“Since the early 20th century, the Conservative Party (or its predecessor the Progressive Conservative Party) has governed for approximately 40 years (out of 120 years). This is significantly less than Conservative parties in most Anglo-Saxon democracies. What explains this relative lack of success of the Conservative Party in Canada from a comparative perspective?”
Although the foundation of Canada’s Confederation started on the backs of Conservative thinkers, at some point the tables turned. Since the nation’s birth over 150 years ago, the Conservative Party of Canada has held power for less than a fourth of this time. There may be a multi-faceted explanation for this phenomenon. This paper will focus on one streamline, seeking to show that Conservatives’ lack of success in maintaining power may be associated with their inability to adequately evolve their platform and party in a way that has been responsive to Canadians, specifically Canadian society as a whole. Unless stated other wise, throughout this paper when referencing to the Conservative Party of Canada, it is describing the evolution of Conservative-associated parties since the beginning of the 20th century to today’s Conservative Party of Canada led by Erin O’Toole.
Some common variables associated with Conservatism are holding onto values like, family tradition and non-secularism, laissez-fair government, and low taxes. Although the Conservative Party has adapted its platform over time, when we look closer into the history of Conservative actions and leaders’ personal thoughts on governing, it has not always lined up with what other parties and Canadian citizens have wanted or needed. This has disadvantaged the Conservative Party throughout different periods of the party’s existence. This paper will comb over some historical moments in which the Conservative Party’s choices have led to their opposition’s success – whether that be winning an election or making progress as a party. Through the lens of ‘progressive’ political issues in the second section, comparisons will be made to highlight the moments in which other popular Canadian parties have outshined the Conservatives – like the Liberal Party of Canada – via their abilities to adapt their platforms in ways that Canadians respond to. The last section will conclude with highlighting how the Conservative Party may have missed the mark for obtaining the confidence of Canadians during moments of party reform. This too can be tied to the success that the Liberal party has had throughout Canada’s existence. Within the paper, the contrast regarding the wants and needs of Canadian society in comparison to the party’s actions will be apparent.
HISTORICAL REVIEW – CONSERVATIVE TRADITION IN CONTRAST TO CANADIAN SOCIETY
There have been moments in Conservatives’ history in which they have lost power because the party’s focus was conservative values over the interests of Canadian society. This section will break down the parallelism that intersects with the party losing power due to the judgment or choices the party made in believing it was benefiting Canadian society, yet sometimes was a reflection of the opposite of Canadians’ wants and needs.
Before the 20th century, John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, who was a moderate Conservative under a Liberal-Conservative label (Harrison, 2011), at one point was able to unite Canadians under a single party. However, differences of opinions, regions and ideologies became hard to maintain which eventually led to the falling of his government in 1873 (Harrison, 2011). Macdonald’s personal perceptions and ideals limited the success of the Conservative Party. At a time when Canadians were seeking more decentralized government in the late 1800’s, Macdonald chose to hold centralist values (Harrison, 2011). It is said that because he emphasized federal government interests over provincial and local matters that other parties were seeking, provinces became more Liberal-leaning (Harrison, 2011).
Fast forward a few decades and a similar case happened under Arthur Meighen in 1926, only he held onto tradition that was losing its grip on Canadian society (Harrison, 2011). He served as the Prime Minister but lost majority to the Liberals because his party at the time was seen as “too closely linked with Britain at a time when Canada’s Britishness – and its status as an imperial Dominion – was disappearing” (Harrison, 2011). Liberals, on the other hand, made great candidates for the direction in which Canada was headed.
Another example of a ‘missed opportunity’ by the Conservatives was in the early 1930’s when leader R. B. Bennett oversaw the majority government (Turgeon, 2020a). During the Great Depression, Bennett’s focus lied on maintaining the economy through trade deals and industry protection (Turgeon, 2020a). His economic focus failed in helping him maintain power because social intervention was needed for Canadians who were struggling to get by. Bennett initially opposed state intervention at first but eventually proposed social reform via The New Deal in 1935, but by this time many saw this act as being too late (Turgeon, 2020a). The Conservatives saw their largest defeat of all time in which the party lost a majority of their seats in the House (Harrison, 2011). To be fair, when the Liberal Party obtained power, they did not do much better. The mistakes made by the Mackenzie Liberal government eventually led to major party reform in Canada (Carty et al., 2000). However, the party reform ended up benefiting the Liberals in the long run (Carty et al., 2000). This point will be elaborated on later in the next section.
COMPARISON – ADAPTING PARTY PLATFORMS
To give further context to the Conservative Party of Canada, let us quickly look at Britain’s Conservative Party. It has been in question how Britain’s Conservative Party has been somewhat an exception in comparison to other European right-leaning parties in maintaining power (Gamble, 2019). Head of the Politics Department at Cambridge University, Andrew Gamble, believes that part of the reason the party has been able to hold power is its ability to reinvent itself over time by remaining pragmatic and dynamic (2019).
Although the platform of Britain’s Tories initially relied on maintaining the country’s institution, upholding England’s empire, and elevating conditions for its people, the party now tends to govern with statecraft and the pursuit of power in mind, instead of leading through ideology (Gamble, 2019). On one hand, some would argue this same strategy has been used by Canadian Conservatives in the past (Gamble 2019). On the other hand, some leaders have led with Conservative traditions and ideologies at the forefront. Over time, these back-and-forth leadership styles have not worked in favor of the party. Why? Potentially because other Canadian parties like the New Democratic Party (NDP) have had a solid platform that has not been built upon pursuing power (Gessaroli, 2019).
Parties like the NDP have been consistent with their values and beliefs, while willing to adapt over generations. They are a good example of how to use ideology as the foundation of their platform while also remaining flexible. Despite the fact that the NDP has not yet obtained a majority government in their short history, their consistency may aid in them maintaining their voter base because their supporters know that their platform is dynamic, yet aligns with their expectations of government. Through this, we have witnessed the NDP obtain a minority government in 2010. The difference between the Conservatives and the NDP leading with ideology as a foundation is that the NDP’s platform stemmed from the trial and error of Canada’s original parties, including the Liberals. This gave the party the upper hand of differentiating itself from old values and traditions that some Canadians may wish to move away from. David McGrane, political science professor at the University of Saskatchewan, has found that progressive issues like environmentalism and racial injustice have taken precedent among Canadians over traditional conservative issues such as small government and tax policies (Proudfoot, 2019).
Although the Conservative Party of Canada claims that it is progressive, other parties like the NDP, may disagree with this statement and have a different definition. As mentioned, The Conservative Party of Canada continue to lead with pursuing power in mind and their overall platforms ultimately tend to be expressions of Conservative values (Gessaroli, 2019) that may not take into consideration the overall needs of Canadians. Conservatives state that their vision encompasses change reflected by societal needs; however, they have failed to be leaders in these changes compared to parties like the Liberals or the NDP (Gessaroli, 2019).
The NDP’s definition of ‘progressive’, which is connected to leftist ideologies, can be associated with addressing issues that affect Canadian society and its citizens in an urgent way. For the Conservatives’ definition, it is more associated with the wellbeing of the economy where actions regarding social issues tend to be delayed or appear as a second thought. Yes, there is a trend among the Conservatives in which they make incremental ‘progressive’ changes to their platform over the years, but these changes still rely on traditional values and tend to come a little too late. For example, in comparison to parties like the NDP and the Liberals, the Conservative Party has had more of a right-leaning economic agenda (Gessaroli, 2019). With fiscal policy, the Conservatives see maintaining the economy as a societal responsibility in which they tend to govern cautiously to maintain a balanced budget (Gessaroli, 2019). The NDP and the Liberals, on the other hand, tend to promote the fiscal health of Canadians through economic intervention like aiding in fiscal inequalities (Gessaroli, 2019). One stance on fiscal policy is not necessarily better than the other, but it could be argued that Conservatives may put priority in the health of the economy over the wellbeing of citizens. As McGrane puts it “the idea of being socially progressive and economically conservative doesn’t hold up… [In this case, one is] probably more economically progressive and socially conservative” (Proudfoot, 2019).
Another examples of how the Conservative Party has fallen behind on progressive issues is climate change policies within their platform. Conservatives worldwide have been associated with being anti-climate change, but Canada’s Conservatives believe it is a subject matter that needs addressing (Båtstrand 2015). However, compared to other Canadian political parties, Conservatives have more work to do when prioritizing the multi-faceted issue. Both the Liberal and Conservative government have had difficulty fabricating solid solutions to take on climate change in Canada (Doern, 2014). Additionally, both parties have failed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement where multiple countries agreed to tackle lowering greenhouse emissions (McCarthy, 2019). Nevertheless, the two parties currently differentiate with respect to their stances on carbon tax and lowering greenhouse gas emissions (McCarthy, 2019). Experts say both variables need to be implemented and acted upon in an urgent manner (McCarthy, 2019). The Conservatives still insist on cutting the carbon tax and continue to put economic advantages – the oil industry – above what should be prioritized (McCarthy, 2019).
It is hard not to wonder whether Conservatives’ inability in maintaining a long-term government in recent history is due in part to them holding onto traditional values. In the case of climate change, Conservatives lean towards governing with individualism in mind over collectivity (McCarthy, 2019). If the Conservative Party of Canada could continue to lead consistently with pursuing power in mind in a way that ideology comes second and the voices of Canadians come first, they may have a chance in obtaining a majority government again in the near future.
COMPARISON – ADAPTING THROUGH PARTY REFORM
Since Confederation, the Liberal and Conservative governments have both been successful in collectively obtaining the majority of Canadian votes, and to date, that has not changed much (Carty et al.,2000). However, we know the Liberal government has dominated the Canadian government in comparison to any other party within the institution. Political parties in Canada have been the key to maintaining democracy and with that power comes responsibility (Carty et al.,2000). Voting for a political party is one of the only ways in which average Canadians can voice their wants and needs as citizens. Parties historically create the basis on which these voices attempt to be heard, and with that in mind, in majority, Liberals have been the voice of Canadians (Carty et al.,2000).
Broadly speaking, the Conservative Party has struggled with adapting to the demands of Canadian society, which has been reflected in election outcomes. For example, because of the snowballing effects of how R.B. Bennett governed in the Great Depression (as mentioned in the previous section), Canada experienced its first of three major party-system collapses. From these events, came more democratically-aligned parties because Canadians expressed needs for more access to social services (Carty et al., 2000). Since then, Carty et al. believe Conservatives have spent much of the 20th century recovering from their inability to revive their platform in a way that resonated with all Canadians (2000). As parties pursued reform, Canadians showed political leaders that they were enterprising and responsive depending on the current political climate which Conservatives have tended to ignore (Carty et al.,2000). In comparison, the Liberal Party was able to instinctively learn from the collective mistakes opposition parties had made throughout the 20th century and instinctively rebranded. Their innovation and party overhaul is said to be one of the successes of the party’s ability to maintain power, specifically in relation to connecting with sporadic regions around Canada (Carty et al., 2000). As a side point, if we consider the history of Conservatives revamping their party and dividing their influence between West and Central Canada, we can understand how influences like regionalism have worked at their disadvantage in elections compared to parties like the Bloc Quebec, that in recent history has dominated, specifically in one region, Quebec (Turgeon, 2020b).
Conservatives inability to adapt their party and platform in a meaningful way that resonates with Canadian society has been their greatest downfall. If the Conservative Party of Canada had been more consistent in their leadership styles and pursued power by analysing the priorities of all Canadians over ideology-based governing, they may have had more success over the years.
We too can conclude that the actions of the Conservative Party and their leaders have been predominantly economic-based compared to other parties. Although a good economy may be projected as a benefit to Canadian society, we have witnessed times in which it has left Canadians vulnerable. There has been evidence of times in which Canadians have voiced their priorities but as the party adapted their platform, they were not responsive. Other parties in Canada have been able to use the Conservative Party’s gradual adaptation and traditional stance as an advantage. In the case of the Liberal Party, obtaining power has been mainly achieved by being the opposition of the Conservative Party, that have seemed to be slower in implementing actions Canadians have hinted as being priority.
Today, there is no way of truly telling if Conservatives would have had more success in the past century had they adapted different facets of their party in a more meaningful and responsive way. However, we can compare how the party governed in the past in comparison to how they have governed in more recent history, to analyze what their next best steps could be, and if they wish to attentively listen to the demands of all Canadians. With this, we can predict how the party will compare beside other Canadian parties. This analysis highlights where the Conservative Party of Canada may be able to make meaningful changes within the party in order to make greater change outside of the party.
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