by Tasha Kheiriddin in Toronto
Red, blue or purple? As it nurses its bruises from the election, the Conservative party is asking itself what its complexion ought to be in the future.
Much of this will depend not just on the new leader, but on his or her team. Will they hail from the western wing of the party, or the eastern? Will they take up the anti-elitist tone favoured by grassroots populists, or the less strident strains of ‘Red Tory’ centrists? And how will they rebuild the “big tent” needed to gain and hold power?
Some say this tent was torn apart in the recent election. Truth is, it was never rebuilt after the merger of the Progressive Conservative and Alliance parties in 2003. Instead of a big tent, the Conservatives created a series of pup tents, formed of niche voter bases.
But while each niche got its own policy plank, there was no overarching cover — no shared narrative or idea — to keep them together and out of the rain. And sometimes, promises to one group actually had the effect of turning off other groups critical to re-election.
A salient example of this is the series of Tory policies, small and large, designed to please the party’s fundamentalist Christian base, situated chiefly in Western Canada.
These included the 2010 decision to explicitly exclude funding for abortion from Canada’s UN Maternal Health Initiative, reaffirmed in 2013 even for victims of rape. Over the years, this aspect of the initiative became a rallying cry for every pro-choice group in the country, overshadowing all the good things the initiative did — things which would have appealed to a broader group of voters.
Called on to defend the decision to withhold funding for abortion at the Munk Debate, Stephen Harper said that “we fund things that unite, not divide”. Coming from a party that loved wedge politics, this didn’t quite convince. The real rationale went more like this: since nothing would be done for “the base” on the abortion issue at home, something would be done overseas.
Alienating groups like new Canadians
This type of thinking also informed the creation of an ‘Office for the Defence of Religious Freedoms’ in 2013 to help persecuted religious minorities (such as Christians in China). Creating a new $5 million bureaucracy just as Ottawa was cutting back the diplomatic service elsewhere seemed counter-intuitive to many small-government conservatives — but it appealed to fundamentalist voters.
Then, during the 2015 election, it was revealed that the PMO was involved in suspending refugee applications for several weeks earlier that year, allegedly to give preference to certain groups that were being persecuted due to the conflict in the Middle East, notably Christians.
This decision contributed to alienating voters in other bases key to re-election, such as new Canadians and Liberal-Tory swing voters.
It also opened up the Conservatives to accusations of hypocrisy: Harper argued against religious fundamentalism when it offended the expression of gender equality rights (such as in the context of a citizenship ceremony), but then appealed to the religious beliefs of other supporters to get votes.
Worse, it fueled charges that Harper was an Islamophobe who wanted to keep Muslims out of the country.
'Faith should not drive party policy'
Then there’s the matter of the Conservative party’s support for the state of Israel.
While there are many reasons for Canada to support Israel as a strategic ally, a beacon of democracy and a homeland for the Jewish people, to fundamentalist Christians Israel also represents the Holy Land — the place to which they are convinced the Messiah will someday return.
For many voters, Harper’s refusal to criticize any actions taken by Israel — ever — went far beyond the bounds of an alliance and bred a sense of cynicism about his motivations. Ironically, this could end up hurting Israel instead of helping it, by undermining Canada’s status as a strong but fair defender of the Jewish state on the world stage.
Similarly, the Conservatives’ handling of the environment portfolio backfired against the greater interests of both the party and the country.
The Conservatives’ hostility towards the science of climate change went well beyond mere skepticism — and it held a certain appeal to anti-science fundamentalist voters.
But dragging Canada down to environmental pariah status had the perverse effect of killing the Tories’ pet project, the Keystone Pipeline, by giving President Barack Obama no political cover for approval. Keystone and other pipeline projects would have shifted more economic and political power to the West; the damage done to the Conservatives’ long-term prospects arguably outweighed any benefit they got from anti-science votes in the fundamentalist ‘base’.
The Conservative party’s future as a big tent party cannot rest on religious factionalism of any kind. Navigating the separation of church, party and state will be an important challenge for the next leader — right up there with balancing geography, ideology and all the other elements needed to rebuild the party.
The next person to assume the mantle of leadership must be a unifying, inclusive figure with a team to match. And Conservatives of all stripes need to recognize that while religion has a place in public discourse and the social fabric of our nation, faith should not drive party policy.
Tasha Kheiriddin is a political writer and broadcaster who frequently comments in both English and French. She is a political commentator on CBC News Network and CBC Radio and a columnist at the National Post and iPolitics.ca.
Published in iPolitics.ca.