election, with O’Toole requiring numerous attempts to clarify his party’s position on a vaccine mandate for MPs entering the House. 

One report (so far unconfirmed by the party) suggested that as few as three or five Conservative MPs remain unvaccinated, and yet the party remains tied up in knots on the subject. The party continues to oppose mandatory vaccinations for those entering the House, yet also — seemingly paradoxically — oppose hybrid sessions as an alternative. When more than 70 per cent of Canadians want to see vaccine passports just to go to the gym, that’s not likely a winning stance.

These divisions have only worsened in recent days, with MP Marylin Gladu announcing the formation of a “civil liberties caucus” including some 30 MPs and Senators. While some have described it as a challenge to O’Toole’s leadership, it is better understood as a challenge to the conservative coalition more broadly. Effectively, these are two parties, representing two distinct views of what it means to be conservative, and Conservative.

The malaise is evident at the provincial level as well. Most dramatic perhaps was when Premier Kenney’s populist-pleasing Best Summer Ever  turned into a tragic fall, with the premier having to reverse course and reinstitute restrictions to prevent failure of the province’s health system. Pulled in one way by a particular faction of the United Conservative movement, the government nonetheless found the approach unsustainable.

In British Columbia, the province’s major right-of-centre option, the B.C. Liberal Party, is in the midst of a leadership race. Coming off a decisive loss in 2020, it’s an opportunity to define a new direction for the party, and yet most candidates are having trouble spelling out what the B.C. Liberals ought to stand for beyond the general idea of party renewal, free enterprise and not being the NDP

And not to be outdone, just this week the Ontario government declined to mandate vaccines for health workers despite widespread public support for the idea, including among Conservative voters. Early reaction to the announcement has been, to no one’s surprise, swift and unfavourable

So, what accounts for this malaise? Ultimately, it’s a product of the unyielding math of the first-past-the-post electoral system, combined with a measure of political inertia in face of changing political realities.

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Among proponents, one of the chief appeals of the first-past-the-post system is how it encourages big-tent parties. These large “brokerage” style parties, as they’re sometimes called, encourage diverse interests to come together in a single party, and compels members to find compromise among themselves before presenting their ideas to the electorate.

In so doing, they stand as a bulwark against extremism in politics — or so the argument goes. The big-tent parties allow fringe ideas to enter the discussion, but also ensure they get watered down into more broadly acceptable terms before they are presented to the public (if they see the light of day at all). 

In short, FPTP forces politicians to compromise among diverse views within their own parties, thereby ensuring that extremist ideas don’t have a chance to upend broader political debate.

Of course, that argument implies compromise is possible. Given the current state of Canadian politics, where not long ago the divide was between parties, the major fault lines now run through the country’s conservative coalitions, preventing them from articulating stable compromises on many of the issues that matter most to Canadians.

Whether the topic is climate and energy policy, vaccine mandates, or social values, debates on the centre-left tend to be over how much, and how fast. The overall direction is clear. In contrast, right-of-centre parties are divided over much more fundamental choices. 

A recent Abacus poll on the environment illustrates the problem. Among other questions, the poll asked, “generally speaking, how would you like to see governments in Canada emphasize policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions?” Most Liberal and the NDP voters, 77 and 78 per cent, respectively, said more should be done. Just 10 and eight per cent answered less. In a world in which it’s hard to get everyone to agree what day of the week it is, that’s close to consensus.

In contrast, when asked that question, Conservative voters were far more divided, with 44 per cent saying more should be done, compared with 24 per cent saying less. 

Gun control tells a similar story. A Leger survey last spring found 80 per cent of Liberal voters and 72 per cent of NDPers wanted stricter controls, with just five per cent wanting to see regulations loosened. In contrast, Conservatives were divided on the issue 47 per cent to 18, with another 29 per cent percent favouring the status quo.

Interestingly, the story on vaccines is a little different, but if anything makes both the problem — and possible solutions — clearer. An Ipsos poll shortly before the election found that a healthy majority of all three major parties support vaccine mandates in a variety of contexts. When Canadians were asked about a mandate for health workers, for instance, 94 per cent of intended Liberal voters supported the idea, as did 85 per cent of Dippers. Notably, 79 per cent of Conservatives also supported the idea. Even when asked about passports for places like restaurants 64 per cent of intended Conservative voters were supportive — a clear majority of party supporters. 

And yet, as on the other issues, many of the country’s right-of-centre parties continue to carefully avoid alienating the minority of conservatives who hate the idea of vaccine mandates. Despite the huge number of conservative-leaning voters that tend to think like other Canadians on the issue, supporters of the minority position remain loud and influential, as the announcement of a Conservative “civil liberties caucus” makes clear. 

Likewise on climate, those active in the federal party continue to be more skeptical than the general population, as evidenced by the Conservative policy convention’s rejection of policy that acknowledged climate change is real. 

That loudness in turn limits the broader appeal of those parties to a clear majority of the population. 

Worse still for right-of-centre parties, the situation seems likely to remain unless and until a) the fault lines move once more, b) the voting system changes, allowing new narrower coalitions to emerge, or c) some leader is able to definitively choose a side for each party on those fundamental debates, and compel the party to accept the shifting losses and opportunities that result.

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As far as shifting fault lines go, the demographics of the country suggest that, if anything, majorities on climate change and social issues will only strengthen with time, as progressive, educated, younger Canadians continue to join the ranks of voters, and the country’s more conservative rural areas continue to decline in size compared to urban centres

Electoral reform also seems off the table for now in Canada — not least due to Conservative opposition to the idea. That said, a visionary moderate might glance at places like Germany to see the possibilities open to a centre-right party in a proportional representation system.

Absent either of those options, the remaining choice available leaders is to carve out a new centre-right coalition capable of winning votes among Canada’s more progressive majority, particularly in the steadily urbanizing suburban settings in which elections are so often determined.

As O’Toole’s woes reveal, this is easier said than done.

Certainly, even without a change right-of-centre parties will continue to be able to win in places like the prairies, and even pick off an election here or there in other parts of the country when the governing party falters. Even then, however, their times in office will be marked by rudderless leadership, ugly compromises, and bold stances followed by dramatic reversals as their leaders attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. 

In short, life under first-past-the-post will be uncomfortable for right-of-centre parties for the foreseeable future. They will continue to experience electoral and governance problems until they find a way to address the underlying policy dilemma confronting them. 


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