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Conservative coalition: cracks and cranks

By: 
John Bell

April 6, 2021
Canadians are used to thinking that the Conservative Party of Canada we see today is one of the founding parties of the nation. In fact it has only been around a relatively short time, since 2004.
 
The old Tory party of the Orange Order staggered out of the 50’s and finally exploded with the historic defeat of the Lyin’ Brian Mulroney government in the 1993 election. Those Tories went from an unshakeable majority of 156 seats to just 2 seats – a rump if ever there was one.
 
The next election led to the debut of detestable Preston Manning, and his Reform Party. Essentially the western and more reactionary half of the old Tory coalition, the Reform Party was a hotbed of racism and bigotry. Manning inherited his influence from his father, Ernest, a conservative evangelist who had been quick to harness the power of a new media – radio – to build a mass following. That Manning was Premier of Alberta for over 20 years, winning 7 straight elections, as head of the Social Credit party. 
 
In a nutshell, elder Manning’s politics were a stew of theocracy and corporatism, a proto-fascist coalition ruled over by a leader wily enough to know that political survival required keeping the bigotry down to dog-whistle volume. Enough to know that Manning junior may have been Stephen Harper’s boss, but Manning senior was always his role model.
 
The stinky Winds of Change
 
Following Mulroney’s spectacular demise, it became clear that unless a new right-wing coalition could be cobbled together, yoking the anti-francophone, anti-abortion bigots from Alberta with the more pragmatic fiscal conservatives of the east, the Liberal Party would continue to be re-elected until the crack of doom. So in 1996 two young, up-and-coming right wingers organized the first of a series of Unite the Right conferences, “The Winds of Change”. Their names: David Frum and Ezra Levant.
 
After a few false starts (the Canadian Alliance years and that brief, shining moment when they decided to call themselves the Canadian Reform Alliance Party, aka CRAP) they finally found the right political figurehead for their project: Stephen Harper. Harper was canny enough to ditch the Reform Party name, and led the creation of the Conservative Party of Canada we know and loathe today.
 
Harper adopted Ernest Manning’s method: build an unassailable base in Alberta founded on a mixture of free-market economics of union busting, privatization and eroding public services, and anti-abortion, anti-immigration, anti-LGBTQ bigotry known as “social conservatism”. And like Manning, Harper knew that achieving his economic ends required keeping a tight lid on the zealots among his followers.
 
With his grim-set visage, soulless dead fish eyes and mannequin style helmet haircut, Harper was the polar opposite of a Donald Trump. But he was ruthless, clever, and ruled his new creation with an iron fist. He appealed to the far-right yahoos of the Reform Party, but warned them that winning their aims (recriminalizing abortion, rolling back same-sex rights, etc.) would take time, and need to be done in tiny incremental steps. His backbenches were populated by the evangelical far-right, but only rarely did he allow them off the leash to propose some private member’s bill aimed at restricting freedom of choice. These often came to naught, but the trial balloons were meant to slowly win over Canadian voters who in their majority support those freedoms, and to keep the bigots in line.
 
In a chilling interview to faithful after he stepped down as Party leader and “retired”, Harper was candid about how he went about being boss tory:
 
“I could have wielded a lot more power. I think I still easily could be leader of my party if I wanted to. I mean I’m de facto the founder of my party. And I could have turned the party into essentially a personal political vehicle if I had wanted. But that was not my goal. My goal in life – I’m driven by my political conservatism – my goal in life was not just to win an election and govern, my goal was to establish a long term conservative institutional force that would be a long term contender for power in government. So I was determined to establish an institutional organization that would outlive me, and would not need me down the road.”
 
It is interesting that he emphasized his own lack of demagoguery – but all that took place in a time before Trump. 
 
Harper had managed to rule for a decade through his Machiavellian plan, but as with any government too long in the saddle he began to sink beneath the weight of his own party’s corruption and a popular demand for change. (I remember the final days of the election campaign that ousted him: Harper went from the austere autocrat who disdained wild cards like Rob and Doug Ford, to a desperate figure begging for their support.)
 
And after those 10 years the “social conservative” bigots looked at their score sheets and felt like they have been manipulated and used – which was accurate. No new restrictions on abortion. Conservatives (some of them) marching in Pride parades. Indigenous people asserting their rights and obstructing the boom-town exploitation of natural resources. They were tired of loyally sitting in the back row, biting their tongues.
 
Torn between Harper and Trump
 
And along came Trump. He espoused most of their economic goals, touting business, slashing regulations with reckless disregard for science or social need, delivering massive tax cuts for the corporate elite. And he wasn’t afraid to marshal racism and bigotry to fuel support. He embraced the flag like a spaniel dry-humping its master’s leg. He lied brazenly, but he said what the social conservatives wanted to hear so they didn’t mind.
 
North of the border, the put-upon fringe dwellers of the Tory party – Derek Sloan, Brad Trost, Michelle Rempel, Michael Cooper, et al – looked at Trump’s success with envy. Maybe now was the time for them to rise.
 
Brad Trost ran for CPC leadership in 2017, and finished 4th. Most of the social conservatives supported Maxime Bernier, who lost by a whisker to Andrew Scheer in a scandal-plagued contest. But in the subsequent election the Tories were sunk, in part because of Scheer’s obvious inadequacy, but also because they fielded too many out-and-out bigots as candidates. More and more local riding associations were captured by Trump style activists. 
 
Did they or did they not recognize same-sex marriage? Was climate change real or not? Were they going to reopen the abortion debate? Andrew Scheer couldn’t give a straight answer to any of these questions, came out looking like a two-faced faker. How could it be otherwise; he was leader of a two-faced fake party.
 
Following their election loss they did the easy thing – blamed Scheer and tossed him overboard and then held another leadership contest, this one won by Elmer Fudd impersonator Erin O’Toole. The social conservative torch bearer this time was Derek Sloan. Sloan had no use for dog whistle politics; he openly opposed abortion rights, backed conversion therapy for LGBTQ youth, and denied climate change was real. 
 
Moreover, in the midst of the pandemic, Sloan ridiculed public health measures and opposed masking. He took the opportunity to whip up some anti-Asian hatred, playing the Trumpian “China flu” card and insinuating that Canada’s Chief Medical Officer Theresa Tam was a traitor. This came amid an effort to brand the Tories as the “tough on China” party, and it is worth remembering that Erin O’Toole defended his comments.
 
Although many delegates stated their admiration for his politics, they rightly questioned his electability and backed other candidates. Sloan won just less than 15% support on the first ballot and dropped out of the race. After the race was over Sloan continued to push the boundary of acceptable bigotry in the Tory party. The discovery that he had accepted a financial donation from Canada’s best-known Nazi, Paul Fromm gave Erin O’Toole the excuse to kick the potential rival out of caucus. Sloan currently sits as an independent MP.
 
Whither O’Toole?
 
O’Toole was chosen Tory leader with the support of many social conservatives, anxious to keep the hated Peter MacKay – the last vestige of the old progressive conservatives – out. Once in the saddle O’Toole began a PR campaign to convince voters that he and the Tory party were different. He tried to reproduce Stephen Harper’s trick of keeping the social conservatives muzzled. 
 
How’s that going? The climate change issue is a bellwether. Polls showed that their lack of a clear policy on climate change lost the Tories many votes outside of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Entering its recent policy convention, O’Toole made a speech aimed at both Tory delegates and voters at large, in which he pledged to come up with an action plan for climate change.
 
Tory delegates rewarded him by voting 54% to 46% against recognizing that climate change was real. O’Toole issued a statement to the effect that he didn’t care what his own party thought, they were going to campaign as being “willing to act” on climate change. His braintrust released a video clip of O’Toole pacing the stage like a caged tiger, talking about how he takes environmental stewardship most seriously because he is “a conservative”. None of them noticed it was released on April Fool’s Day to a fresh round of ridicule.
 
How will that sit with potential voters? Is this a party of backward bigots, or one which has to suppress the ideas of its own majority for cynical, pragmatic purposes? Either way, they lose.
 
O’Toole has already proven he is no Stephen Harper when it comes to papering over the cracks and cranks in his unite-the-right coalition. He needed the support of the far-right for his leadership bid, but was quick to veer toward the middle once elected. But he didn’t command the fearsome presence of Harper, required to drag his party with him. 
 
So April finds O’Toole rubbing elbows with a vivid assortment of bigots, haters and conspiracy theorists at the “Canada Strong and Free” conference (this is the same old Manning Centre conference to empower and mis-educate the Canadian far-right, rebranded to appeal to the anti-vax, anti-mask crowd). There he shares the spotlight with the creepy like of Tony “Dick Pic” Clement, former UK Tory PM David “Pig Fucker” Cameron, Islamophobic author Douglas Murray, and noted anti-LGBTQ crusader Tanya Granic Allen. Oh yes, Brian Lilley will be there too, although it isn’t clear whether he represents The Sun or the Doug Ford conservatives. Here, away from prying eyes, O’Toole can work at shoring up his support from the “Make Canada Great Again” crowd.
 
Readers who know me know I detest the Trudeau Liberals. But if I were them, I would be rubbing my hands with glee at the prospect of an election campaign against this creaky, foundering coalition. The cracks are widening, the cranks are feeling frisky, and the leader is revealing himself to be a hapless nebbish. Stephen Harper’s life goal is in serious jeopardy.
 
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