How Canadian conservatives lost their nerve

Andrew Coyne on the big leads squandered by the Manitoba and Ontario Tories

How Canadian conservatives lost their nerve

Trevor Hagan/CP

Six months ago, the Progressive Conservative parties of Ontario and Manitoba were riding high. A Winnipeg Free Press poll in March gave the Conservatives a 12-point lead over the incumbent NDP, 47 to 35. The trend in Ontario was broadly similar: a March Nanos poll put the Conservatives nine points ahead, while as late as June, a Toronto Star poll had them 15 points up.

Yet the Manitoba Tories were defeated Tuesday, and the Ontario Tories suffered the same fate. What happened?

Neither could pretend they were up against an insurmountably popular leader. Dalton McGuinty, the Liberal premier of Ontario, was regarded as such a liability for his party—a poll in March put his approval rating at 16 per cent, just slightly ahead of Jean Charest among premiers—that they began the campaign with ads featuring McGuinty talking about how unpopular he was. Greg Selinger, the former NDP finance minister turned premier of Manitoba, was often compared to Paul Martin or Gordon Brown: solid enough, but without the popular touch of his predecessor, in this case the invincibly likeable Gary Doer.

So although both the Ontario and Manitoba Conservatives had relatively untested leaders in, respectively, Tim Hudak and Hugh McFadyen, they were hardly at a leadership disadvantage. Both are young, personable, the kind of unthreatening, soft-around-the-edges leaders that one supposes test well with focus groups.

The similarities do not end there. Both governments, in office for many years, are of the same cautious centre-left hue. Both have seen enormous increases in revenues in their time in office, partly stemming from economic growth, party from tax hikes, partly from rising federal transfers. And both of them have spent it all, much of it on pay increases for public employees, the better to buy labour peace. Thus both were in a fiscally exposed position going into the recession, and have since rung up deficits of quite alarming proportions. Both, in other words, were vulnerable.

I stress the similarities in the two elections, to make the point that the failure of the two Conservative campaigns was not coincidental. They failed for the same reasons, and the reasons are symptomatic of everything that has gone wrong with conservatism in Canada. Simply put, they gave voters no sense of who they were, what they stood for, or how they would change things once in power. They did so, not by accident, but as a matter of deliberate strategy: because, whatever they may believe, they do not believe the public believes it, or can be made to believe it.

In short, conservatives in this country, at least of the partisan, capital-C variety, have lost their nerve. They do not believe in themselves, yet somehow hope the public will. They reek of flop-sweat, calculation and guile, yet ask the public to trust in their leadership. They offer no alternative, yet campaign on “change.” It is a formula guaranteed to fail, as it has done, over and over again. Yet it is the one they return to, over and over again.

Hudak started the Ontario campaign with a disgraceful week-long assault on the “foreign workers” the McGuinty government was allegedly favouring in hiring. While his platform had some useful proposals on taxes and control of public spending, he chose to bury them in favour of ill-judged but headline-friendly gimmicks: taking the HST off heating fuel, say, or putting prisoners to work on chain gangs. He ended the campaign defending Conservative literature claiming the province’s schools were turning children into transsexuals.

McFadyen, for his part, seemed to spend most of the Manitoba campaign telling everyone what he would not do: he would not privatize the province’s power utility, or cut public services, or really change much of anything. His chief point of distinction with the NDP was a pledge to take four years longer than them to balance the books. Hoo boy: bad enough Hudak should have matched McGuinty’s complacent deficit reduction schedule, but to make the NDP the fiscal hawks in the piece takes some doing.

The Ontario Conservatives have lost three elections in a row with this same nicely-nicely, Clever Dick approach; the Manitoba Conservatives, four. At some point, you’d think it would occur to them: this isn’t working. But it never seems to.

So let me spell it out for them. Conservatives: unless you give voters a reason to vote for you, they will not. Until you trust in yourselves, they will never trust you. They can smell fear, and they can tell when people aren’t being straight with them. Don’t want to be accused of hidden agendas? Have an agenda. Don’t think you can sell that vision? Find another line of work. You’re in the persuasion business.

You seek power, and choose the policies you think will get you there. Instead, why not decide on the policies you believe in first, then seek power to put them into effect? Sure you might lose that way, but at least you keep your reputation, your raison d’être, and your self-respect intact. Whereas your way, even if you win, you lose.

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How Canadian conservatives lost their nerve

  1. Well said, Andrew, yet let’s consider one other crucial point: the Conservatives in both Manitoba and Ontario had nearly the exact same level of support as the party that won. Yes, they could have had more with a better vision, but they were screwed royally by a voting system that rewards efficient spread of the vote. The Libs in ON and NDP in MB managed to get a better geographic spread, which is hardly a vote of confidence. The voting system is the dealer in this house of cards.

    • Somewhat like the system that gave Steve Harper his latest mandate. I guess it works both ways.

    • True, but this is the only system in which conservatives would ever really have a chance most of the time.

      The analysis I’ve seen suggests that any other form of voting, ie Alternative Voting, Proportional Representation etc would result in more Liberal governments on average, and fewer conservative ones.

      The reason is simple. In Alternative Voting people rate their choices. The results based on historical polls is that for both Dippers and Cons, Liberals are the most likely second choice. In an Alternative voting system, this means that the bottom choice drops off and then the second choice is considered, which reinforces the Liberals more often than not.

      In terms of PR, Liberals and Dippers are far more likely to work together than either is with the conservatives, so in one form or another the Liberals are more likely to be part of the government.

      Frankly, I’d count my blessings if I were a conservative candidate.

  2. An otherwise salient an accurate take on the failure of the two PC leaders in both Manitoba & Ontario, the only quibble I have is with your characterization of Manitoba’s treasury being in the same relative mess as Ontario’s. In my estimation Selinger has been far less abusive towards the public purse than McGuinty. True, Manitoba is running a deficit of about $500 million & “a net debt of $12.8 Billion” (Reuters) that must be reigned in – but Manitoba’s situation pales when compared to that of Ontario. McGuinty is facing a horrific deficit of $16 Billion & is saddled with a debt of $235 Billion. Even when adjusted to reflect population differences between the two province’s, Ontario’s fiscal situation is arguably 2-3 times worse than Manitoba’s. Further, Selinger “the architect of 10 balanced budgets” (WFP) is much better positioned and able to address Manitoba’s current shortfall than McGuinty.

    • According to Manitoba’s Auditor-General, using Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, Selinger ran a deficit every year he was Finance Minister. The PC’s NEVER brought that up.

  3. Couldn’t agree more, Coyne. Any sense of conservative thought or ideas has totally disappeared from dialogue – all major parties sound and behave like Liberals. 

    As Iron Lady said, facts of life are conservative and Cons win elections when they focus on their ideology. Cons always lose when they sound/behave centrist because people vote for proper centrist party – Liberal – if that’s what they are looking for. I don’t understand why Cons don’t use Mike Harris as positive example of how to get yourself elected in supposedly Liberal provinces.

    Surely there is space in Canadian politics that favours the individual – socialists, reactionaries and religious want to control and improve us, how about party that protects individual liberty. 

    • “I don’t understand why Cons don’t use Mike Harris as positive example of how to get yourself elected in supposedly Liberal provinces.”

      Maybe because after two terms in which he eviscerated the province, he’s generally reviled?

  4. “You seek power, and choose the policies you think will get you there. Instead, why not decide on the policies you believe in first, then seek power to put them into effect? Sure you might lose that way, but at least you keep your reputation, your raison d’être, and your self-respect intact. Whereas your way, even if you win, you ”

    This could and should apply to the federal Liberals also. The party had long term structral issues but in my view really started to tank when they started to look over their shoulder and second guess themselves. Fearing to stand up against Tory fearmongering and ludicrous tough on crime policy, tax cuts[gst] and failure to live up to international laws and obligations[ environment, Kadhr, aboriginal rights] because that might make them unpopular in the face of relentless Tory branding machine. Instead they put the survival of the party ahead of their duty to defend their beliefs and represent the folks who did vote for them, only offering lukewarm and often cowardly tepid resistance, frequently backing down or abstaining.The public got the message – why should i support these guys when they can’t summon the gumption to believe in themselves?This cost them dearly with their own core supporters and  did nothing to attract new ones. Sure it was tough dealing on a daily basis with a fired up relentless propaganda machine like the new CPC, but what has being craven got them – third place status and possible extinction as a party. Better to live or die as a lion as Coyne says then slide into irrelevance.

    • Couldn’t agree more, kcm2.  We need people who stand for something to get elected, not just people who want to get elected. 

      • Absolutely!  And if you two haven’t joined the Liberals yet, could you do so to help hammer that point home?  We are winning now, I think, but I don’t know that the point has been awarded.

        • Good point. I’m mostly there Jenn. Rae has surprised and impressed me, as has the rhetoric at least coming out of the LPC. I’m just hampered by a little matter of un or under-employment right now.

  5. Yay, another article by a big government Liberal with palpable hatred for conservatism explaining what is wrong with conservatives, in a totally not self serving way.  Might as well ask Burger King to give a fair analysis of the quality of Big Macs.

    The Ontarians just re-elected a not very nice man who has increased government spending, Greece-style, 80%.  Coyne should be hammering Ontario for re-electing this unsustainably spendthrift goofball, instead, it’s the conservatives’ fault.  Blame the victim

    Ontario Tories got done in by an exceedingly hostile media, again, with help from “pollsters” who, for an nth consecutive election, overstated Liberal support and manufactured a scenario where Hudak was behind, when he wasn’t.  You and your comrades are the problem Mr. Coyne.  You and your magazine – have you ever read the damned thing? – are a nostop big government propaganda machine for Liberals and NDP.

    This isn’t 1992.  You can’t elect a fiscally conservative government anymore, especially in Ontario, it’s virtually impossible. We’re doomed, and that is a mathematical certainty.

    • Wow. Where to start?

      First of all, Andrew Coyne is about as conservative as it gets without selling out. Based on his fiscal and social views as expressed over the years, it’s hard to imagine a man more dedicated to fiscal conservatism than Andrew Coyne.

      I’m guessing that it’s his refusal to drink the social conservative koolaid and abandon rational discourse that has you confused? LOL


      Second, “blame the victum?” The only thing Hudak is victum of is lousy advice from his advisors. What kind of idiot thinks that chain gangs, xenophobia and homophobia are selling points for the average Ontarian during a recession?

      Oh yeah, and let’s spend millions to remove the smart meters we spent millions putting in place and remove market pressures from the pricing of electricity. What kind of conservative does that?

      The man handily defeated himself nearly as effectively as John Tory, despite McGuinty’s universal lack of popularity. I mean for pete’s sake, Hudak and Horwath should hide their damn heads.


      And finally, the media. Whine all you like, but if Hudak had something going for him besides gaff after gaff, he’d have won the night, with a minority at least.

      But no, he had to throw out the same type of stupidity that John Tory did with the religious school funding and knock his own people off message, repeatedly. Do you honestly expect the media, any media, to ignore this? Instead of reading about his policies, even the National Post had to write articles about this stuff, even if just to try and make light of it!

      Seriously Frank, get real. Hudak blew it. Huge.

      • I have to wonder if some Conservatives like being the victim so much, whether Hudak performed this way on purpose so as to play to his base.

        • “How Canadian Conservatives lost their nerve” an interesting title coming from a conservative that lost his nerve along with his self respect isn’t that right Mr. Coyne. How about that Liberal endorsement in the last federal election…did it get you invited to more parties in Toronto? Conservatives lost in Ontario and Manitoba because the national media absolutely hammered them, went on a fear mongering “EVERYTHING IS TURNING TORY!!” campaign, and worse yet lied about the records of the imcumbants like there was no tommorow…

          • Speaking as someone who was looking for an alternative to McGuinty who had a positive vision forward, Hudak blew it. I was looking for more than a half-baked platform and another round of attack ads.

            As my Liberal incumbent was hopeless, I’d already decided to park my vote elsewhere. I was looking close at the PCs as a result (as I’m a fiscal conservative; going further left wasn’t what I wanted to do).

            My riding is now NDP; despite going from Liberal to CPC federally, it went the other way when ditching the Libs provincially. (Personally, I went the protest route and voted Green for the first time.)

            There are a lot of factors that went into the PC loss. But assuming the voters are idiots was definitely one- and the one that lost them my support.

            Next time, come with a vision. Because, barring a miraculous turnaround, the Libs WILL be out on their ear next time – and if the PCs aren’t ready, then we’ll have Premier Horwath in four years.

      • ‘First of all, Andrew Coyne is about as conservative as it gets’

        Sure he is.  That’s why in a recent speech he said  “By any reasonable definition I am a socialist.” and went on to list all of the big government programs he supports, like public health care and such. 

        It also explains why he endorsed the federal Liberals in the last election, because voting Liberal is as about as conservative as it gets.  

        Maclean’s is an exceedingly left wing publication with a nearly 100% socialist comment section and readership, but that makes sense when you consider that its editor, Andrew Coyne, is about as conservative as it gets.

         Just because he’s a white guy in a suit who is economically literate people assume he’s conservative – he’s not, just ask him.

        • Frank, most Progressive Conservatives, including Hudak, are in fact socialist by definition. So are most Republicans for that matter.

          In fact there isn’t a single Western country that isn’t socialist, hate to break it to you.

          The more pertinent question in terms of political stance, is whether someone is fiscally conservative or not, since most people are socially liberal in the West. True fact.

          As for Coyne specifically, he’s vocally supported fiscal conservatism for as long as I can remember, and throughout Harper’s reign he’s been MORE fiscally conservative than Harper.

        • Coyne wrote a column explaining why he recommended a Liberal vote rather than a CPC vote.  I can get the link for you, if you are interested.

          Edit: Whoops, link below from some other kind reader.

    • Coyne a big govt liberal??…bet that one is causing some smirks at Macleans? He might be a small govt liberal, but since such a creature doesn’t exist[ more’s the pity] i doubt it.
      Otherwise noone likes sour grapes. 

    • Your accusation that Andrew’s analysis of Hudak’s demonstrable failure to resonate with Ontario’s voters is blaming “the victim” is surreal. Not to mention Palin-esque & absurd. Further, your contention that the evil leftist worshiping MSM “manufactured a scenario where Hudak was behind, when he wasn’t” is simply laughable. He was behind. Finally, your characterization of McGuinty as “not very nice man” is both irrelevant and in all likelihood untrue. Bottom line: Hudak isn’t a victim & you sir, have masterfully managed to incorporate standard issue US Tea-Party talking points into your comment. Kudos.

      • I was eating my lunch when I read “Not to mention Palin-esque …” and nearly spat it out in laughter. A word I must remember to use in the future.

        • Palinesque–would that be Michael?

  6. Well it’s true, the province’s schools ARE turning children into transsexuals!! I have a cousin from Quebec who used to be a lumberjack, drive a pickup, and eat two pounds of bacon every morning for breakfast. Then one summer he started going to night school to learn how to weld, and now BAM he’s a transsexual!! He went vegan and traded his truck in for a Toyota Echo.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

    • Lol – thanks for the chuckles CA. It’s that kind of odd correlation that many Conservatives use. Then they discount anyone with an education and an opinion as an ‘elite’ and that’s enough said.

    • So it’s true – the transsexuals have taking over the welding trade?  I knew they were edging their way into torch on roofing but this is shocking. 

  7. I don’t agree with absolutely everything Coyne said, but I agree that Hudak ran a terrible and stupid campaign.  And his apparent reluctance to talk about fiscal issues in any forthright way during the campaign was unforgivable, IMO.  I mean, if the two other parties in the race are being completely irresponsible and dishonest about Ontario’s budget situation, and you’re the third party in the race, AND you’re a “conservative” party, how about being the one party that actually talks straight and offers a genuinely fiscally responsible platform?  How about calling the other parties on their fiscal BS?  Instead, Hudak behaved more or less just like the other two.  The loser in this election was the Ontario voter, who got a bunch of crappy choices and generous helpings of dishonesty.

    • “The loser in this election was the Ontario voter.” Couldn’t agree more! I expect that accounts for the lowest-ever voter turnout. It certainly accounts for the Greens getting my vote this time around.

  8. People are still voting for a party whose main planks seem to be “Waste money we don’t even need to spend”, “build ‘SuperPrisons’ in a country with 30-year low crime rates across the board”, “lock up more non-violent criminals”, “import the failed policies of the USA (mandatory minimum prison terms for non-violent people)”, “If we don’t have enough ‘criminals’, write new statutes to CREATE MORE CRIMINALS”, “keep chipping away at Canadian Sovereignty at every opportunity”, and basically anything that the wilfully ignorant mind will swallow.

    Nobody cares that Emperor Harperius Mandatorius Minimus is directly responsible for the deaths in Walkerton.  Canada has completely forgotten all about that.  Nobody cares that he wants CHILD MOLESTERS out of prison earlier than grandmas growing a few plants.  Nobody cares that he refuses to discuss labelling of GMO “phudes” so that Canadians have a choice of safe, non-toxic, nutritious FOOD.  Nobody cares that he has  attacked all manner of natural food, supplements, minerals, medicines and more, which COULD have helped Canadians have a better quality of life, in favour of pharmaceutical toxins.

    There is a REASON why it is not referred to as “The Government of Canada” any more…and infinitessimally few people even care.

    “Many people would sooner die than think; In fact, they do so.”
      — Bertrand Russell
         British author, mathematician, & philosopher (1872 – 1970)

    • Cutting and pasting a Betrand Russel quote at the end does not mean your argument is either grounded or sane.

      • No, the Bertrand Russell quote doesn’t improve it, but you can’t improve being right.

    • Could you explain to me how Stephen Harper caused the deaths in Walkerton?

      • He allowed water quality requirements to be “eased” to save money which resulted in the death of 17 people.

        The people of Canada seem to have an even shorter memory than they do in the USA…but at least in the states, that’s changing…FAST!

        • You’re mixing up identities, timelines, and who knows what else. Get your facts straight.

        • Yeah, I do think that was Harris.  They both start with H, they both do things for terrible reasons, and they both treat the citizenry with utter contempt.  But, the DNA evidence would (probably) show them as different people.

          • I can live with being wrong on mentally misplacing one name for another, but the point that “our elected criminals” continue to do more invasive and costly things that do far more overall damaga to Canada than they do good, and we need to pay a lot more attention to what these “people” are doing, before it gets any worse.

            A good example is “The Harper Goveernment’s” push to criminalize all forms of natural herbs, supplements, minerals, medicines and foods.  There is a REASON they are doing this, and a ten second search on “Codex Alimentarius” will give more than a subtle hint of what that reason might be.  Another example is Emperor Harperius’ attack on cannabis…even as more and more evidence around the world comes back with almost glowingly positive results in the treatment of cancer, diabetes, psoriasis, muscular dystrophy, alzheimer’s, ALS, and that’s not even touching on the full range of positive effects of cannabis.  You can google “Granny Storm Crow’s List” for HUNDREDS of reports that completely contradict Harperius’ “politicalogic.”

            Of course, it will be very interesting to see how Bill C-10 is going to work out…with child molesters being released earlier than growers of safe, non-toxic, natural, effective plants…personally, I’d rather have my neighbour growing a few plants than molesting my children…but then, I’m not a politician…it’s not in my best financial interest to destroy the lives of other people “for political points” among those who have never been told the truth behind what is really going on, and who could never be considered “informed voters.”

            http://PhoenixTears.ca contains much information that Emperor Harperius is trying to keep YOU from learning…

  9. Andrew should know that every party has a policy and that the leader represents that policy.  Those who take the time to read these documents can readily see the positions of the various parties and the issues.   Elections somehow seem to be about other things and party policy becomes submerged. As Kim Campbell once stated, “Elections are no time to discuss policy.”  Maybe policy is not as sexy as election platforms.  That might be the media’s fault.

  10. Yep. Just look at guys like Mike Harris and Ralph Klein. Here’s what I’m going to do, vote for me if you like it, f*** you if you don’t. Hugely successful Conservative premiers.

  11. Let’s get to the real truth here. Conservatives lost this election because of Stehen Harper. Canadians are waking up to the fact that he and the CONS do not represent Canadians. They only represent Big Business, the elite and themselves. Gone forever are the Conservatives unless they get rid of Harper and start representing the majority of individuals in Canada. Corporations can’t vote, while people can.

    • Of course Stephen Harper and the CPC represent Big Business.  That explains why in the very first act they tabled, the Accountability Act, they banned corporate donations.

      Harper represents elites?  Of course, that would explain why John Geddes’ most recent article is entitled ‘Senate reform: it’s Harper vs. the experts—again’

      Because nothing screams catering to the “elite” by repeatedly ignoring them.

  12. I like to think that Manitobans and Ontarians have woken up to the horror that is Harper and his Conservatives, and have said No Thanks to the provincial parties that seemed at times to have parroted Harper and his policies.

  13. In my view, people simply think that one conservative government in this country is enough.

    • “How Canadian Conservatives lost their nerve” an interesting title coming from a conservative that lost his nerve along with his self respect isn’t that right Mr. Coyne. How about that Liberal endorsement in the last federal election…did it get you invited to more parties in Toronto? Conservatives lost in Ontario and Manitoba because the national media absolutely hammered them, went on a fear mongering “EVERYTHING IS TURNING TORY!!” campaign, and worse yet lied about the records of the imcumbants like there was no tommorow…

  14. Acutally, the same criticism could be levelled at  the federal Liberals – particularly the statements  “…unless you give voters a reason to vote for you, they will not. Until you trust in yourselves, they will never trust you. They can smell fear, and they can tell when people aren’t being straight with them.”  In my view, the recent election results both federally and provincially are not really about the opposition parties’ failures, but about incumbent parties’ advantage during times of economic uncertainty. 

  15. One factor that should not be underestimated: the Liberals offered a bigger bribe than the PCs.  Hudak pledged to do away with “smart meters” (a burden that has not yet hit Ontario voters), while McQuinty promised to reimburse university tuition (a burden that is already known).  I suspect that more students voted in this election than is usual in provincial elections. 

    Another point against the PCs was no doubt the spectacle of conservative corruption in the US.  People are angry against banks, big business and “the rich” generally.  The Wall Street protests helped to keep these issues in the minds of Ontario voters

  16. Mike Harris was the last PC leader in Ontario to espouse conservative views. Eves, Tory, and now Hudak either do not believe in conservative values or are reluctant to talk about them. “Me too” Liberalism under a conservative banner is a dismal failure. Why would anyone want to vote for a diifferent name but the same old policies? Hence many voters stayed at home. Some of us were fortunate enough to have true conservatives to vote for (eg Hillier and MaLaren).

  17. The fact is that most Canadians believe in a role for government in their lives.  The party that will win is the one with a rational plan for making the bloated bureaucracy more efficient and responsive — NOT the one who proposes to do away with it. (Hint — simply proposing to cut departmental budgets will NOT create more efficiency — it will create less as the top bureaucrats rush to guard their turf).

  18. Well said, yes. But I hope Conservatives stick to their
    Principles( LOL) and continue to refuse intelligent advice. The country will be better off for it. Now if the centre could just get their act together against otherwise very thorough clever and wildly effective campaigning, Canada could have a government again.

  19. Andrew it is clear Hudak had a Social Conservative Agenda and the most baffling thing is why people like you constantly ignore the fact that none of us want to be ruled by weirdo religious folks who want to impose their beliefs upon us.

    You lie in print here only to save yourself from dealing with real harsh reality: in high school we called them social retards for a reason and this term social conservative needs to be properly rogered out of existence as it simply allows fringe loons a safe haven in otherwise sensible parties.

    Religious compulsion to impose their own p.o.v. using the full power of the state on everyone else is the problem bud. Deal with it.

    It is entirely disingenious to say they did not have an agenda that was clear to all. Your wishful thinking has got to stop.

  20. “why not decide on the policies you believe in first, then seek power to put them into effect? Sure you might lose that way, but at least you keep your reputation, your raison d’être, and your self-respect intact.”

    Awesome quote. Standing up for what you believe in has an effect within the system in the long run which is substantial. I’d also argue that the same case can be made about voters and strategic voting. And, the same long-term effect is felt. If you voted Lib instead of Green to defeat the CPC, what message is really sent? If you voted NDP to defeat Bloc when you support Conservatives, what message is really sent?

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