Tory divide a painful lesson not learned by all

Jaime Watt Navigator Ltd.
Executive Chairman
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This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on September 23, 2018.

Ask any Canadian conservative about federal politics during the mid-’90s, and you will be met with a grimace. Just when right-of-centre provincial parties were making substantial headway across the country, the Reform, Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties were insisting on a futile battle for voter support that saw them languish in second, third or even fourth place.

Forming government became a distant dream as Jean Chrétien’s Liberals piled up victory after victory. The Liberals, powered by a divided conservative vote, won dozens of seats. They were able to dominate the federal landscape with the slimmest of pluralities.

The frustration of the divide eventually convinced partisans of its futility and intra-family reconciliation became sensible. Stephen Harper and Peter Mackay led a coalition of the willing into a united party that has proven successful: since the re-unification of the Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance, the Liberals have won only one majority government in five elections, and one slim minority.

It was a difficult and sometimes painful lesson. But now it seems it wasn’t a lesson learned by all.

Maxime Bernier has long been a unique character in the Conservative Party of Canada.

One of the Conservative party’s first Quebec members of Parliament, Bernier is a dedicated libertarian who has not always followed party orthodoxy and who ran afoul of Prime Minister Harper more than once.

Bernier, who lost the leadership of the federal Conservative party to Scheer by the slimmest of margins, has spent the last year chafing at the constraints of party discipline. As the year has dragged on, he has grown bolder and bolder with his comments, criticizing the direction of the party more loudly and publicly with each passing week.

Finally, the inevitable happened: Bernier announced that he could no longer sit as a member of the caucus, and that he would be forming his own party, the People’s Party.

Although Bernier’s party reflects his ideological leanings, his intention was clearly to poach from the Conservative base. Out of the gate, Bernier has criticized Andrew Scheer directly on a range of issues.

From Scheer’s commitment to maintaining the unfair dairy supply management system to his comparatively light-handed criticism of Canada’s refugee crisis, Bernier tacked right and did everything he could to position Scheer as a mushy moderate.

Such positioning may have worked in the 1990s with partisans, but the reaction to Bernier’s split among Conservatives was anything but warm. Joined by not a single member of caucus or high-profile Conservative party member, Bernier was left trumpeting that he was the voice for “the people.”

Let me not discount Mr. Bernier here: he is not wrong that there is a significant chunk of Canadian citizens who are frustrated with many of the issues he is championing. There remains a deep well of frustration on the same hot-button issues that got Mr. Trump elected.

What I would caution is that conservatives, both partisans and every-day voters with right-wing values, remember with great frustration the decade spent in the wilderness under a split conservative vote.

When the Reform party undercut the incumbent Progressive Conservative Party so effectively, it was because to a large extent it was able to exploit a significant feeling of alienation among western Canadians with the clarion call “the West wants in.”

The same mood does not exist today. What’s more, the Conservative Party’s most recent decade in power left many partisans satisfied with its advances. And its new leader is a conservative that is deeply familiar with the party membership’s values.

It’s not 1993. Mr. Bernier’s party is not going to take off merely by undercutting the Conservatives. Indeed, if his party is to find any success, it will rely upon scooping up votes of dissatisfied Liberals and Bloquistes in addition to disaffected Conservatives.

More likely than anything? Mr. Bernier’s party will fizzle, much as his parliamentary career did.

He has taken the first step, but that may well have been the easiest one.

Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.

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