How Canadian conservatives lost their nerve

Andrew Coyne on the big leads squandered by the Manitoba and Ontario Tories
Hugh McFadyen, Progressive Conservative Leader, prior to the televised debate Friday Sept. 23, 2011, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan
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.