Thursday, October 22, 2009

Canadian Conservatism's Troubled Symmetry

Two provinces, two parties, two different directions, and one big problem for Canadian Conservatives

While Alberta's Wildrose Alliance was meeting this past weekend to elect Danielle Smith the new leader of the party, another provincial conservative party was meeting to elect its leader.

The Action Democratique du Quebec met and elected Gilles Taillon as its new leader -- only the second in its entire history.

There are many similarities between the circumstances faced by the two parties, and each leader.

Each party has few seats in the provincial legislature, and each faces the monumental task of building its organization. Unfortunately for the ADQ, this is where the similarities stop.

The Wildrose Alliance is coming off of an exciting and vibrant leadership campaign in which ideas were strongly contested between the two competitors: namely, whether the party would proceed in a libertarian or social conservative direction (the party chose the course of libertarianism).

The ADQ, meanwhile, is stumbling out of a leadership contest in which personal animosity and smear politics seemed to be the order of the day.

While the Alliance leadership campaign attracted national attention, the ADQ contest was largely invisible on the national stage.

If Smith's election as the leader of the Alliance is truly one of the most exciting developments in the history of Canadian conservatism, the election of Taillon as the ADQ leader was purely underwhelming. This is unfortunate not only for the ADQ, but for Canadian conservatism as a whole.

In Daifallah's estimation, Taillon's prospects as the leader of the ADQ are sorely limited by a number of factors.

"Taillon is well-known, but he’s an uninspiring choice for a party looking to renew. He’s the oldest of the three major Quebec party leaders, questions about his health abound and he lost his seat in the National Assembly in the last election," Daifallah notes. "His politics are decidedly centrist. If he has his way, there will likely be little difference between the ADQ and the Parti Québécois. A number of prominent conservative ADQ members have already quit since Sunday."

"Taillon’s centrist approach is particularly unfortunate given that more and more Quebecers are coming to realize the unsustainability of their massive welfare programs and statist business model," Daifallah continues. "The prospects in Quebec for a party advocating smaller government and more personal responsibility should improve in the coming years."

The problem is that, unless Taillon steers his party back away from the centre, Quebec will have no such party to take advantage of such an ideological shift in the province.

Quebec is one of two provinces in Canada with no active provincial Conservative party. In Saskatchewan the banner of conservative politics is being carried by Brad Wall's Saskatchewan party. Although a provincial Progressive Conservative party remains registered, it doesn't run candidates.

If one considers provinces where a provincial Conservative party remains active but is politically marginal, the case of British Columbia stands out as well.

Likewise, the decimation of the New Brunswick PCs -- a ship since righted by Bernard Lord -- by the Confederation of Regions party isn't as far in past as many New Brunswick Tories would like to pretend.

If Danielle Smith and the Wildrose Alliance are successful, Alberta could soon be added to this list. Historically when Albertans have changed governments they practically erase the preceding government. Social Credit and the United Farmers of Alberta were once mighty political forces. Today Social Credit is entirely peripheral to Albertan politics.

The problem that quickly emerges is not for Canadian conservatives, but rather for Canadian Conservatives. While cross-party cooperation in matters of federal politics is far from ruled out, it can be politically perilous for conservative politicians -- particularly in Saskatchewan, and possibly soon in Alberta -- to be seen working too closely with the federal incarnation of a party they have either worked so hard to depose (as would be the case in Alberta) or has a troubled history (as is the case in Saskatchewan).

It can be particularly unseemingly in terms of the recruitment of federal candidates out of provincial ranks. While such a transition is far from unheard of -- in particular, federal Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski was formerly the General Manager of the Saskatchewan party.

By comparison, however, the Liberal party and NDP each have provincial parties in every province in Canada. While the Liberal party isn't particularly strong in Alberta, or especially in Saskatchewan, it can freely shuttle candidates back and forth between provincial and federal parties. A clear example is Dr Eric Hoskins, who was an unsuccessful federal candidate before running for the McGuinty Liberals in St Paul's.

In Quebec and Saskatchewan the Tories may get occasional help from the Saskatchewan party or the ADQ, but it has to do the bulk of its organizing and recruitment entirely on its own.

Provincial parties also offer the potential advantage -- or disadvantage -- of having another party to help build the brand image. If there is a shift underway the likes of which Daifallah suggests, the Conservative party currently has no provincial party there to help them take advantage of this shift.

It's on this note that it would perhaps be partially irrelevant if Quebec had a conservative leader like Danielle Smith -- at least for capital-C Conservatives. For small-c conservatives, it would be like a dream.

But like any political movement, conservatives fare best when they work together. Anything that impedes that kind of cooperation should properly be viewed as an impediment -- even if an impediment that some conservatives will view as a necessary evil.

It's long been past time for Canadian conservatives to learn to moderate themselves from within their provincial parties, as opposed to having to build entire vote- and activist-splitting alternative parties.

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