Where are the new ideas in this Conservative Party leadership race?
There's no shortage of big issues to talk about, but so far candidates have been playing small ball
This column is an opinion by Kory Teneycke. A former director of communications for prime minister Stephen Harper, he managed the recent Ontario PC Party Campaign and is currently a partner at Rubicon Strategy. Teneycke has declared he will remain neutral in the federal Conservative leadership campaign and has recused himself from work Rubicon is providing for the Peter MacKay campaign. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Other than a general election, a leadership race is the best opportunity a political party has to broaden its appeal outside of its traditional voter coalition. And that is an opportunity the Conservative Party can't afford to squander.
The very fact there is a leadership race is an indication that a political party needs to change. After all, these races usually come on the heels of an electoral defeat, when the appeal of the party has not been sufficient to attract the plurality of votes required to form the government.
Sometimes it's related to the appeal of the previous leader – too angry, too ideological, too weak – the reasons vary. However, the performance of the person at the helm is often only a partial explanation for a poor showing at the polls.
More often, the party as a whole has failed to evolve in its policies at a rate sufficient to keep pace with enough of the electorate to win.
So if we accept that policy renewal is an essential part of how a party rebuilds, where are the new ideas in this Conservative Party leadership race?
So far, the candidates have been playing small ball – narrow-casting to niche groups within the existing Conservative Party base, and ankle-biting one another over things like minor campaign gaffes and their relative ability to raise funds. Focusing on an eight-year-old bill on transgender rights may help attract a sub-set of social conservatives, but it makes ordinary Canadians think the Party is out-to-lunch at best and bigoted at worst.
While there are legitimate tactical reasons to seek support from well established groups of conservatives, it leaves the task of broadening the party's appeal outside the small confines of the Conservative Party membership undone.
It's not like there aren't big, new issues to talk about.
The COVID-19 crisis has upended the policy table in every way imaginable – everything from global trade to the very role of government in the economy has been thrown on its head. The traditional policy paradigms don't fit the problems we are facing particularly well, and there are monumental decisions on which way we should go that are being debated – just without much being said by the Conservative leadership hopefuls.
Do we stick with the long-established consensus on liberalized global trade? While this has been in question since the Trump election and Brexit, it is even more debatable as we fight to secure essential drugs and personal protective equipment to fight the pandemic.
What sort of industrial policy should Canada be pursuing going forward? Should we do more to ensure critical drugs and medical equipment are produced within our own borders? And if so, what is the best approach to ensure that outcome? Surely the Conservatives will have a different view than the Liberals on the best way to proceed – or if we should proceed at all.
What do we do about China? This is one area where the Conservative leadership campaigns have done some work, but there is much more to do. We could be sliding into a new cold war, with traditional Western allies on one side and communist China on the other. Among many friction points, China has put millions of its own citizens in what are best described as concentration camps, and uses kidnapping as a tool of international diplomacy. Not to mention the concerning lack of transparency on the front end of the current pandemic – having forced doctors that blew the whistle on SARS-COVID-2 to recant their early warnings.
And here at home, while Canadians broadly support the government-imposed lockdown related to the COVID crisis, many are concerned with the sudden loss of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties in the process – such as overly aggressive ticketing by bylaw officers, and the decision of the Quebec government to throw up roadblocks on the Quebec side of inter-provincial bridges. Has the government been overzealous in some of its actions? It is certainly worth debating where the lines on these extraordinary measures should be drawn.
The Conservative Party represents virtually all of rural Canada, including most of the agricultural sector we rely on to feed our cities and much of the world. This trade has faced unprecedented headwinds in India, China, and elsewhere. Moreover, the United States has added $19 billion US in agricultural subsidies this year which will certainly disrupt agricultural markets further. If the Conservative Party doesn't push for action, who will? Certainly not the Liberal Party, which has a history of pandering to urban voters at the expense of rural voters on issues like gun control.
Watch: Conservative strategists discuss the party's leadership race on CBC News Network's Power & Politics
Last but not least, the health of the Canadian economy is tied in part to the health of the energy industry. It accounts for 10 per cent of our economy. Bromides about renewable energy won't replace the revenues that have been lost with the collapse of energy prices. What is the Conservative Party's plan to assist the energy industry and help the hundreds of thousands of Canadians that rely on it to feed their families?
There are three months left for the Conservative leadership hopefuls to answer some of these questions, and in doing so, draw new supporters into their voting coalition.
Both Conservative Party members and Canadians who want a viable alternative to the Liberals need them to rise to the challenge.