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Opinion

FORBES: Tories will be tempted to sacrifice the West to win Toronto

If Wexit continues to grow, the federal Tories have chosen the worst possible time to pivot their attention to Toronto.

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Canada’s federal Tories are looking for a new direction for the 2020s. The party brass has announced that they will select a new leader on June 27 at a convention in Toronto. Yes, the Toronto where the Tories also selected their last leader. The decision to keep the convention in Toronto is symbolic of the party’s desire to “broaden the tent” by appealing to the vote-rich urban centres. They obviously need to do this, but if they are not careful, the party risks further alienating the West and undoing whatever little inroads they could ever hope to make.

First, let’s look at how we got to this point. Now that outgoing party leader Andrew Scheer has been thrown to the wolves, many among the party faithful seem to be clamouring for a major change in direction. Playing it safe was the old strategy that got Scheer to the leadership back in 2017, as the candidate preferred by the party’s establishment. After a decade of power under Stephen Harper, the party had hoped to repeat their success by choosing a “Harper with a smile.” Even Scheer’s federal election campaign looked like a re-run from the Harper years, offering voters a few micro tax credits and hoping that the latest bout of Liberal scandals would allow them to sail through to Ottawa. It was an uninspiring strategy, perhaps, but it had worked before.

Former Conservative leader Andrew Scheer campaigning in Toronto in October 2019 (Source: WikiCommons)

With the failure to topple a scandal-ridden Trudeau in the 2019 election, however, some of the party’s leading voices are not interested in business as usual. Many seem to envision this leadership race as part of a broader transformation, with calls for more foundational change in party policy, branding, and strategy. Conservative commentator and former Harper staffer Andrew MacDougall, for example,wrote in the Ottawa Citizen that the party needs a “root-and-branch reform” to overcome its reputation for being too “traditional” and “old.”

That’s the assumption, but is it true? After all, the party was apparently not too “traditional” for the West, including the major urban centres of Calgary and Edmonton. There are a lot of potential reasons why the Tories failed to connect with voters: Scheer’s lack of name recognition compared with Trudeau’s, an uninspiring platform, etc. The answers will come out in time, starting with John Baird’s expected report. In the meantime, who exactly are they trying to impress with all this talk about a new progressive direction?

The answer is simple: Toronto. Matt Gurney’s comments in the National Post seem to sum up Conservative Party thinking these days:“If the Tories are ever going to form a national government again, they’re going to need to dramatically improve on their performance in and around Toronto (doing better in Quebec would be nice, too).”

On the surface it seems like a sound strategy. After all, every party needs to move beyond their base to achieve nationwide support. And the GTA is the most vote-rich part of the country, with 25 seats in Toronto alone and 30 more in the surrounding 905 region. With this population base, relatively small region of the country controls more seats than Alberta and Saskatchewan combined.

Massive crowd of people gathered for “We the North Day” in downtown Toronto (Source: WikiCommons)

Westerners should be cautious of endorsing a plan for the Tories to suck up to the GTA even more than it currently does.

Firstly, there is a low chance that this Toronto-focused strategy will even work. The current Conservative share of the vote in most Toronto area ridings is as pitiful as the Liberal vote is in most Western Canadian ridings. Do the Tories really think a leader who loves the carbon tax and waves a pride flag will make up for these dismal showings and bridge the gap? That’s like Liberals saying they will win Calgary if they just take a few more selfies at the Stampede. It’s not going to happen.

Even when Harper was able to take many 905 seats in the 2011 election, it had less to do with strategy than with circumstances. The Tories benefitted from a strong NDP collapsing the Liberal vote. Most of those seats went right back to the Liberals as soon as the NDP itself collapsed in the post-Layton period. The CBC’s Eric Grenier explained this dynamic as follows: “When the NDP is struggling, the Liberals have a high likelihood of winning. When the NDP is doing well, the Conservatives tend to have the edge.” The Conservative majority in 2011 was not about fundamentally reforming the party, it was about being at the right place at the right time.

Former NDP leader Jack Layton at a campaign rally in Toronto in 2008 (Source: Matt Jiggins, WikiCommons)

But major changes in the Conservative Party could do something far worse: it could further alienate an already volatile West. Consider how Western conservatives will respond if a Laurentian Red Tory gets elected on a platform designed primarily to appeal to Toronto and Quebec. In the 2017 Tory leadership race, Michael Chong ran on expanding the vote in urban centres by focusing on climate change and promoting immigration. When he declared his support for the carbon tax, however, he was roundly booed in Edmonton. Chong ultimately came in fifth place with 9.14 per cent of the vote. Leadership contenders should take that as a warning that Western Canada’s support must not be taken for granted.

Best case scenario for a Tory Toronto strategy: they swing a few seats in the GTA and disgruntled Westerners hold their nose to vote for an Eastern Tory. This isn’t a given, as many Westerners will begin to look elsewhere to have their voices heard. In the last election the upstart People’s Party (PPC) was only able to pick off 1.6 per cent of the popular vote, but Patrick Cain argued on Global News that even that small vote share may have cost the Conservatives up to six seats. If small-‘c’ conservatives continue to get the impression that the Tories are moving to the left to appease Toronto, that number will grow, negating hard-won growth in the GTA.

Whereas Maxime Bernier’s PPC has so far only made a small splash on the national scene, a Western independence party at the federal level could be a different matter altogether. The PPC has the challenge of spreading its limited resources across all 338 ridings and finding a message that appeals to voters in every part of the country. Consequently, there is no particular region where they have yet achieved a breakthrough.

WEXIT organizers are working to register just such a party at the federal level. If they – or another Western sovereigntist party – can build up a strong regional base like the Reform Party, they have the potential to be a real game changer.

Wexit rally in Calgary (source: Facebook)

Time will tell if Wexit’s rallies and social media following can translate into effective political mobilization. Wexit is as yet a political movement with significant support, but not viewed as a viable political engine. This weekend’s Wexit rally in Edmonton may be a good indication as to whether the movement will continue to gain steam and become a credible political force in the 2020s.

If so, the federal Tories have chosen the worst possible time to pivot their attention to Toronto. If they want to avoid another major rupture on the right, they would be wise to tread carefully in their courtship of the GTA.

Western Canadians have proven time and time again that we are willing to turn on the establishment parties and throw our support behind parties that will stand up for our interests.

The Tories have been warned.

Opinion

BARNES: Albertans deserve the right to make the big decisions in referenda law

Guest column from Drew Barnes says that Alberta’s referendum law should be expanded to allow votes on big constitutional issues.

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Guest opinion column from Alberta MLA Drew Barnes

“I am and I will remain a populist, because those who listen to the people are doing their job.” Matteo Salvini.

At its core the word populism is the action that government policies should be determined by the will of the people, not the will of the elite. Direct democracy is the institutional populism in action.

There is debate over whether populism should be termed as a movement or an ideology. Since the actions of populist engagement can transcend the ideological spectrum, I believe it should be viewed as a movement, that can sometimes manifest itself ideologically. As a movement, populist participation can take place on all points of the spectrum. Ultimately, that is what is wanted from a democratic society – engagement from all points of the spectrum.

Now more than ever, we need a new grassroots-populist approach to politics. Grassroots politics by its nature suggests that it is a movement that is sparked from the bottom-up. Politicians who came from grassroots movements must never forget where they came from, or lose sight of what they came to do. We need more of the bottom-up approach to politics, and make listening to the people that elected us a priority.

This is taking place in some measure here in Alberta. Political party policy processes allow for constituency associations to generate policy proposals for conventions, where they are voted on by the membership. Every party in Alberta – with the exception of the NDP – uses a ‘one member, one vote’ system.

Another grassroots/populist tool is referenda, that when used the right way are a valuable democratic tool. Referendums however, must stay true to their purpose, and the process for bringing them forward must allow for citizens to craft their own – fair – wording on a question. This is not to say that any question – however subjectively worded – that anyone wants to ask should be put to a referendum. Therefore, the rules on the use of referendums must not be overly onerous, nor overly temperate.

Switzerland is a prime example of a country that takes full advantage of referendums, including citizens’ initiative. In their democratic system, referendums can occur up to four times annually. All citizens registered to vote can cast their ballot on issues affecting decisions within both their federal government and their cantons (autonomous provinces). Before each vote, all registered voters receive a package of booklets in the mail which provide details on the coming referendums. Since these referendums began in 1848, just under half of the referendum proposals have passed. Even if they don’t always pass, the process is crucial to starting conversations and keeping citizens involved in debate. Referendums also force political parties to reach beyond partisan lines to reach consensus.

Alberta’s legislature recently passed a bill that guides referendums on non-constitutional matters. While this is a positive step forward, there are issues in this bill that need improvement. 

For example, Albertans initiating a referendum might go through the process of collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures, only to have the cabinet alter the wording the question. While fair wording of the question is critical to the integrity of direct democracy, that issue is not best dealt with by politicians who may have a stake in the result. Instead, clear guidelines should be established in law on question wording, and left to non-partisan officials at Elections Alberta. 

And while the new referendum legislation is a big step forward over the status quo (that is, nothing), it deliberately bans citizens-initiated referendums on constitutional questions. This means that if Albertans wished to force a vote on adding property rights to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that they would not be allowed. Similarly, Albertans are barred from forcing a vote on reforming the Senate, equalization, or internal free trade. Ominously, Albertans have no right to force a vote over the heads of the legislature on independence or other forms of sovereignty. 

I believe that Albertans can be trusted with the right of citizens’ initiative on all questions, both constitutional and non-constitutional. 

We trust the people to elect a government to run our systems, so why can’t we trust them to bring their own questions forward? 

Drew Barnes is the UCP MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat

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Opinion

LETTER: Erin O’Toole isn’t “woke” enough to beat Trudeau in the East

A reader says that Erin O’Toole isn’t “woke” enough to beat Trudeau in the East.

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In this ‘Era of Wokeness” along with the ascension of Black Lives Matter into the public consciousness, I believe that it would be detrimental to the Conservative Party of Canada to have Erin O’Toole as
it’s leader.

Mr O’Toole recently refused to use the word ‘racism’ and did not answer clearly when pressed on whether he believes it even exists. Erin O’Toole will hand the Trudeau Liberals an easy victory during the next election, should he become Tory leader. Canada cannot afford another four years of Justin Trudeau. 

Like it or not, most people in Ontario and Quebec (where all federal elections are ultimately decided owing to their number of allotted seats), are very much ‘woke’ on the issue of racism, as well as
sexism, homophobia, ect. In my experience, this also includes most Conservative Party of Canada voters in Eastern Canada.

Right-wing populism and social conservatism does well in Western Canada – but centrist Red Toryism is all they are prepared to accept in most of Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. CPC members in Western Canada need to keep this in mind when voting for their next leader. 

CPC members need to be sensible and realistic if they want to win the next federal election. 

Gila Kibner 
Edmonton, Alberta

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Opinion

LETTER: While Trudeau mislabels regular guns “military-style”, he is handing real assault weapons to the police

A reader says that Trudeau is militarizing the police while disarming Canadians.

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RE: Canada’s cops worried Liberal gun ban will hamper training

I enjoyed your article on the gun ban and how it will affect cops. A point of view the CBC would never share.

Perhaps another topic should be brought to the public is this: Although Justin Trudeau said there is no place for these weapons in Canada and Bill Blair said these  weapons have only one purpose – and that is for one soldier to kill another soldier – they gifted more deadly weapons to our local police forces through the Canadian Armed Forces., as was done recently in my hometown of St Thomas, Ontario.

What is the government’s agenda in giving true military assault weapons to the police and banning “military-style” (no legal definition) weapons from civilians. 

John Siberry
St. Thomas, ON

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