'Yeah, change is hard': Strategist says CPC will need to branch out to beat Trudeau
Split over climate change points to how hard change will be, pundit says
Conservative Party of Canada Leader Erin O'Toole emphatically called last weekend for the federal Tories to embrace change, although delegates the next day voted down a resolution to acknowledge that climate change is real.
According to Tim Powers of Abacus Data, that divide may prove to be an existential matter for the party.
"I think O'Toole is trying to tell his party that they need to change, and that you can't keep doing the same thing over and over again," said Powers.
"In fact, some people call that the definition of madness."
In an interview with The St. John's Morning Show, the former Conservative strategist said the difficulty is in convincing some party members, for whom such a drastic shift in policy is a steep departure from what they're used to.
"That message of change is slow to set in, because one of the elements that O'Toole has focused on in the speech on Friday was: party members, climate change is real," said Powers.
"If we're going to compete against the Liberal government, against the New Democrats, you have to recognize this."
O'Toole repeatedly used the word "change" in his remarks. The vote against the acknowledgement of climate change was indicative of the struggle ahead, said Powers.
"So yeah, change is hard," Powers said.
O'Toole's Conservatives continue to trail behind Justin Trudeau's Liberals, according to CBC's Poll Tracker. However, the Liberal leader's lead is about five points, which can be overcome before and during an election campaign.
Climate change important issue for voters
The reluctance among some within the Conservative Party to adopt climate change as a central issue is something that Powers called multilayered.
One area is in western Canada, where Powers said party members have drawn a tight link between what they believe the Liberal climate policy has been, with the challenges that the oil and gas industry has faced there.
"They've seen great success in Western Canada, politically, by harping on the old Trudeau carbon-tax theme," said Powers, who was born in St. John's and cut his teeth working for former PC cabinet minister John Crosbie.
"So they don't think they need to break away from that, because it speaks to the challenges they have at the moment."
In other parts of the country, Powers pointed to anxieties that wading into issues of climate change would steer the Conservatives into becoming a "Liberal-lite" party, something that some members want to avoid.
While it makes for interesting internal party debates, Powers said, both O'Toole and Powers's polling company, Abacus Data, have acknowledged the need to reach a broader voter base.
"If Conservatives want to win, they have to appeal beyond the Conservative party and the Conservative base," said Powers.
"And there are lots of Canadian voters for whom, rightly, climate change, and having a serious policy on it, matters."
From what he saw this weekend, Powers said, elements of the party just aren't quite there yet.
'Play together nicely'
This isn't the first time a Conservative leader has been in a position of contention with their own party, Powers said. Despite their successes, both Stephen Harper and Brian Mulroney had to contend with factions within their own party.
The trick, said Powers, is finding common ground.
"O'Toole's got to find a place where all of the Conservatives can play together nicely, while at the same time appealing to the broader Canadian public," he said.
One area Powers noted may be fruitful to that end is in the party's economic recovery policy: something that was teased by O'Toole over the weekend as he talked about bringing back a million jobs.
"The thing I found really interesting in his speech was he used the word 'secure' almost as much as he used the words 'courage' and 'change,'" said Powers, in reference to the five priority areas O'Toole outlined, including jobs and mental health.
"I think he's using the word 'secure' to play on the vulnerabilities we all feel at the moment because of the pandemic," Powers said.
"He's going to have to do a lot of work convincing Canadians that he can really address their vulnerabilities; not just on climate, but through those other elements that he identified during his talk Friday evening."