Conservatives are hoping third time’s the charm when it comes to scheduling their policy convention – their first since losing the federal election under Andrew Scheer in 2019. Like many things in the pandemic era, COVID-19 forced the CPC to delay their policy convention from last April in Toronto, to November 2020 in Quebec City, to next week where the event will be exclusively online. While this may be the first virtual convention in the Party’s history, they do have some familiarity with the process, as last year’s leadership convention was also held online. Unlike the leadership contest, the Party is hoping for smooth sailing this convention. But as many media reports suggest, things are unlikely to unfold that way.
At the last policy convention in Halifax, all eyes were on Maxime Bernier and the creation of his new party. Reports of burgeoning rifts in caucus post-leadership turned out to be inconsequential, and the convention was largely muted, beyond some heated debate around the party’s stance on supply chain management. The convention prior in Vancouver played host to rampant speculation around who would become the next leader of the Party, as the Tories charted a new course as the Official Opposition. Save for the rare exception (and an occasional instance of chair kicking), drama is not usually a word used to describe gatherings of conservatives. Though this time may be different.
The stage has been set for a challenging convention for Erin O’Toole and his leadership. Since being elected, O’Toole has put a considerable amount of effort to move the party closer to the centre, to appeal to middle voters who have grown disaffected voters. These target groups – including younger voters, as well as those living in urban centres and suburbs – are constituencies the O’Toole team believes are critical to win over to achieve success in the next election. Attempts to woo these voters have manifested in vocal opposition from O’Toole to relitigating divisive social policies including same-sex marriage and abortion, and more recently, committing to net zero targets on the same (or even expedited) timelines as the federal Liberals.
While the Party is past the point of debating whether or not something ought to be done about climate change, opinions on how to address it are far from unanimous.The lightning rod in conservative environmental debate remains whether or not targets can be achieved without a price on carbon; a policy which was rumored to be under consideration by O’Toole, much to the chagrin of supporters and MPs in Western Canada and elsewhere. While O’Toole has said that a pro-carbon tax policy is not on the table, reports of uncertainty around this policy have fuelled speculation around rifts in the Conservative caucus, and whether or not the Maverick Party could actually play a role in the next election. A poll conducted by Abacus Data earlier in 2020 found that 22% of Albertans and 18% of people in Saskatchewan/Manitoba would consider voting for the Maverick Party. Since then, the Maverick Party has become both more organized, and more willing to tap into frustrated members of the Conservative base. Though small in size, the party could pose at least a distraction, and at worst an electoral threat, to O’Toole and his team.
Debate on the environment is not the only source of drama expected in two weeks time. Following the ejection of former leadership rival Derek Sloan from Conservative caucus, there have been deliberate attempts by him and his followers to control the outcomes of policy resolutions by flooding delegate spots with self-proclaimed social conservatives. Under the party constitution, each of the 338 ridings can send 10 elected delegates to the convention. While some of those spots are reserved for VIPs, there have been several prominent conservatives who were unable to secure delegate spots at the policy convention, which suggests attempts from social conservative groups to gain control of these positions may be accurate. As a generalized block of voters, social conservatives have always been strong at organizing for both leadership races and policy conventions, leading to many heated debates and torqued headlines along the way. With Sloan as their main cheerleader suggesting social conservatives are being ignored under O’Toole, we can expect similar stories to follow the March gathering.
But as much as O’Toole has his hands full with internal politics, the bigger concern is the lukewarm interest Canadians seem to have in his leadership. According to a recent Abacus poll, the Liberals still hold a solid lead in national polls. The Conservatives continue to trail with less support than the party had in the 2019 federal election, which is only fuelling frustration internally and is not a place any leader wants to be in ahead of a convention. Given the CPC’s history of taking fights out from the backyard to the front lawn, the Tories may be in need of a channel changer soon after their policy convention concludes.
None of this should surprise O’Toole or those within his leadership team, as they’ve seen this before. Opposition parties are hard on their leader, and the only cure is victory. In the meantime, O’Toole will have to find a way to keep his members motivated and his caucus happy. Perhaps most importantly, he will have to shift the focus to his opponent and what he is going to do to change the political channel over the next few months.