As much as many Tories may be pleased with the choice of Andrew Scheer as their new national leader, I can’t help but feel for Maxime Bernier, who was widely expected to win, and put on the bravest of faces Saturday night at the Toronto Congress Centre when he failed to deliver.
During a post-convention scrum, Bernier swatted away many questions about party unity, his future, and the newfangled selection process the party used. Then I asked him: “How crushing is it to lose on the 13th ballot, by one point, after leading on 12 straight ballots?”
Bernier froze, tried to find the words, but nothing came out. Nothing. He looked as if he was going to cry, then just walked away. I couldn’t blame him.
But the outcome of this race involves much more than personal loss for one candidate, or the installation of a new federal leader. The other big takeaway from this contest relates to a brewing storm in conservative circles in Ontario politics: the role of social conservatism.
Scheer, while not particularly strident in tone, can still reasonably be counted a social conservative. He voted against Bill C-16 (which extends human rights protections based on to transgender Canadians); voted against Bill C-14 (which allows for medical assistance in dying); and is believed to oppose both abortion and same-sex marriage (though in keeping with Harper-era policies, he does not support reopening those debates). The national race proved that social conservatives are still an influential force in Canadian politics. If you combine Scheer’s and Brad Trost’s support in the later rounds of voting (Trost is more outspoken on these matters), one could infer that 40 per cent of voting party members think a leader’s respect for social conservatism was important.
It’s a divide in the province as well: Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown has been engaged in a problematic back-and-forth with social conservatives in his own party, mostly over the issue of sex education. Brown has tried to move the PCs closer to the centre of the political spectrum and, as a result, has had some bitter dustups with provincial SoCons, publicly chastising that wing of the party.
It’s gotten so bad that former MPP Peter Shurman recently mused that social conservatives are about to stage a revolt within the party. No one knows what form that could take. At the moment, the social conservatives are just making Brown’s life very frustrating. But Shurman suggested if things get worse, it wouldn’t be impossible for them to leave entirely and start their own party.
The latest sign of trouble in Team Brown unfolded over the weekend, when one of the party’s biggest critics of political correctness either got tossed from the caucus by the leader or quit to join a fledgling outfit. Jack MacLaren, the MPP for Carleton-Mississippi Mills, has run afoul of his leader several times in the past for what is either awfully poor political judgement, or an unwillingness to quite literally tow the party line. The latest brouhaha, in which a video surfaced of MacLaren making critical comments about the province offering French language services, was apparently the last straw for Brown. MacLaren will now sit in the legislature as a member of the Trillium Party, which is much further to the right than the Progressive Conservatives.
MacLaren’s departure alone hardly signals a split in Brown’s party. But rumours abound that another, larger caucus departure is in the works. Any splinter parties that are created as a result are unlikely to win any seats, but they could surely split the conservative vote, harming Brown’s electoral prospects in 2018 — and improving them for the Liberals.
Meanwhile, Scheer won the federal leadership, in part, because he put himself forward as the best candidate to keep the conservative coalition together and happy in one big blue tent: economic conservatives, social conservatives, progressive conservatives, libertarians, deficit, spending hawks, and so on.
Brown is learning that is an immensely difficult job. But the reality for every Ontario Tory leader is that without finding a way to mollify all those disparate elements of the party, the chances of winning government are vastly smaller. Premier Mike Harris (1995-2002) figured that out. So did Premier Bill Davis (1971-85). Ernie Eves, John Tory, and Tim Hudak didn’t.
The federal outcome is a good indication that that the social conservatives in Ontario’s blue tent are larger in number and influence than many thought. How Brown both placates and includes them in his conservative coalition may determine whether he becomes premier next June.
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