The 2019 federal election is beginning to fade from the collective memory of Canada as the Liberal government continues on in its agenda- life is as it was before. But for conservatives, particularly the Conservative Party of Canada, this should be a time of deep introspection and reassessment. This election was well within the grasp of the Andrew Scheer and his party. The incumbent party was embroiled in scandal and many opinion polls saw the country warming back up to the right. Yet, despite receiving the majority of votes, the CPC failed to unseat Trudeau’s Liberals. Why was this the case?
In the age of extreme polarization and western populism, the centrist falls to the wayside.
There seem to be two dominant perspectives regarding the CPC’s inability to win elections. The first is that social conservatism has held the party back. Those holding this position call for the liberalization of the party’s message, ardently believing that if the conservatives move to the left on social issues, then they will finally garner from the broad centre the votes they need to execute their fiscal platform. The second line of thinking, while not mutually exclusive from the first, is nevertheless distinct from it. This perspective asserts that Quebec’s inaccessibility to the conservative party has forced the party to seek out votes in Southern Ontario, which, in turn, demands that they moderate their platform in order to appeal to left leaning urban and immigrant ridings.
In the age of extreme polarization and western populism, the centrist falls to the wayside. Rather than moderation, it is a movement towards social conservatism that has pushed so many of the successful right-wing parties to their victories. In the United States, the insurgent campaign of Trump overpowered the moderates of the Republican party and managed to flip crucial deep blue states, states that had previously voted Democrat due to the party's past associations with their large working class populations. The Trump phenomenon was constructed on populist policies: promises to reduce immigration, to tariff foreign goods, to remove illegal immigrants, et cetera. These promises all served to bring relief to a working class that had seen no benefit from the system for decades. Wages, affordable living, and employment opportunities had all evaporated before their eyes as their jobs were shipped overseas. This method was also employed to great effect in the United Kingdom, wherein the Brexit leaders were able to capture mass swathes of working class voters from their labour opponents by promising to reduce immigration and defend British industry. This was recently repeated with Boris Johnson’s overwhelming rout of Labour from their strongholds. It is apparent, then, that conservatives have been achieving success through conservative social policies and appeal to the middle class, rather than by shifting party politics to the social centre.
Social conservatism has seen success in other countries as well. The socially conservative, pro-family policies of Hungary have been very popular electorally, while also achieving the goal of raising the nation’s fertility rate. Interestingly enough, the same type of pro-family policies can be found within Quebec, where the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) focuses on lessening the financial burden of having children, enabling the Quebecois to improve their fertility rate above the national average from its unprecedented low in 2000. Furthermore, Canadians, more so than Americans, are opposed to mass immigration. In 2017, an American Gallup poll found that 35% of Americans wanted lower immigration, whereas an Angus Reid poll in the same year found that 49% of Canadians wanted lower immigration. According to the same polls, only 6% of Canadians wanted higher immigration, compared to 24% of Americans. Immigration is not a losing issue in Canada, yet it seems to be one that the CPC is unwilling to engage with.
The second argument generally hails from academia, with perhaps the best example being Gordon et al’s 2019 article The two solitudes of Canadian nativism: Explaining the absence of a competitive anti‐immigration party in Canada, wherein they suggest that Quebecois nationalism fractures anti-immigration sentiment within the country, by forcing Canadian conservative movements to moderate their messages and appeal to ethnic voters concentrated in left-leaning Southern Ontario ridings. In short, populist or nativist movements cannot gain momentum in Canada due to Quebec being electorally inaccessible to the right wing. The Conservatives must then turn to Southern Ontario for the votes necessary to carry a majority government. In order to do this, they moderate their message in the manner suggested by Peter Mackay. Yet the blame for Canada’s lack of populism cannot lay on the shoulders of Quebec for two reasons. Firstly, the CAQ and the BQ respectively are inherently populist and more ‘conservative’ than the federal conservatives, as evidenced by their immigration reductions and pro family policies. Rather than fearing the state, the Quebecois are willing to employ its tools for the good of the people within it. This is in line with the conservatism of Canada’s founding, wherein conservatives were willing to use government expenditure in pursuit of public works for the betterment of the nation.
Rather than Quebec being the cause of Canada’s lack of nativist movements, I would suggest that it is merely a symptom resulting from within Canada’s conservative institutions. The CPC’s Americanization has resulted in their inability, or perhaps their unwillingness to speak to Quebec, prompting them to steadily drift to the left in the hope of appealing to Southern Ontario. This was briefly achieved in 20011 when the memory of the recession was still fresh and liberal votes were split between a weak Liberal party and a strong NDP. However, since the fall of Harper, the conservatives have failed to make any meaningful gains in Quebec. Harper took 6 Quebec seats and Scheer managed 10. Furthermore, Harper in 2015 and Scheer in 2019 both failed to secure 30% of the seats in Ontario, winning 33 and 36 ridings respectively. In short, the CPC are not winning on a moderate fiscally focused platform. They are not winning Ontario and they are not making headway in Quebec. Without either of these provinces, it is impossible for the CPC to win a majority government. Any argument asserting that the recent loss was due to Andrew Scheer’s social conservatism, milquetoast though it may be, is incorrect. Scheer went to great lengths to keep social conservatism out of the platform. The entire CPC platform for the 2019 election makes no mention of abortion, or marriage. The most socially conservative policy one could point to on the platform would be their desire to close illegal entry points.
The future of Canadian conservatism is in peril. Barring a paradigm shift from the CPC, they will fade into irrelevance, unable to offer the public a positive vision of the future that is realistic. The party’s stubborn refusal to embrace the populism that has found so much success in analogous western nations will ensure the party’s decline. Andrew Scheer gaining more votes than Justin Trudeau is entirely irrelevant when the party is unable to appeal to critical working class and Quebecois voters who have historically been enthusiastic in their support of Canadian populism. The last time a conservative party in Canada appealed to social conservatism and economic populism, it secured the largest electoral win in the country's history. John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative party in 1958 overwhelmingly won the entirety of Canada despite heavy opposition from the political and media institutions of the day, winning two hundred and eight seats. The modern CPC conservatives can barely win one hundred and twenty, despite there being significantly more seats "in play". In 1958, Diefenbaker won fifty seats in Quebec, securing almost the entire province, with the exception of a number of Montreal ridings.
Canada’s right wing finds itself at an impasse. The party, despite its brief resurgence during the reform era, has returned to the neo-liberalism of Mulroney. Corporatism and austerity are not winning platforms when the majority of Canadians are living paycheck to paycheck. The conception of the Canadian government as simply the manager of an economic zone is not electable. They must look to the wellbeing of the nation and the people who comprise it. The progenitors of Canadian conservatism understood this well. Canada's early success was as a result of social conservatism, combined with a willingness to use government debt to fund national projects. This was the conservatism of John A Macdonald, and of John Diefenbaker. American style libertarian-conservatism is failing even in its home country. We live in an age of global uncertainty, where the politics of concession have nothing left to offer. If Canadian conservatives want to lead this country into the future, they must return to their roots.