Analysis

Do Canada's Conservatives want to join the populism parade?

Former Reform party leader Preston Manning says the public is alienated and disenchanted. Do Conservatives want to address those feelings or merely encourage disenchantment?

2 approaches: Addressing citizens' frustrations or merely encouraging disenchantment

Former Reform partly leader Preston Manning speaks at the opening of the Manning Centre conference on Friday in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Appearing on stage Friday at the outset of his eponymous institution's latest conference, Preston Manning, the wise old man of Canadian conservatism, attempted to put his finger on the great matter of the moment.

"Our conservative leaders will face many challenges in the days ahead," he said, hours before the 14 candidates for the federal Conservative leadership took to the same stage to debate each other.

"But in my judgment the greatest of these will be reconnecting with citizens and voters who are becoming increasingly alienated from and disenchanted with governments, experts, mainstream media and political parties, including our own."

This, Manning explained, was at the root of Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, the great popular revolts that rattled the Western world over the last 18 months, leading many to worry about the current state and future of liberal democracy.

But if populism is on the march, do Canadian Conservatives want to join the parade?

Manning figures Conservatives might harness some of those feelings and direct that energy toward positive ends, while disavowing the "repugnant" elements that sometimes accompany such uprisings.

More simply, Conservatives might ask themselves whether they wish to address anxiety and frustration or encourage disenchantment.

What makes a populist?

Though Manning referred to "populist sentiments," a distinction might be drawn between how members of the public might feel and how political leaders respond to those feelings.

Public anxiety might result from any number of factors: economic change, social change, immigration, political dysfunction, terrorism or crime. People could feel their concerns are not being fairly heard or reflected in the political debate. 

People might simply be cynical. Indeed, Manning could point to recent polling data that suggests trust in government and the media in Canada is declining.

Such feelings can present opportunity to an aspiring populist.

Reform party founder Preston Manning discusses populism, Islamophobia and Conservative leadership 8:33

In stark terms, Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist, has defined populism as "an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, 'the pure people' versus 'the corrupt elite.'"

Mudde notes that populism is sometimes associated with simple, emotional responses to problems, though that is not the exclusive preserve of populists. In practice, it has been linked with nationalism and nativism, but also socialism.

At their best, populist movements might raise previously neglected concerns or problems. They might usefully challenge accepted wisdom. Or even attack real corruption.

But one needn't look far to find populism that manifest itself in attacks on politicians, journalism, the judiciary, academia and expertise. Trump, perhaps the quintessential populist of the moment, has derided the political class, media outlets and judges. The Brexit campaign included a dismissal of experts who warned against the impacts of Britain separating from the European Union.

And such stuff could conceivably be corrosive over time, deepening and encouraging distrust.

"Populism presents a Manichean outlook, in which there are only friends and foes," Mudde has written.

Campaigning against elites

The "elite" have featured in the Conservative leadership campaign, most notably as an object of Kellie Leitch's derision.

"When I began my leadership campaign last year the media and out-of-touch elites wrote me off. They said I had no chance. They rejected us as 'slack-jawed yokels' and 'fringe.' But all that did was show how much they do not understand regular Canadians," she told supporters recently.

But going back to 2014 and 2015, the Conservative party was fond of telling its supporters about the "Ottawa media elite" that was trying to undermine Stephen Harper's government. And the e-word has popped up with some frequency over the past year as Conservatives have attacked Liberal fundraising practices.

Doug Ford complains about media

At a panel on Friday dedicated to the subject of elites, former Toronto city councillor Doug Ford — the brother of former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, whose style and appeal now seem to have set a precedent for Trump — complained about the media and raised the spectre of politicians enriching themselves with public funds.

A Trump supporter at the same panel suggested protests against Republican senators in the United States were being funded by George Soros, the Hungarian billionaire.

Later, during a session about the Trump phenomenon, a writer who has penned speeches for the Trump campaign advised prospective Conservative leadership candidates to get "angry."

But during the two hours reserved for those candidates to make their cases and debate each other, there were only spare hints of populist rhetoric. 

'Common sense' and 'regular people'

Pierre Lemieux complained about how the "national media" had covered the debate around Motion 103, a Liberal-sponsored anti-Islamophobia motion in the House of commons. And Leitch argued that "the media" had misrepresented her proposal to screen immigrants for Canadian values. 

The word "elite" was never spoken, though Leitch repeatedly referred to her ideas and platform as "common sense."

As Mudde has written, "For populists ... the consciousness of the people, generally referred to as common sense, is the basis of all good (politics)."

'The only voice of the taxpayer'

But the most populist sentiment might have been stated hours earlier by Rona Ambrose, the interim Conservative leader.

"We will continue to be the only voice of the taxpayer in the House of Commons, putting the interests of hard-working Canadians ahead of insiders and cronies," she said, following Manning to the stage.

"We will be the champions of hard-working, regular people across this country," Ambrose said.

The next leader of the Conservative party will have to decide how far he or she wants to push that idea.

The former leader of the Reform Party talks about the connection between leadership and populist movements. 6:12

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.

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