The Conservatives are running out of time to expand their tent

Conservatives were given their first chance in a decade to reach out to people who hadn’t considered them before. So far, they haven’t done that.

Conservative Party leader candidates, from left, Lisa Raitt, member of parliament (MP), Andrew Saxton, former member of parliament (MP), Chris Alexander, former minister of immigration, Rick Peterson, venture capitalist, Brad Trost, member of parliament (MP), Andrew Scheer, member of parliament (MP), Michael Chong, member of parliament (MP), Erin O'Toole, member of parliament (MP), and Steven Blaney, former minister of public safety, participate in the Conservative Party of Canada leadership debate in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (Ben Nelms/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Conservative Party leader candidates gather for a debate in Vancouver, B.C. in February, 2017. (Ben Nelms/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In a couple of weeks, we’ll reach the end of the tent-growing phase of the Conservative Party leadership race. When Stephen Harper quit the leadership over a year ago, the Conservatives were given their first real chance in a decade to inspire their thinking, broaden their membership base, reach out to people who hadn’t considered them before, develop a fresh and appealing pitch.

So far, anyway, the party hasn’t exactly made the most out of the opportunity.

Conservatives want you to trust them with your money. But this is a Party which is struggling with math. To start with, however the Party set the rules for entering the race, they’ve got to fix it for next time. Fourteen people are running, at least six of whom ideally would have given the race a pass. Their contribution is to make a race so crowded it rarely gets interesting.

On a range of policy issues, the Conservatives seem determined to re-create the same coalition of voters that supported them in 2015, when they were handed their hat. Stephen Harper’s party bet heavily against compassion for refugees and tolerance towards Muslim immigrants. Most observers in the Party acknowledged that the low point of the campaign was when Kellie Leitch and Chris Alexander stood at a podium to announce that Canada needed a special measure—a toll free snitch line—to report the barbarism of your next door Muslim.

MORE: Why won’t anyone quit the Tory leadership race?

That didn’t work very well. But both those former Ministers are running, and hanging out with the Ezra Levant crowd which never wants to talk about anything else. Too often the only news about this race was the fight over who cares enough to keep Canada ‘Canadian’, if you know what we mean.

It’s not like there are no voters who share these feelings—but the number is somewhere between 15 per cent and 25 per cent, depending on whether you measure racial intolerance or a desire to curtail immigration.

When it comes to climate change, 13 of the 14 candidates oppose pricing carbon to help shift energy use towards renewable and cleaner energy. It’s one thing to not like carbon pricing, but to have no other climate solutions to offer? A definite tent-shrinker. Only 16 per cent of Canadians say they are “ardent environmentalists,” which helps explain why the Green Party and the NDP hit limits. But only 12 per cent say they care little about the environment. Having at least something to say about climate change is table stakes for the other 88 per cent.

As my smart, (younger) colleague David Coletto has been documenting carefully over the last few years, by the time the next election rolls around, baby boomers will no longer be the largest cohort of voters—millennials will.

RELATED: Can Conservatives reach out to young Canadians?

You don’t have to be elbows deep in polling data to know intuitively what we see in our studies—that most young people are progressive and open minded, global in outlook, interested in new ideas, compassionate about the refugees, concerned about climate change, and inspired by technology and innovation.

Kevin O’Leary’s is tone deaf to these voters. His pitch in a nutshell: nothing in life matters but money. Younger voters want smart, creative thinking about how to shape an evolving Canadian economy in a constantly disrupted world. They want a society that’s welcoming and open, not suspicious, anxious and closed.

Maxime Bernier might win this race. If he does, will it be because so many conservatives share his enthusiasm for the radical policy changes he’s proposing? Probably not.

More likely it will suggest that Conservative members were wise enough to reject the obnoxious campaigns of O’Leary, Leitch, Blaney and Trost—but couldn’t get their heads around appealing to voters open to conservative ideas on some issues, but progressive on others, and interested in a plan that feels tuned for the next decade and beyond.

With just a couple of weeks before the tent is closed, it’s unlikely that the shape and tone of this race will change much. But for those of us who believe Canada needs a competitive, viable centre-right alternative, we can hope.


Bruce Anderson has been a prominent pollster, communications counsellor and political analyst in Canada for many years. Earlier in his career, he worked on election campaigns for both the Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals, but does not work for any political party now. For several years he was a regular member of CBC’s popular At Issue panel. He is the chairman of Abacus Data and Summa Communications. He wishes readers to know that one of his daughters is director of communications to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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