Jordan Heath-Rawlings: At this point, conventional wisdom is that we’re talking about when, not if, we get a federal election this year, and that means it’s time for the polling firms to start getting to work in earnest. I will spare you all the numbers because most of them are the same and because our guest will explain them much better than I can. All you really need to know is that the current polls are almost universally bad news for the Conservative Party and its leader, Erin O’Toole.
News Clip: The Ipsos poll shows if an election were held today, the Liberals would receive 35% of the decided popular vote, up 2% from last month. The Conservatives, led by Erin O’Toole, stand at 28%, down 2%.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: O’Toole replaced Andrew Scheer after Scheer failed to bring home a winnable election, and he was supposed to bring a more moderate approach to a party that has recently struggled to attract neutral Canadian voters. And he has tried, but the numbers show it isn’t working. Why? How much of this can the Conservatives blame simply on the pandemic? How much can they blame on O’Toole’s job as leader, and how much of it is just a bad situation? Are the Conservatives stuck between a rock and a hard place, between an angry base that hates Justin Trudeau and the tone that they would have to adopt to attract voters who don’t really hate Trudeau but are open to an alternative? The election so far has not been called. The campaign has not yet begun. There is plenty of time for the Conservatives to become a viable party to the majority of Canadians again. What do they need to do to accomplish that?
I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Max Fawcett is a political affairs writer and reporter whose work appears in The National Observer, in Maclean’s, in the Walrus and many other publications. Hey, Max.
Max Fawcett: Hey, Jordan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Why don’t you start by giving us the lay of the land a little bit? Why did you, and as far as I can tell, basically every other political columnist in Canada, right about the Conservative Party at this particular moment?
Max Fawcett: Well, I like to think it’s a good example of great minds thinking alike, but it’s really kind of hard not to look at the Conservative Party right now and see this, you know, five alarm dumpster fire unfolding. And, you know, if you’re in the business of writing about politics, you kind of have to write about it. I thought it was interesting that the four of us, Coyne, David Moscrop, myself and Andrew MacDougall all kind of arrived at the same conclusion. Andrew MacDougall is a former staffer for Stephen Harper. Andrew Coyne is hardly a leftist. David is probably to my left on most issues, and then I’m sort of in the middle. But we all saw that this was a party in total disarray and which is not getting better. This is not a party that is coming back from the wilderness. It has the feeling of a party that is sending itself deeper into the woods. And I guess we’ll find out if and when the election is called. But it would be very hard to resist that temptation to call an election if I was the Liberals right now, because the Conservatives look weaker than they’ve ever looked in certainly my lifetime, not withstanding maybe the 1993 elections. So it really is an interesting moment, let’s say, in Canadian politics.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: well, when you use words like ‘dumpster fire’ and a party in ‘total disarray’, this is not just your opinion. There have been a series of polls recently that have kind of laid that out. Can you maybe just give us a sense of where the party stand right now and why Trudeau will have such a hard time not calling this election?
Max Fawcett: So it depends on whose polls you listen to. And a good rule of thumb with polling is that one poll is a snapshot in time. Five polls is a pretty detailed read of the situation, and they’re all leaning the same way. I think there is this sense maybe that pollsters don’t know what they’re doing anymore because they missed on Trump. But I’ll be honest, I wrote a piece for The Walrus. I think we actually talked about it in a previous episode of this, but polling is not quite as inaccurate as some would have us believe. So when all of the major pollsters are saying that the Liberals are ahead by anywhere from three points to 13 points nationally, you start to get a clear picture of where things are at.
And the problem for the Conservatives, one of the problems, is that the national polls overstate how strong they are because they run up big majorities in Alberta and Saskatchewan. And under our electoral system, it really doesn’t matter if you win by one vote or 10,000. So those big margins they get in Alberta and Saskatchewan and don’t help them in Quebec and Ontario and in Quebec and Ontario, they are way behind. There are some polls that have suggested that they could be in third place in Ontario. Ontario, of course, has the most seats in the country. So that is a very terrifying concept if you’re Erin O’Toole or his war room. And I’ll give you a specific poll here, this was Abacus Data’s recent national poll. And they have something they call the Accessible Voter Pool, which basically measures not how many people say they want to vote for a party, but how many people would be willing to entertain the idea of voting for a party. So this sort of captures a party’s available vote universe. And in 2019 the Liberals were at 50%, so basically half the country was willing to entertain them. Now they’re at 56%. The Conservatives in July of 2019 were at 48%. Now they’re at 41%. They’re behind the NDP in terms of people willing to consider voting for them, and they’re barely ahead of the Green Party. You know, if only four in 10 Canadians are even willing to think about voting for you, and six in 10 Canadians have written you off completely, you have a big, big problem.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How did they get there? Because not to dwell on the 2019 election too much but it was a really close election, and the Liberals were certainly seen as beatable in that election. And the fact that the Conservatives didn’t beat them is probably one of the things that led to Andrew Scheer’s exit as leader. So it was already a close election. You’ve got a brand new leader who’s supposed to be more moderate, and you somehow end up losing seven points of accessible voters. What happened?
Max Fawcett: I think there’s two key things that happened. The first one is the way that the Conservative Party of Canada picks its leaders, and they use a very complicated ranked ballot system where every riding in the country is weighted equally. And there’s a bunch of complex math that goes into tallying up who wins it. And the way it works is that you don’t just indicate your first choice. You can indicate your second and third choices as well. And so what that does is that it gives candidates like Maxime Bernier in the last leadership race and Derek Sloan in the most recent one, a lot more influence than they probably should have. And so you had Erin O’Toole throughout the course of the leadership race basically catering to Derek Sloan’s voters because he understood the math. He needed them to overcome Peter MacKay, who was the sort of stronger candidate. So he needed more second place votes. And it worked. He won the leadership and immediately tried to pivot sort of back towards the centre.
But the problem is voters had months and months, not just voters, the Liberal Party had months and months of Erin O’Toole saying things that were not centrist, you know, sort of an immaculate sin, in some respects. Or not immaculate sin, sorry, an original sin. And that he was tainted the day he was elected. And the Liberals have made good hay with that, as they should have been expected to. The other one was COVID. And I think COVID’s the big one. I think Conservatives and Conservative parties across the West have just misread this moment. They have not understood what the public wants and what the public needs from day one, more or less. They have been talking about the deficit and the public just wasn’t there. They wanted help, they wanted support, they wanted Big Government. And I think that misreading of the political room has cost them dearly. People look at what was done for them during COVID with the financial support, with the interventions. And they look at how the Conservatives talked about it, how they talked about masks, how they talked about vaccinations in some circles. And I think a lot of Canadians go, well, thank goodness they weren’t in charge. And they also probably look South of the border and what Trump did during the last year of his mandate and think again, gee, that could have been us.
The Conservatives failed the COVID test about as badly as you could, and I think they have to pay a price for that. There will be a political price to be paid. It will probably come in the form of a massive beating in the next election. And then it’s up to them. Do they want to learn from this experience? Do they want to find a way to build a modern centrist Conservative Party that appeals to enough Canadians, more than 41% of Canadians, in order to win an election? Or do they want to double down on oil and gas enthusiasm, talking about Alberta, talking about the oil and gas economy? And do they want to double down on hating Justin Trudeau, which, I got to tell you, hasn’t worked for them so far. They have hated Justin Trudeau as thoroughly as they possibly could for the last six plus years. And where has it gotten them? It has gotten them two election losses so far and headed for the mother of all election beatings this year.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Do we know much about who is in that pool of accessible voters or whose traditional support the Conservative Party has and has lost to find themselves in this fix? Because to me, to me, the Conservative Party has always been a party with a relatively high floor, and it seems like that’s kind of slipping away. And regardless of who you vote for in Canada, the lack of a second high floor party to hold the Liberals accountable is not a great thing.
Max Fawcett: Yeah. No, I agree. The Liberals are at their best when the Conservatives are at their best and vice versa. As Canadians, we need a robust and an effective opposition. And there’s a nonzero chance that after this election is over, that opposition could be provided by the NDP. And maybe we are in the middle of a secular shift in Canadian politics, where the Conservative Party fades into the position that the NDP once held and the NDP becomes the sort of viable contender that trades off with the Liberals. This has happened long ago in our past. It’s not inconceivable that something like COVID, which is a once in a lifetime, we hope, thing, would sort of trigger the same sort of reorientation.
But there’s a very interesting poll a couple of weeks ago that it’s segmented by age demographics, and the Conservatives were losing in every age bracket. And it’s not surprising that they’re behind the Liberals and the NDP among young people, but for them to be behind among older people, 55 to 64, is astonishing because that was always part of their base, was older Canadians, right. And I think you can draw a very straight line, very, very bold, very dark fonted line to COVID. I think the way the Conservatives talked about COVID and the way they talked about the lives of the people who would be most likely to be affected by COVID is having an effect on their polling numbers. I think there are definitely some older Canadians who said, you know what, if those guys are willing to trade my life for jobs or for the economy opening up, maybe they don’t get my vote next time. Now we’ll see if that holds. That may be a short term thing and come election time, maybe if the Conservatives spend the entire campaign talking about deficits and debt, maybe that brings some of those older Canadian voters back into their tent. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it didn’t, because I do think that for some of them, this was a wake up call or an eye opener about how the Conservative Party values their lives. And maybe that’s something that doesn’t go away.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: One of the really fascinating things to me about this discussion is that it’s really kind of trapped Erin O’Toole. And what I want to talk about now is how the party, or how O’Toole can lead the party forward. Like, is there a way to not quite piss off the base enough that they’ll reject the party while also pivoting enough to bring some moderates in? Because it really does seem right now that whatever line they’re trying to walk isn’t working. And I guess my question is, is there even a line that it’s possible to walk?
Max Fawcett: Yeah, it’s super, super tough. He has the hardest job in politics right now, probably, and no sympathy because he signed up for it. But like you say, it is the finest of fine lines to try to walk. And I honestly think Conservatives will, will say, well, of course you would say that you don’t like the Conservatives, and they’re correct on that front, but I think they need to find a new coalition. This is still them trying to hold together the Stephen Harper coalition. And the problem with that is that some of the further right people in the base that they don’t want to upset. The reason they don’t want to upset them is because they do the door knocking, they donate the money. They are, in some respects, the heart and soul of the Conservative Party of Canada as Stephen Harper has created it. The reason why he’s so careful not to alienate the base is because he understands that if he does, the blue Liberals that he might win over won’t donate as much money, won’t knock on as many doors, won’t push as hard to support the party. And it’s a really difficult trade to make. Trade five ultra-enthusiastic people who donate a lot of money for 25 people who are sort of indifferent but will support you if you moderate.
And so I think after the next election, let’s say the Liberals have a majority. They have four years to build a new coalition. And I think there needs to be a more profound assessment and reflection on what it means to be a modern Conservative Party and where that support is going to come from. I’ll give you an example, the young demographic that I think Conservatives have tended to write off traditionally, I think there’s lots of opportunity for them there. If they can get their heads right on climate change and the housing issue, there’s a lot of real estate for them to chew up on that front. I think certainly among new Canadians, there’s a great opportunity there if they’re willing to again abandon some of the nuttier stuff they’ve embraced in recent years, like snitch lines and anti facial covering policies and beliefs.
But that’s a big break from the party that they’ve been over the last 20 years. And I think something more like the Progressive Conservative Party of Brian Mulroney is what will work in 2021. You know, Mulroney was actually quite ahead of his time on the environment, on civil rights, on apartheid in South Africa. Like that is a party that would work, in my opinion. But as long as it remains beholden to a sort of Western, grievance-based culture in Alberta, it’s never going to get anywhere in Quebec and Ontario, and if you don’t get anywhere in Quebec and Ontario, you do not win elections in this country. That is just the math of the situation.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How do you get there? And this is a practical question, more than a strategic question. How do you execute that kind of pivot as a leader and as a party? Does O’Toole just walk into this coming campaign? Let’s say that they have some internal data that supports the move that you just discussed. Does O’Toole walk into this campaign and just start talking more like a moderate and start saying that the base doesn’t reflect the Conservative Party and kind of deal with the fallout? Or is it something more official, like back in the days when conservative parties would fracture and then unite and etc, etc?
Max Fawcett: Yeah. I mean, my gut instinct, and I have no data to support this, tells me that they need to trigger a break. I don’t love using this metaphor, but it’s a good metaphor. They need to remove the cancer from the party. If the body is going to survive, the cancer needs to die. And the cancer is that sort of rural Prairie, anti-climate-change, anti-immigration, anti-progress faction. And, yeah, you know what? They’ll lose some seats there, but they can still run the table in Calgary and Edmonton. Calgary and Edmonton are actually much more progressive than people outside of Alberta seem to think. They could win many seats in and around those cities. And, you know, if they lose 10 or 15 rural seats and pick up 30 or 40 in Ontario and Quebec, that seems like a darn good trade to me, but that will require courage.
I think of the Liberal Party after 2011. It really looked like the NDP had passed them, that Jack Layton was probably the new sort of progressive champion, that they would be the next ones to form government if the Harper government failed. And the Trudeau Liberals did that thing where they basically said, we’ll run deficits. We’re not afraid of running deficits. And that changed the entire 2015 campaign. And the Conservatives need a similar moment. They need a moment which is a clear break from the past that their party represents. The Martin and Chrétien Liberals, if there was one thing they stood on above all else, it was, We crushed the deficit, we reduced the national debt. We are fiscally responsible. And Justin Trudeau and his team turned that on its head and said, We’re not those Liberals. We’re new Liberals, we’re different Liberals. We’re Liberals that meet the moment that we’re in now. And the Conservatives have to do the exact same thing. They need a leader who is willing to make that break with their past, to take a leap of faith and see where it goes. And look, it’s scary for them because the wilderness is beckoning. They are very close to the tree line right now. But as you said in your question, like, this is not working for them. I don’t think they would be satisfied by continuing to lose elections over and over again. So at some point they’re going to have to strap their courage to their chest and try something different.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Max, thank you for this. And we’ll see what happens. There’s still, hey, listen, there is still an entire campaign to come, so we shouldn’t talk about what they should do in the next four years after they lose this one until they do.
Max Fawcett: It’s true, elections, campaigns matter. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see and pick this conversation up. This and when the election happens,
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Max Fawcett wrote about the Conservative Party of Canada and its current struggles for the National Observer. That was The Big Story. For more from us, including previous episodes with Max, you can find them at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can talk to us and Max, he’s always on there on Twitter anytime at @TheBigStoryFPN. You can find us via email, thebigstorypodcast, that is all one word, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And of course, we’re in your podcast player, wherever your podcast player is, just search for The Big Story. Look us up, follow, like, subscribe, rate, review, do all of that. And then, just for good measure, ask your smart speaker to play The Big Story podcast.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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