Politics·Analysis

Conservatives return to the scene of Stephen Harper's last stand to pick a new leader

The year-long campaign to replace Stephen Harper has not quite amounted to a repudiation of his time in office. And the return of Conservatives to Etobicoke in suburban Toronto this weekend, this time to crown Harper's successor, offers an opportunity to measure what has changed, and what hasn't.​

Over a year removed from defeat, what has changed for the party entering the weekend leadership convention?

Maxime Bernier is up against 12 other candidates in the Conservative leadership race, which will be decided this weekend in Toronto. While each candidate offers some kind of change from the Harper era, there are limits to how much change they are interested in entertaining right now, writes CBC's Aaron Wherry. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

As noted by at least one scribe with a long memory, when Conservatives last gathered at the Toronto Congress Centre — a convention hall in north Etobicoke, down the road from Pearson airport — it was for a notable rally on the second-last day of the party's ill-fated 2015 campaign.

What that evening seemed to present was a portrait of a party down to its last resorts. Stephen Harper, a man otherwise determined to be seen as a serious person, was campaigning in the company of Rob and Doug Ford and delivering a stump speech that relied on cash-register sound effects.

Justin Trudeau would suggest the Conservative leader "should be embarrassed that he is having to count on the support of Rob Ford for his re-election."

And two days after that rally with the Ford brothers, the Conservatives were reduced to 99 seats. Nearly all the ridings in the vicinity of the congress centre went to the Liberals, with Conservative incumbents falling across the crucial Ontario suburbs of Etobicoke, Brampton, Mississauga and Oakville.

The 2015 campaign precipitated Harper's resignation. But the year-long campaign to replace him has not quite amounted to a repudiation of his time in office. And the return of Conservatives to Etobicoke this weekend, this time to crown Harper's successor, offers an opportunity to measure what has changed, and what hasn't.​

A new face, but not quite a new party

What will assuredly change is the face of the party. By sometime Saturday night, the Conservative Party that was reconstituted after the schism of the 1990s will have its second leader.

Each of the 13 candidates also offers some kind of change from the Harper era. Maxime Bernier, for instance, wears nicer suits. Erin O'Toole is a military man. Andrew Scheer promises to be friendlier. 

But as Michael Chong has learned in suggesting that the Conservatives might get on side with pricing carbon emissions, there are limits to how much change they are interested in entertaining right now. Or at least what kind of change.

Maxime Bernier talks about winning Kevin O'Leary's support and the future of his bid for the Conservative party leadership. 11:24

And however dispiriting the 2015 result might have been, there are still traces of Harper's final days in the Conservative discussion.

While Harper's party seemingly suffered for its focus on the niqab, "barbaric cultural practices" and revoking citizenship, the race to replace him has been highlighted by Kellie Leitch's proposal for screening arrivals at the border and scattered fretting about immigration.

And though former Toronto politician Doug Ford has not made his presence felt, the populism that he and his late brother personified, and that always existed within Harper's politics, has been echoed by the likes of Leitch and Kevin O'Leary, the reality TV star who briefly seemed like this race's front-runner.

Those edges might be dulled or sharpened in the months ahead.

CBC coverage of Conservative convention

CBC's live coverage of the Conservative leadership convention begins Friday at 5 p.m. ET on cbcnews.ca, Facebook and CBC News Network with a special one-hour Power & Politics with Rosemary Barton. Coverage continues with our CBC News special hosted by Peter Mansbridge at 6 p.m. ET. We'll have streaming video, live updates and analysis at cbcnews.ca/politics.

Saturday's live coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET, with first ballot results expected around 5:30 p.m.

But by the time he got to Etobicoke, the entirety of Harper's argument for re-election was that a Conservative government would mean lower taxes than the Liberal alternative.

Indeed, the highlight of his daily campaign rally involved a member of the audience, in this case an actor from one of the Conservative Party's campaign ads, throwing $20 and $50 bills on a table at the front of the room as cash-register sound effects rang out, and Harper told scary stories about how a Liberal government would make life more expensive. 

And, in that respect, the end of the Harper era might segue to the start of the Maxime Bernier era.

Conservative leadership candidate Erin O'Toole shares his thoughts on O'Leary's campaign debt and the final days of the Conservative leadership race. 5:38

Bernier's bold, but familiar, agenda

What Bernier, the presumptive front-runner, now promises to do to reduce federal taxes is both dramatic and still basically in line with Harper's anti-tax rhetoric. Indeed, Bernier has seemed proud of how little else he could have to offer in 2019.

It is unfortunate for Bernier that Harper's former director of policy, Rachel Curran, considers Bernier's commitments "unworkable." But he does at least want to move aggressively.

(Potentially more significant is Bernier's talk of transferring all responsibility for health care to the provinces: a move that could effectively nullify the Canada Health Act, the federal law that governs public medicare. But somehow an entire leadership campaign passed without that becoming a significant matter of debate.)

Otherwise discussed over the past year has often been what Curran recently described as "variations on the Harper agenda," with little said about a host of issues the federal government has to contend with (possibly even issues that voters in the suburbs of Toronto might like to hear addressed).

Saskatchewan MP and Conservative leadership candidate speaks with CBC News 8:59

That might simply speak to the natural limits of conservatism. Or the relative strength of the party that Harper left behind.

In the first quarter of 2017, the Conservative Party once again trounced the Liberals in fundraising. More than 100,000 party members are expected to vote on a new leader. And the party's popular support has held steady around 30 per cent since the 2015 election.

Those are not obviously the numbers of a party in crisis.

But Liberal support has held steady too, just above 40 per cent.

If, by 2019, Trudeau's government seems a hopeless mess, a slightly refreshed take on the Harper agenda, or an aggressive interpretation thereof, might be enough to return the Conservatives to power. 

But, failing that, Conservatives might come to realize Curran's warning that mere variations on the Harper era "will not, on their own, be sufficient to provide a truly credible alternative to the Trudeau government."

In the waning days of the 2015 campaign, Harper didn't seem to have much left to say for himself. It remains to be seen how much more the next Conservative leader will have to offer.

CBC's live coverage of the Conservative leadership convention begins Friday at 5 p.m. ET on cbcnews.ca, Facebook.com/CBCPolitics and CBC News Network with a special 1-hour Power & Politics with Rosemary Barton. Coverage continues with our CBC News special hosted by Peter Mansbridge at 6 p.m. ET. We'll have streaming video, live updates and analysis at cbcnews.ca/politics.

Saturday's live coverage begins at 4 p.m. ET, with first ballot results expected around 5:30 p.m.

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. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.

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