Conservative Leadership Change

Having had the pleasure (if that’s what it is) of watching the estimable Count Doctor Professor Michael Ignatieff assume the throne of the Liberal Party of Canada this week, it’s time for Conservatives to turn their heads, while the prorogued Parliament remains quiescent, to a far more important question: who should lead the Conservative Party of Canada going forward?

Let me give you a hint: someone’s who been a former broadcaster, a full professor at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard, and a respected figure in intellectual circles in the United Kingdom and the United States isn’t going to as easy to pin down and label as a sociologist trained in France. In other words, back alley bullying isn’t the tactic required now.

Stephen Harper Should Stand Down

When it is time to write the history of this first decade of the twenty-first century, Stephen Harper will be remembered for accomplishing something which appeared to be impossible as the 2000s dawned. He restructured and disciplined the former Reform movement by becoming leader of the Canadian Alliance, then reached out and swallowed hard to accept Progressive Conservative requirements for a merger of the two parties. He then defined the new Conservative Party of Canada and, unlike all the years since Sir John A. Macdonald, taught it the virtue of party discipline. He defeated the imperial ambitions of a self-centred, entitlement-theory Paul Martin, first whittling him down to a minority, then booting him out of Government altogether. Most recently, he built on this, and although a majority eluded him, he gained popular vote and seats for the Conservatives, with an absolute majority of 60% across all provinces not named Québec (and including Newfoundland & Labrador, the only province not returning Conservative MPs).

In other words, he’s built a legacy, and one that can continue. Infighting in public is a thing of the past, as are eruptions that are off-message or detrimental to the party’s success.

The very skills that brought him here, however, are the ones that will sink him in the future. As we saw in late November and early December, self-inflicted wounds are now the result. Although he has taken the steps needed to lower the combative temperatures, some of the prices we as a nation will now pay for his misjudgement as to whether he has a majority or a minority (the per-vote funding cut) will lead to billions misallocated, deficits we will have grave difficulty paying back in an economy which at best is neutral for years to come, and an emboldening of the Opposition to demand more, more, more: a high national price to pay to save Harper’s skin.

Good policy, therefore, requires that Stephen Harper follow Stéphane Dion into history’s books, albeit with a much better write-up.

Why a New Leader is Needed

No man — and no leader — is more important than their party and its chances to govern. (This, incidentally, is something Ignatieff, with his waffling around the coalition, seems to understand somewhat, although if he really “got it” he would not have put signature to paper.) This is as true of those who succeed in leading their party to the west side benches of the Commons as those who fail to do so.

Opinions about leaders decline over time. The person who once was new, exciting, different and dynamic later is seen to be covered in warts. We forget that Harper’s journey to where he is today has kept him in the centre of the national stage now for nearly eight full years. Those who like him may stand by him, or may erode away with one incident after another. But few will be persuaded to set aside negative views, now. Those are cast in concrete.

As with Trudeau — happily booted out in 1979 (and unfortunately inflicted on the nation to do far more damage in 1980 thanks to Joe Clark’s inability to even place a phone call to get the votes he needed), and as with Mulroney, despised long before resigning in 1993 — Harper’s day has now passed. He can step down on the top (more or less) of his game, or he can wait to be booted out by the Canadian people. Perhaps not at the next election — right now it is his to lose — but certainly at the one after that.

But what a surprise if his Christmas message to the nation this year was “My friends, it is time that I went. I call upon my party to schedule a leadership campaign, with a vote in early July 2009, at which point I shall step down in favour of my successor.”

Consider this: an Opposition who topples Harper at this point gets him for one more campaign, and one likely to return a Conservative majority if only because such a move would gain him votes. It would be Trudeau 1980 all over again — and they could be sure that the first bill after the Throne Speech following that election would strip away their funding.

Yet, with Harper going, he is no longer the demon. His face can no longer go up during the Two Minutes’ Hate on a daily basis to rally the troops and prepare for Question Period.

Not only that, but, by resigning, Harper need not give away the store for enough abstentions or votes for the Government’s program so that he survives. That would be good for Canada.

Who Are The Conservatives?

Having just completed a policy convention, a leadership race would allow candidates to finish the job of defining Canada’s Conservatives to Canadians. There will be different views put forward: this is a good thing in the context of a leadership race. (Meanwhile, although it is [at this juncture] to be a thinly-attended coronation, let’s not forget that the Liberals do not have a permanent leader officially until the beginning of May.)

Demonstrating the openness of the Conservative Party to different views — a healthy debate — in the absence of one in the Liberal Party (already damaged by the coalition manoeuvre) — is a good thing. It opens the door for former PCs that went Liberal to consider returning, and Blue Liberals to take another look at themselves and their opponents. This single set of months would do more to complete the task of institutionalising the Conservatives as a broad-spectrum governing party — one that must earn government and not default into it, but that appeals to a majority of Canadian voters — than anything else I can think of.

All it requires is for the Prime Minister to put strategy above tactics, and the good of the nation and the party ahead of himself.

With two new leaders facing each other in the fall session of Parliament — whether there is an intervening election or not — old battle lines would finally fall away. The next decade in Canada will be tough: let’s prepare for it properly.

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16 responses to “Conservative Leadership Change

  1. Indeed, it’s a different game now with Iggy in charge of the other side.

    While I agree that a change in CPC leadership might be helpful, there is no denying that Iggy and Harper will be true equals butting heads. This should make for some interesting political theatre.

    The political situation in Ottawa is in a precarious state right now. Changing the leader of the governing party, and thus the PM, could really improve things, but it could also seriously backfire. For example, what if the CPC ends being saddled with a dork and dweeb like Dion?

  2. Ah, yes, that’s a risk. Still, one worth running, in my humble opinion.

    I like great theatre as much as the next soul, but I’d like effective governance even better — and as much conservation of our national treasury as possible.

  3. I think all we owe Stephen Harper a vote of thanks for accelerating Dion’s departure. His actions seem almost counter-intuitive though – don’t bullys usually prefer weaker opponents?

    In any event, he’s put the Libs on notice to sort out how they’ll finance themselves going forward.

  4. Hi, Bob, and welcome.

    Yes, a rising vote of thanks is in order. Now it’s time to move on.

    Ignatieff will pose his own challenges to Harper — different in nature.

  5. bluegreenblogger

    I wish you luck in replacing Harper. I doubt he’ll go quietly into the night though…
    The most significant legacy he would leave the CPC would be that shiny new War Room with all the bells and whistles. The Conservative Party now has, and will retain a beating heart, that has already propelled them into office, and has brought fundraising, data driven electoral processes, and communications to it’s current ‘peak’ (or is it nadir?) in Canada. All knowledgeable political organizers in Canada have taken note, (I, for one am ‘green’ with envy), and such astounding success WILL be emulated. Ignatieff’s Liberals have just as many smart people, and they know full well that centralized control of data is the key to their Party’s future. Without a leadership battle in the offing, there will be a struggle between a powerful centre, and much weaker EDA, and regional groups that will ultimately relinquish control over the membership, and supporter lists to the center. I saw a van filled to the brim with a paper copy of the Liberal Party membership list during Stephan Dion’s leadership race. Three sample Toronto ridings, (out of 304) had an average of 2,500 names each. What a goldmine if they were to put it to use! If this happens quickly, then the Liberal brand will likely return to pre-eminence in Canada, so, in a sense, if Harper wants to retain his major legacy untarnished then this is the time for him to step aside. He’s a young man though, and I suspect that having tasted ‘ultimate’ power, he will want to stay for another helping.

  6. I daresay you are right, BlueGreenBlogger, about him not being willing to give up power just yet. Still, there’s no reason I can see not to float the idea…

    I’ve never understood, by the way, why that copying you refer to hasn’t happened already! Goodness knows the example has been there now for several years, at least on the centralised membership and fund-raising side. I guess the mythology that Conservatives are stupid troglodytes that passes for critical reasoning in the LPC and NDP blinds them somewhat.

  7. bluegreenblogger

    Don’t fool yourself! Know thy enemy. The Liberals have the most cunning political operators in Canada on ‘their’ team! Mythology plays no part in their calculations. I believe, with some grounds, that the leadership and factional rivalries within the Liberals have contributed to strong firewalls protecting rivals data, lists, etc. from each other. The regional, and riding level power bases of hundreds of petty power brokers are assiduously hidden from one another. I’m sure you can think of the examples where people show up at Party offices at midnight before membership cutoff dates with piles of membership applications. I promise you the applications will have the minimum acceptable data, to prohibit easy pickings and access by the rivals. Also, there is traditional division between Provincial databases.
    If you wonder why I have been so dogmatic in my assertions that an Ignatieff win is lethal to the CPC, (and the GPC, and NDP), it’s because when the factions have put this last battle to bed, I expect they will combine forces, modify their constitution, and centralize their databases. They will be up and running in a matter of weeks.

  8. Fascinating — I had not thought of the internals of the LPC in that way.

    Thanks for this.

  9. Excuse me, but must the free speech hypocrite and serial name-caller Weiner Pastel be included in any reasonable conversation on politics? If you don’t ban him (as he does over at his lonely site whenever somebody doesn’t indulge his obsessive jihad against Ezra Levant) he will be encouraged and thusly wind up polluting your fine blog with his irrelevant, recycled blather. Word to the wise 😉

  10. In case you were curious what I was talking about, in part:
    Update regarding comments

    Please note that comments will be moderated until further notice — thanks to the criminal goons and thugs that Ezra Levant has brainwashed into attacking anyone who dares oppose his libellous ways. Those thugs and goons are easily brainwashed, because with such little or no brain, the washing cycle doesn’t take very long at all. Ha!

  11. Hello, Vasco, and welcome. Thanks for the kudo of “fine blog”.

    We come across many people in our lives whom we may agree or disagree with. Certainly Werner & I do not agree on everything! Yet he always conducts himself here in an appropriate manner: he offers his views without bringing jihads of any sort into it. As, indeed, do the others who comment here.

    If “pollution” (as you put it) occurs from any commenter, I will deal with it, but not before. To me, my readers’ exercise of their freedom to speak includes saying things I disagree with.

    I moderate all newcomers on their first posting, after that the posts are automatically put up. That allows me to get the spammers out of the picture.

  12. There is no way that a change in leadership i s necessary right now.

    Furthermore, the Conservative party simply hasn’t spent the kind of time developing leadership talent that the Liberal party has. Once one gets past Harper, MacKay and (possibly) Prentice, the leadership prospects within the party are too few and far between.

    Unless Jim Dinning wants to make a run at the federal leadership. Considering how close he came to winning the Alberta leadership, one would have to think of him as a potential contender.

  13. Jim Dinning? Are you kidding? He lost to Stelmach! ‘Nuff said!

  14. You really have become a slow one, haven’t you, Werner?

    Dinning only lost to Stelmach in the technical sense. Stelmach was a compromise candidate between Dinning and Morton.

    If anything, Dinning failed to decisively defeat Morton. But he’s a bonefied conservative with significant appeal to progressive voters. He would prove to be a winner.

  15. Well, I don’t know Jim Dinning as well as you Albertans would, although I’ve been a fan of Jim Prentice for a long time now .

    I’d be a big fan of James Moore (who was my MP when I lived in Coquitlam, BC), but he’d probably still be thought too young by a lot of people.

    Michael Chong seems to have some chops, too, and a leader from Ontario couldn’t hurt over the next few years.

    It’s people like Flaherty and Baird, van Loan and so on, who give the CPC the image of “not having talent”, mostly because we’ve seen so much of them and so little of the rest the past few years.

  16. Pingback: Post-Party Depression « Worth the Fee to Read It

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