“We were kids in the Reform Party when we first met”

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean

My confirmation bias senses are tingling.

In a recent interview with CBC, Stephen Harper’s former campaign director Jenni Byrne spoke about the growing opposition within the Conservative Party of Canada to Andrew Scheer remaining Leader of the Official Opposition.

Of course, the push to replace Scheer isn’t confined to the Party itself; it’s a fairly mainstream view, albeit for a number of different reasons. The enlightening moment was when Byrne said she and Scheer “were kids in the Reform Party when we first met”.

Preston Manning’s creation of a Western equivalent of the Quebec-centric Bloc in the late 1980’s, was a defining moment that whisked the Reform Party to power on the mounting discontent of western provinces. In the interest of capitalizing on a deep economic recession, Reformist popularity (and anti-Trudeau Sr. sentiment) arose from the calculated suggestion that economic weakness in Canada was due to the mere suggestion of a National Energy Program rather than the global oil glut that precipitated the recession. The preferred narrative was born and is repeated ad nauseam in the west today despite the fact that the recession of the 1980’s affected Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom all at once.

Under Harper, the Reform element was kept on a short leash. Manning, for all of the success the Reform Party had, was unable to elect members east of Manitoba during the 1990’s and was therefore incapable of forming government.

In a 1997 interview with Maclean’s, the year Reform became the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, Manning broached the subject of a more purist Conservative coalition.

“I don’t know how long the federal Tories can keep voting with the Liberals without adding credit to this idea that what ought to happen to sort all this out is that the Red Tories should go with the Liberals if they are Liberals and call themselves Liberals,” Manning offered. “The Blue Tories should come to us.”

Harper echoed the same during a 2018 conversation with Ben Shapiro when he stated centrists don’t belong in a conservative party. The obvious issue for the Conservative Party of Canada is that they need to be able to attract Red Tories to form government; and the Party was unable to do that effectively in either 2015 or 2019.

Harper achieved Manning’s goal of erecting a hard wall around the Conservative Party; not that it was noticeable when Harper came to power in 2008. It wasn’t until the 2015 election that the CPC’s carefully constructed veneer fell back.

The “barbaric cultural practices hotline” and the appeal to “old stock Canadians” were not only optically but actually damaging; handing Trudeau a majority government in 2015. Andrew Scheer’s campaign in 2019 doubled down on the failings of the previous election and even though many “centrists” were upset with Justin Trudeau’s brownface incidents and perhaps even wanted to vote for another Party; the CPC offered little to attract the swing voters the Party needed.

Certainly, Scheer himself played a role. Being the youngest appointed Speaker of the House in 2011 with, as we discovered over the course of the 2019 election campaign, absolutely nothing in his professional or personal background to recommend him for the job, it could be argued Harper played a role as well. Despite Harper’s attempt to mold Scheer into a statesman, the ruse failed miserably.

Between Scheer’s inability to sincerely convey that he would protect the rights of all Canadians and his incredible lack of success in commanding attention even when he was the only person in front of the camera, Scheer was not the person Canadians could envision as their next Prime Minister.

It goes much deeper than that, though, as Byrne’s comments show. Reform couldn’t find success outside of the western provinces because the core of the Party’s policies were antiquated and exclusionary; the CPC is no different.

There was no great “meeting of the minds” in the creation of the CPC, there was only Reform policy hiding in plain sight behind a centrist conservative disguise.

While many in the west will declare that they support the CPC not because of its outdated views and policy but in spite of them, the values of the CPC are tethered to its reformist roots.

Who could have imagined that two kids from the Reform Party would ever have managed to get so close to shaping the country in their own image? Replacing Andrew Scheer, much like his election as leader, is the embodiment of the literal lipstick on the pig.

If the “progressive conservatives” or “Liberal-Conservatives” or “Red Tories” ever want to find themselves in a position to form government, the time to break free from the Reformist roots of the CPC is now; a “new” leader won’t be enough.

This post is an opinion.

Deirdre is a reporter, pundit, podcaster, and political sociologist living in rural Southern Alberta.   

contact: dmaclean@countersign.ca, hello@politicalrnd.ca

Twitter: @Mitchell_AB for all the commentary; @thisweekinAB for posts; @politicalRnD to guess “who tweeted that”?

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