Trumpist views don't add up for Conservatives
Stephen Harper spent the better part of two decades hammering Preston Manning's Reform Party into a shape that could be palatable to a plurality of Canadians, in all regions of the country. His crowning political achievement was the Conservative majority victory of May 5, 2011.
The Canadian Trumpist movement, led by the charisma-challenged Kellie Leitch, the oleaginous Steven Blaney and soon the trash-talking Kevin O'Leary, is unravelling Harper's life's work by the day.
You may recall how, in the summer of 1991, Manning -- with policy advice from an ambitious young Stephen Harper -- made a concerted push into Ontario, establishing riding associations and identifying potential candidates. Some of those early meetings were marked by what later became known as bozo eruptions: anti-immigrant, anti-Quebec, sexist or intemperate remarks that painted Reform in a xenophobic light.
Manning worked hard to excise that element from his movement. But in a grassroots party such as Reform was, the filter is limited. If you liberate speech you're going to get some nuts. There were electoral consequences. Though Reform broke through in the 1993 election, taking 52 seats, only one was east of Manitoba.
The history is relevant because it reminds us of the important ideological shift Harper made on his road to lasting power. He not only learned French, but became fluent. He set aside Reform's one-size-fits-all constitutionalism in favour of, in 2006, recognition of the Quebecois as a nation. Though reportedly an evangelical Christian himself, Harper repudiated any religious-conservative drift in the party, tamping down efforts to revive the abortion debate.
From an electoral standpoint, Harper embraced new Canadians. That effort was critical to the party's winning key Greater Toronto Area seats in 2011. In that sense the party's most controversial gambit of the 2015 election, an attempt to capitalize on resentment of the niqab, the veil worn by some Muslim women, was reckless, opportunistic and out of character. In 2015, new Canadians in Ontario shifted en masse back to their old home in the Liberal party.
Which brings us back to Leitch and Blaney. It would be unfair to suggest these two represent mainstream Conservative opinion. But Leitch has consumed much of the oxygen in the party's leadership race, to be decided in May, due to her immigration views. She wants to test immigrants for Canadian values. Blaney wants to ban the niqab. These are naked bids to ride Trump's coattails.
O'Leary (who has yet to officially enter the race but is expected to within days) is pro-immigration and an avowed pluralist. But his style is all Trump. He seems to believe that, if he talks enough trash about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the global populist wave will carry him up. The net effect is to draw attention and money away from other candidates much more in line with the principles of Harper-era conservatism: pro-free trade, fiscally conservative, socially progressive or neutral, pro-immigration. This list includes Maxime Bernier, Michael Chong and Lisa Raitt, among others.
Here's the problem for Tories: The electoral topography of Canada hasn't fundamentally changed. Liberal support remains at close to 44 per cent, according to poll aggregator ThreeHundredEight.com, with the New Democrats at about 15 per cent.
Even assuming the existing first-past-the-post system remains in place in 2019, the Conservatives will need to move from under 30 per cent, to close to 40 per cent, for a win. The quest for those votes will lead them directly back to the new Canadians in the GTA, and whom Leitch and Blaney are alienating right now.
This may be the era of Trump, down south. But electoral math is still electoral math.