Opinion

How to engage social conservatives

Andrew MacDougall: Sloan's ouster highlights two key questions: Who speaks for Canada’s social conservatives and what are they trying to say?

Andrew MacDougall is a director at Trafalgar Strategy, and a former Head of Communications to Prime Minister Stephen Harper

God bless Derek Sloan. No sooner had Conservative leader Erin O’Toole found himself caught in yet another row about extremists in the party, when the most extreme member of his Parliamentary party popped up with a perfect excuse for O’Toole to pound the eject button. Thanks to Sloan’s acceptance of a donation from a white nationalist, the Ontario MP has now been booted from caucus following a vote by his colleagues.

In a statement, O’Toole went out of his way to paint the donation as but one part of a more problematic tableau: “The Conservative Caucus voted to remove Derek Sloan not because of one specific event, but because of a pattern of destructive behaviour involving multiple incidents and disrespect towards the Conservative team for over a year.”

Many Conservatives will be sighing with relief. Sloan is, after all, the man who thinks being gay is a ‘complicated’ question, who also questioned the allegiance of Canada’s chief public health officer in the midst of a global pandemic. These aren’t, it hardly needs saying, great looks to the majority of Canadians. That O’Toole hadn’t booted Sloan to date is the reflection of a debt incurred during the leadership race. When Red Tories like Peter MacKay were labelling social conservatives as albatrosses, O’Toole stood firm. Now that Sloan is an actual albatross because of the company and donations he attracts, O’Toole has ample license to eject.

Sloan begged to differ, firing back in a series of tweets that O’Toole was acting out of fear and that his leadership was not (and would likely never) address the “real” issues that “animate much of our base”. And in case anyone missed Sloan’s desired framing, he added: “This is about the grassroots: When they eject me they are saying, ‘We despise YOU the grassroots, we despise your values, we despise the things that are important to you’ They are thumbing their noses at YOU. Conservatives are furious and will make their voice heard.”

Sloan’s ego and/or delusions of grandeur would be amusing if they didn’t highlight two important questions: who speaks for Canada’s social conservatives and what are they trying to say?

The fact Sloan made it through to the Top 4 in the latest Conservative leadership race suggests he has some standing with some social conservatives. That he couldn’t best Leslyn Lewis, the other acknowledged standard bearer for social conservatism in the race, suggests he doesn’t speak for the majority. That O’Toole won the race suggests most social conservatives viewed O’Toole as more amenable to their views than Peter MacKay. By the rules of the game, O’Toole is now tasked with their representation in Parliament.

Which brings us to what social conservatives would like from their participation in politics. If it’s a reversal on questions like gay marriage, or the enactment of strict abortion laws, or the right to practice conversion therapy, they’re going to be disappointed because the vast majority of Canadians simply don’t see things the same way and anyone advocating loudly for these positions is auditioning for the opposition benches. If, however, social conservatives have other issues at the heart of their politics, they might be in with a shot.

And what does Sloan think is important? Well, he made that bit clear in his Twitter blitz, too, tweeting: “I will fight for our values: against Big Tech censorship, against liberal gender ideology, freedom from government overreach with the lockdowns, opposition to C-12 the net zero bill which Erin O’Toole supports. Net zero means zero jobs in Alberta.” Bar the gender ideology bit, there isn’t much social conservatism on display in that wish list.

But are there winning bits in that list?

Big tech censorship is certainly a valid, and live, issue, but Sloan’s timing and tone suggests he’s misreading the current mood. So-called ‘conservative’ platforms like Parler are being run out of town because they’re advocating openly for serious violence. And while Facebook and Twitter cutting off the former President is a potentially problematic precedent, that these companies are not shutting down other conservative politicians around the world, i.e. the ones who don’t peddle mistruth like oxygen and encourage insurrection, suggests it’s a specific intervention, and not a broad-brush policy. Big tech certainly needs a kick up the rear, but it also needs a principles-based framework for hosting content and, more importantly, some reins in terms of how they use our data. This should be the area of focus, not bad faith calls on censorship.

When it comes to government overreach on lockdowns, Sloan is spitting into a stiff breeze. Most of the public supports these restrictions, so any objection to them needs to be both focused and in tune with that sentiment. If Sloan’s concern is that people who can’t stay at home to work need to be able to earn a living, that’s one thing. If, however, Sloan is just mad that ‘big gubmint’ is being tyrannical, he really ought to travel to his local hospital to see how the doctors and nurses there feel about the very real effects of the pandemic. Why not continuing giving the government a (well-deserved) kick on its slow vaccine rollout instead?

Put simply, the Sloan agenda is a recipe for electoral disaster. Even with the more standard net zero moan he seems hell-bent on digging deeper into a hole the Conservative movement needs to fill if it wishes to become competitive. Indeed, new research released this week by Clean Prosperity demonstrates that Conservatives understand the need for new approaches on climate, including carbon taxes, in order to regain government. Sloan and those who think like him need to understand the best route to prolonging the lifespan of the oil sector in Canada is to engage with serious climate policy, not duck the conversation.

Pace Sloan, his ejection isn’t about ‘fighting cancel culture’ or ‘promoting a big tent version of the Conservative party’. It’s not about making social conservatives feel unwelcome in the Conservative movement. No social conservative I know wants anything to do with people like Paul Fromm, the self-described ‘white nationalist’ who made the donation to Sloan. Nor do they question the allegiance of senior Canadian officials who happen to be born in Hong Kong. These are deeper and uglier sentiments that Sloan has proven too willing to indulge.

Chucking Sloan is therefore a needed and good first step, even if that dumping inflames the caucus or fuels a media circus. But the Conservatives can’t quit there. They can’t ignore the reality that a person like Fromm thought it worth his while to make a donation to Sloan. O’Toole’s forceful action should quiet the debate, even if the Liberals try to keep it going.

In a sense, the latest groan from Sloan is a blessing. Had Press Progress not brought the shady donation to everyone’s attention now, you can rest assured Justin Trudeau would have gladly done it during the campaign. O’Toole now needs to find the finest-toothed comb in existence and start brushing the rest of his herd before the writ drops, because Trudeau surely has electoral plans for his other buckets of opposition research.

The trick for O’Toole is to find ways to engage social conservatives without appealing to their social conservatism. The current focus on jobs is the correct play, especially when contrasted with the out-of-touch government in Ottawa. Trudeau has now rolled over on Keystone XL without so much as a pro-forma objection, and there are no signs the Prime Minister understands the impacts of the immoral outcomes of globalization. Amazon is great if you use it to get cheap and quick deliveries or a nice streaming service; it’s a different beast entirely if Amazon has run your shop out of business and you have to go work in one of its sweatshop fulfillment centres. It’s on these questions that O’Toole must flex some serious policy muscle.

Will that stop Fromm or others who think like him from supporting the Conservative Party of Canada in the next election? Possibly not. Would that be Erin O’Toole’s fault? Not if he keeps on his current course of making clear that people who hold such views have no place in his party.