After Harper, what will Canadian conservatism become?

Beaten back to its core in the west, the debate begins over the fate of the Conservative Party for the first time since its founding


As Stephen Harper left the stage on Monday night, murmurs grew to a wide-open conversation for the first time in a decade. That conversation about the fate of the party—its leadership, its direction, the very meaning and purpose of Canadian conservatism—will only grow in the next weeks and months, in a party so used to operating strictly on talking points in public, if in public at all.

Being firmly shut out of power until 2019 is a harsher blow than Conservatives expected, but it gives them the luxury of time to figure out their flavour of renewal. The party was shut out almost entirely from Canada’s big cities and suburbs, losing in nearly all the crucial multicultural ridings cultivated by Jason Kenney, the man blessed and cursed with the “heir apparent” rap. The downsized, 99-member caucus is once again dominated by seats west of Manitoba, though the party can’t even claim that the West is its sole dominion. It only claimed 54 seats in that region, compared to 50 for the Liberals, NDP and Greens.

Related: A transcript of Stephen Harper’s concession speech

The debate could devolve into reductionist dichotomies: a leadership contest pitting a Western leader versus an Eastern leader, a Reformer versus a Red Tory, Jason Kenney versus Please No Not Him, perhaps with former Ontario minister Michael Chong playing the third-way maverick. But around this will form some more profound questions: Does the party need a new direction, or will some sort of new tone give it a fresh enough appeal to become ascendant in the post-Harper era?

Already, voices that often stayed quiet or private want to go on record, as happens after defeat. The day after the election, longtime Harper campaign war-room hand Ken Boessenkool spoke out about his belief that a woman like Lisa Raitt or Rona Ambrose should become leader, instead of the short list of males, after victories by premiers Kathleen Wynne, Christy Clark and Rachel Notley.

“Women beat men in Canadian politics right now, and if we don’t take proper stock of that, especially against a person like Justin Trudeau, we’re asking for trouble,” Boessenkool said. The Calgary-based strategist insists this isn’t a swipe against Kenney, but adds: “Jason has a very difficult thing to answer in the next short while. What he wants to do . . . I’m not sure he knows,” he said.

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives a pair of thumbs up gestures as he gives his concession speech after Canada's federal election in Calgary, Alberta, October 19, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper gives a pair of thumbs up gestures as he gives his concession speech after Canada’s federal election in Calgary, Alberta, October 19, 2015. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

For the buzzing clamour about the need for a next leader from Central Canada or the East, there’s agnosticism from Ontario’s John Capobianco of the Mike Harris-era Progressive Conservatives. “Nobody cared that Justin Trudeau was from Quebec at the end of the campaign. It becomes a question about the leader’s style and what the leader can do with the party; the candidates she can bring to bear.”

The Tories won’t just have to figure out how to return to government. They’ll also have to figure out how to behave in Opposition, liberated from the old message loop imposed on them by the old leadership. Engaged political watchers would have had to be reminded during the campaign that solid Ontario ministers Peter van Loan and Tony Clement were actually still in the picture and hadn’t joined Peter MacKay, John Baird and James Moore on the political sidelines.

The social conservatives consistently shushed by Harper could also feel free to begin humming their tunes on issues such as abortion—and with a more rural and small-town caucus, they’ll have more clout, probably to the horror of remaining Conservative moderates and to the delight of their rival parties. The vast majority of them will be in opposition for the first time, requiring them to mix up their messages and sometimes shout to be heard above the new Liberal government. In those shouts, the embarrassing moments Harper had grown to fear may come out, but so could new ideas and perhaps new party stars.

Many in the party, ashamed of campaigning on the status quo, want bold policies to come out atop of the existing small-c conservative foundation they don’t think is faulty. Being the party of “No,” as the U.S. Republicans became, can get old fast when the government has a thicket of new ideas to enact and all the critics have is panic about high spending.

There will be polarizing figures and spiteful comments in a possibly long, bitter leadership race. The party will have big internal debates for the first time since its formation in 2003, when the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives merged under Harper. Will it descend into madness or fissure? Conservatives know full well what happens when Red and Reform divorce.


After Harper, what will Canadian conservatism become?

  1. When did the Reform Party or the Canadian Alliance ever have 11 seats in Quebec. The Conservatives have 11 seats in Quebec. Even the Red Tories, except for Mulroney never had 11 seats in Quebec.

    It appears that the media also doesn’t consider Calgary, Edmonton, or Quebec City, cities.

    In the existing leadership selection process, I believe every riding is still equal. i.e. the recurring McKay vs Scott Reid battles.

    Alberta’s Conservative MP’s are a far different from the original set of Reform MP’s. Alberta is a far different place than it was 30 years ago. See Premier Rachel Notley.

    Jason Kenney isn’t particularly scary. Plus, the MP’s who are women, are now likely to be some of the most prominent MP’s, and there are strong women who are likely to be prominent critics from every province except Quebec (which has a bunch of new interesting MP’s), and Atlantic Canada (which unfortunately was a Liberal sweep).

    The NDP was decapitated in a far worse way than the Conservatives. The culling of the Conservatives actually gives the party for their women MP’s to take a far more prominent role.

  2. How about if all the provinces in Canada had equil amount of seats ?
    Albertans are tired of getting pushed around by quebec goofs.
    There is talk of the west splitting.

    Justin if you want what you “Claimed” unity
    You better fix this mess.
    Or quebec and Ontario and the rest of the red supporters will be funding themselves.

    • Gee, look everybody.
      If the west doesn’t get their way they threaten to take their ball and go home.

    • Get with the program or split. Simple as that. Albertans have become the Quebecers that they complained about for years in the federation – all touchy feelings and chips on the shoulder. Roll on the referendum and let the rest of country get on with 21st century policies – you can always telegraph us the result or send it pony express.

    • Forgot to add that your party had a hammer grip on power for the past 4 years and did nothing about electoral reform – it’s a bit rich to immediately demand it from a new government. You should have lobbied your leader for that triple E cr@p that was immediately dropped from the party platform the minute they wanted to get elected.

    • Equal amount (I assume your mean “number”) of seats? Give your head a shake. Alberta has about 4.1 million people, while Ontario has 13.5 million. The Greater Toronto Area alone has a population of 6 million.

      Oh, well — I guess no one can accuse knuckle-dragging Albertans of not having a sense of humour.

  3. Hello all;

    We will find out who the contenders for leadership of the Conservative party are in the due course of events. My guess is that Mr. Harper wants to hang around, choose his successor (because he naturally knows best) and be “king-maker” of the future Conservative party.

    Either that, or his own party is going to ask him not to sit simply because like so many other Canadians, they are so, so, so very tired of hearing from him and nobody is listening anymore.

    How low the mighty Mr. Harper has fallen. He had to go, and now that the job is done, now that he is gone; I am just so pleased.

    Secondly, what kind of integrity can the Conservatives bring to the House of Commons as the Official Opposition given their complete lack of integrity when in Office?

    I’m laughing already. Like the Liberals before them not so long ago, and I hope that Mr. Trudeau takes heed, it is going to be so much fun watching the Conservatives tie themselves up in knots during debate.

    What can they possibly object to without getting laughed out of the House of Commons?

    Others may still admire the ignorance, bigotry and prejudice of Conservative ideology but as a Canadian I am simply too strong, too proud and too free for that.

    But, this is all getting ahead of myself. For now, it is good enough just to bask in the glow.

    Best wishes and best regards to all;
    Mr. Brian Leslie Engler

  4. For all their courting of the immigrant vote, it was C24 that did them in. Nobody want to be asked for their vote and then told that their citizenship is now in the gift of the PM

  5. Does anyone believe Conservative MPs will again submit to being fully muzzled after seeing how out of touch and autocratic Harper’s tenure became? They let Harper pull the strings, and they danced around mutely on cue, in return for power. They got one majority government, the muzzles stayed on, and then Canadians gave the puppet master a heroic pummeling at the polls. Forget about that dynamic working again anytime soon.

Sign in to comment.