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.


The Conservatives are running out of time to expand their tent

  1. Cons have no intention of ‘expanding their tent’.

    They are trying to convert people to their views.

    Unfortunately for them……people aren’t keen on 3-ring circuses anymore.

  2. Expansion can sometimes cause explosions, we saw that in the Harper years, you can end up getting every wacko on the fringes to join your party, something like electoral reform, it can attract nutcases to your cause, Oh its already doing that, attracting nutcases. If your going to carve out a vision for this country, you need to use a road map, and not a maze.

    • They could try the Liberal tent growing plan and make promise that any sane person would know they would not follow thru on them.
      Most of the wackos have already joined the Liberal tent as they look for more freebies .

      • What freebies?

  3. It is winter in Canada so no one wants to be in a tent, especially a blue one. While I admit I do not have much respect for the tories or any of their policies, I saw an interview the other day with O’Wannabe that proved how little he know about our country and political processes. He was raving about Premier Notley and how, when he became PM, he would deduct dollar for dollar from any federal money going to Alberta for every dollar Alberta collected in a carbon tax. How ridiculous can he get? He once tried to get rid of Notley with a promise of a million dollar investment. What will he do about BC? They have been collecting a carbon tax for years. For some reason O’Wannabe has an extreme dislike of Notley. Federal and provincial politicians disagree all the time but never to this level and for absolutely no reason. Of all the choices for leader of the tories he is the absolute worst one and that says alot since a few of them are not much better.

    • He also wants to get rid of Wynne…..and what ever you think of her, it would not be his job as PM to attack or trash the premiers!

  4. Let’s hope it’s not their ‘turn’ in the next election.

  5. From a Canadian
    l will no longer stand quietly by and let Radical Islam put down roots in my Canada…
    l will resist their attempt to take away my free speech
    l look at Greece
    l look at Italy
    l look at Germany
    l look at France
    l look at England
    l think to myself why would l want this outdated farce in my Canada….
    why would l want Sharia Law in my Canada…
    why would l want no go zones in my Canada…
    why on earth would someone even consider this in this day and age
    Why should Canadian women cower in fear that Sharia Law might gain roots in Canada
    lm guessing that politicians have gotten so desperate for votes their now willing to sell out ordinary Canadians and their values for a few votes no mater where or how they get them
    lm all for responsible immigration….
    This push to fill my Canada with Radical muslims is not responsible immigration !!
    when they pull up to the Canadian Border in a taxi only to be directed by US Customs where to go and cross illegally into Canada l can only shake my head in disbelief
    Why should we take these folks in when they break the law to get into Canada trying to jump the queue that other folks have waited years to get in….
    L think a wise idea would to be to slow down on the Islamic immigration into Canada until we see how Greece,Italy,France and England work out.
    Gotta be honest here…dosnt seem to be working out to well over there folks…am hoping Canadians are smarter than l give them credit for at this point
    This is your future folks…choose wisely
    l will no longer stand by quietly on the sidelines and see my Canada given away for a few simple votes
    l will engage my family
    l will engage my friends
    l will engage my coworkers
    l will ask them to also engage thier own familys…thier own friends and thier coworkers as well
    l will not go quietly into that dark muslim night….

    A Canadian

    • Okay, I think your constant recruiting on here breaks Canada’s hate laws.

      That’s a criminal offence.

      The Justice Dept should see this post.

    • The depth of your ignorance is appalling and you’re not a Canadian, you’re a xenophobe.

  6. I disagree with the premise of this article.

    General elections are when you expand the base. Leadership races are mostly about existing members and loosely attached members deciding which direction the party should go, and who is best able to lead it in that direction.

    Arguably, one of the major points of this leadership race is to choose a leader who can keep the Harper coalition together before attempting to grow it.

    Bruce Anderson is spinning for his daughter, who is a key PR person in the PMO.

    The most important thing for the Conservatives at the moment is to keep the 30% together. That means victory is in reach in any election.

  7. Macleans is actually writing a lot of very educated informative topical stories; too bad so few people read them or comment on them. Fox news, and People Magazine and TMZ and other rags get tens of thousands of hits and comments a day and I like to go on there and shame and taunt them about their ignorance and lack of education …I wish some more people would come on to this site but the problem is, is that government workers are henpecked scared gutless cowards…they are afraid of being fired or losing a promotion if they use their real name…they are not real citizens in a sense as they have no real freedom of speech, a lot of top echelon private sector workers or crown corporation people are the same….there should be a law in this country that any fired employee who was fired over making a social media comment can sue his company and have imprisoned any boss or personnel manager who attempts to interfere with their free opinions.