Ten Post-Election Points For Tories
“This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election, and yet if I were to have them killed, I would be the one to go to jail. That’s democracy for you!” —Mr. Burns, The Simpsons
The dust has settled on Election 42 and the Harper era is over. Before we look ever forward towards brighter futures, we need to take a moment of reflection. Conservative supporters should be proud of the past ten years. Amidst a constant barrage of left-wing attacks, the Conservative Party of Canada, under the leadership of Stephen Harper, transformed from a cabal of has-beens and outsiders into a powerhouse of achievement.
So what went wrong and what should be done?
#1. Longevity - Losing is bound to happen
After a decade in power, a political party begins to run out of steam. It happened to the Liberals in 2006 and it happened to the Progressive Conservatives in 1993. It’s very rare for a democracy to return the same political party to power for a multi-decade period unless there’s something horribly wrong with the system.
"When the time for change strikes, it's lethal. I ran and was successful because I wasn't Pierre Trudeau. Justin is successful because he isn't Stephen Harper." - Brian Mulroney
Simply put, wanting a change in government is a legitimate thing to want. This loss was not horrific. The seat count is back to 2004 levels, the popular vote was roughly the same as 2011 and the party is well positioned to be a strong official opposition.
#2. The long campaign
The idea was to spend more money than the other parties and give Justin Trudeau time to trip up. Instead we discovered that only so much money matters in campaigns. You need enough to get some points across and then people will respond or they won’t. As far as Justin Trudeau tripping up? He didn’t. The campaign trail suited him and seasoned his performance.
The other factor was trying to avoid third party spending, like big union money used to smear the Conservatives outside the writ period.
Don’t worry about it in the future. This election was decided in the last week. You can influence people and use ads to plant seeds in their minds months or even years in advance, but when it comes time to pay attention and vote, people decide in the last week.
#3. The niqab thing
I get that the court decision was handed down during the campaign and I get that most Canadians don’t want niqabs at citizenship ceremonies...but the Conservatives should’ve stated their position and left it at that.
But they torqued it...on purpose...and then played dumb about it. They were hoping hardcore supporters would get the message and the soft supporters wouldn’t.
Floating the idea of banning niqabs in the public sector and starting up the RCMP hotline? Lame. It’s a non-issue and people saw through the game.
#4. The cash register tax savings thing
Harper, dressed up like Bernie Sanders and doing a Price Is Right schtick, with the cash register sound effects? It was terrible.
The corny optics were bad enough, but the numbers were also garbage. Yeah, the Liberals will cut the UCCB, but they are going to replace it with their own means tested version. Yeah, they’re going to decrease the payroll tax less than the Conservatives...but that's not an increase. The income splitting loss is also dubious when Liberals are proposing a second bracket income tax cut instead.
The bad optics of the schtick, combined with the number fudging was weak and it showed.
#5. The technical recession and right-wing economic orthodoxy
This one kills me, but I have to admit it. The Conservative policies haven’t unleashed an Ayn Rand-style booming economy.
Harper has done everything right-wing that he could do. Restrained or cut frivolous spending, cut the GST, modestly adjusted income taxes, radically cut corporate taxes, eased up on regulation, signed numerous free-trade deals, radically lowered small business tax rates, bailed out entire sectors during the the Great Recession and championed industry and business at every opportunity.
So where’s the 5% annual growth? Where’s the next billion dollar tech company that started from scratch and took the world by storm? Where’s the massive new investments by business? Where’s the jobs? Where’s the soaring incomes? Where’s the fantastic tales of people inventing amazing things and changing life as we know it? Where’s the ambition? Where are the new corporate headquarters?
Frankly, having Harper at the helm, with his right-wing ideology, allowed me to think that the potential for Canada was going to be unleashed from the timid, over-regulated, overtaxed underachieving culture that Canada seems to be shackled with.
The Great Recession can’t be blamed on Harper and neither can the oil price induced technical recession earlier this year. But damn. After ten years and now two recessions...one during an election campaign...it just felt like something wasn’t working. Perhaps it’s a product of “first world problems” or simply having too high expectations for a given ideology.
Nevertheless, there is a hint of truth to all those memes about Harper’s economic growth record and I got tired of trying to rationalize or explain away the reasons for it. If I felt this way then certainly soft supporters were asking these questions as well.
#6. Trudeau’s Liberals are like Mulroney’s PCs
When Paul Martin asked NDP supporters to “lend him their vote” in order to “STOP HARPER!!” in 2004, the Liberal party made a conscious decision to move to the left of the political spectrum to shore up votes against a newly united Conservative Party.
The second time centrist voters decided to give Harper a try. The Liberals accidentally elected Stephane Dion as their leader and they veered even further left, focusing on global warming and new taxes.
Then Michael Ignatieff took over and presented a left-wing Liberal party yet again for public consumption. Soviet daycare and 1970’s styled nanny state stuff (I had to browse their platform for 2011 to even remember anything from it). Basically, it’s leftist pablum and it failed for that same reason.
When Harper finally got his majority, it gave the Liberals the time out they needed to really soul search and get back to basics. When it came to policy they basically put together a soft-right platform that one might have seen from Brian Mulroney if he had run in 1993. It’s going to be a painfully politically correct dogmatic government, but in terms of actually doing stuff, the stuff they want to do isn’t exactly anti-conservative. Rebuilding the Navy? Cutting middle-class income tax? Setting up a committee to appoint Senators? Electoral reform? Not spending billions on government ads designed to win favour with the public by the party in power?
Read the policies here: LIBERAL PLATFORM.
There’s lot’s of politically neutral elements to their policies and then there are of course a fair few left-leaning planks. This will all be pushed forth with a politically correct liberal orthodoxy that will grate on the nerves of conservative Canadians...but...but…
It’s not that bad. It’s not that bad and Canadians know it.
Remember, Harper still retained 32% of his vote. The Conservatives went from having 39% of the vote to 32%, a 7% difference. These are the centrists who were comfortable with Justin Trudeau’s Brian Mulroney platform, but not with Michael Ignatieff’s Pierre Trudeau platform in 2011.
It’s a small margin and something to think about if the argument becomes ideological. Moving further to the right isn’t a good idea, because elections are won in that 5-7% range.
#7. Media relations
The Media Party is real. We saw this on election night. CTV’s coverage was appalling. Craig Oliver’s old man rant was hysterical and bizarre. The Conservative Party needs to have a list of severely anti-conservative journalists and producers.
That’s three off the top of my head, but the list goes on and on. Figure it out and separate the good and bad piles. Then realize that some journalists are going to seem to be not on your side, but are actually neutral and just doing their job. Then realize one more thing…
Freezing everyone out and creating friction and contempt with everyone all the time isn’t the way to go. Pleasing your enemies won’t make them your friends, but the hostility toward the media was palpable. It got worse over time instead of better. Don’t try to win them over...just play ball.
The obsessive attempt to control the message looked more and more autocratic. At first I liked it because the media was getting put in their place. I also liked the discipline and the recognition that day-to-day mainstream media is not that kind to conservative politicians. It just went too far, for too long. The Conservative Party has to lighten up on this and risk the heat.
#8. More grassroots input
The professionalism that the new Conservative Party has developed over the past ten years is remarkable and appropriate, but it’s starting to show weakness in one particular area.
The Conservative Party is getting so slick and corporate that regular card-carrying members feel like ATM’s instead of activists. Where’s the relationships? Where’s the events? Where’s the townhalls? Where’s the volunteer events? Where’s the engagement. Here’s a full article I wrote about this problem.
My grandfather was a big supporter of the Progressive Conservative Party and his experience of politics in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s seemed a lot different than mine. He knew politicians directly. My grandfather would attend member events. He was friends with the leader of the Saskatchewan’s PC party. Men like Alvin Hamilton would stop by his farm to talk Agriculture. It just seemed to me, that a political party was more of an active and involved thing.
I recently read John Ibbitson’s book, a biography entitled Stephen Harper.
If you’ve never read a Stephen Harper biography before, I suggest both this one and the Paul Wells penned The Longer I'm Prime Minister. These are superb examples of balanced and entertaining political writing. Until Stephen Harper pens his own memoirs, we will have these documents to mark the past ten years of political developments.
One of the interesting elements was Harper’s formative years with MP Jim Hawkes. The atmosphere of political engagement seemed to be much more robust. Harper started his political career during that era. Could he do the same thing today?
The totality of political party culture today is, “Give us cash and buzz off, unless there’s an election happening, in which case pound in these signs...the end.”
The Liberals figured this out a few years ago and worked hard to engage people who had zoned out of party politics when the Liberal machine grew fat and lazy. After 2011’s destructive election many Liberal ridings were bereft of almost all their infrastructure. They needed to mobilize, reach out and engage. They did...and it worked. The Liberal Party reinvented itself and built community around the message. The Conservative Party has had so much power and cash recently, that they think they can just focus group ad campaigns and treat Conservative supporters like consumers. Getting spammed for cash and then being ignored outside of writ periods makes people cynical.
My advice to Conservative supporters is to pull back. Save your money. The party blew the bank on Just Not Ready ads and launched the longest most expensive campaign in modern history. Now they’re going to spam us for contributions to pay off the bill. Let them “fiscally responsible” themselves up a bit and do some work to engage. A leadership race should help with that, but don’t be too quick to be their welcome mat anymore.
#9. No big ideas
The Conservatives ran on their record and when that didn’t work they doubled down on smearing their opponents. So basically, “We’ve been doing good and the other guys are scary.” This is a pretty weak way to enter an election. A little research shows that it’s pretty difficult for any government to get even a second majority mandate.
Pierre Trudeau failed to get a second majority in 1972. It’s arguable that the PC’s Robert Stanfield would’ve become Prime Minister if not for the Social Credit party dividing the right-wing vote. Brian Mulroney was polling badly in the lead up to his second majority in 1988. He used the big idea of free trade with the U.S. to turn the campaign into a single issue referendum. Jean Chretien barely won a second majority despite balancing the budget for the first time in a generation! Second majorities are hard. You have to throw some curve balls.
My point in this little history lesson is that the election should have taken more attention grabbing risks by being bolder and more exciting. I know that’s not Harper’s brand, but that’s also part of the danger of sticking around too long...losing perspective. Going into an election without offering any big new proposals was perhaps a strategic miscalculation, but I suspect it was more of a simple oversight. An oversight rooted in doing more of the same and expecting similar results. The Conservative Party simply went back to the well one too many times.
I wrote this article almost two years ago in an attempt to spur some imagination. It was fun, but had zero impact. I wrote this, more serious article, offering ten big ideas for the campaign, but it too fell on deaf ears. I wrote Joe Oliver a letter with this idea to cut the GST as an election promise. A month later this article appeared in the National Post. Still...no traction.
Should’ve aimed for bigger.
#10. Harper stayed too long
A friend of mine brought this up a while back and I didn’t believe him. He suggested that more could get done if Harper got out of the way. The building up of Harper Derangement Syndrome was hampering the Conservative Party and their ability to get things done. (Build pipelines, win over centrists etc.)
I didn’t believe him because no matter who the Conservative Party leader is, that person is going to get hammered as being a right-wing maniac no matter what. The leftist outrage won’t stop. It just is.
My friend suggested that if they changed out the leader and the leftist outrage continued, then it would just look like whining and be dismissed, but if Harper keeps hanging onto power, then it would start to look like change could only happen by, “STOPPING HARPER!!” and voting him out.
I didn’t want to believe it. I thought Harper stepping down in 2014 and throwing Jason Kenney or someone into the PMO would just look weak and the party would end up with a Kim Campbell or John Turner type of situation. Now that we know that Harper’s longevity actually was a part of the problem, there should have been enough self-awareness to step out before getting the boot.
But, who knows? It could’ve been seen as window dressing and the party could have performed even worse. We’ll never know. What we do know is that the party had run out of steam and now has a clean break to refresh and rebuild.
Conclusion: Harper’s Conservatives finally lost an election after governing for a decade. Let’s stop the silly hyperbole about Alberta separation and how the country will be ruined. It’s not like the NDP won the election!
We now have Justin Trudeau surrounded by Laurentian elite types. We’ll see fairly timid policies with a centrist bent and some (mostly) trivial nuggets of leftist concern, all held in check by 99 Conservative MPs. Those Conservative MPs are in opposition, rebuilding rapidly as you read this. Quite frankly, it’s not going to be that bad folks. Now get involved, renew your membership cards and get ready make the next leader accountable!