Federal Conservatives are in the midst of a deep stare-down with a mirror to reinvent themselves to be less a “party of one” — though they would never admit that.
The party once chastised for an MP’s $16 glass of orange juice; for adopting environmental policies to that prompted the UN to label Canada a climate laggard; and for using the niqab as a wedge election issue has turned to populism to guide its new path.
More than 300 party supporters packed a Barrie warehouse Saturday for an event called “Conservative Futures.” There they witnessed an unofficial kickoff to the party’s leadership contest, previewing pitches for a new Tory tone before next year’s vote.
“We failed to provide a vision as to where we were steering to,” said local MP and event emcee Alex Nuttall on a stage set on a flatbed truck.
A giant Canadian flag was illuminated behind him as he addressed some of the party’s campaign trail missteps.
Conservative MP Alex Nutall speaks to a crowd at the “Conservative Futures” event in Barrie on March 19, 2016. (Photo: Zi-Ann Lum/HuffPost Canada)
The party's messaging had almost been “exclusively about the past,” the Barrie—Springwater—Oro-Medonte MP said.
There’s an urgency for the party to adapt and grow its base by finding new angles to familiar causes young Canadians would pay attention to, like financial insecurity.
"We failed to provide a vision as to where we were steering to."
— Alex Nuttall, Tory MP
“[The prime minister’s] strangling the entrepreneurial spirit of youth just like this by shackling them and restraining them in the bondage of mass debt,” Nuttall said.
After his speech, a group of McGill campus conservatives told HuffPost Canada they were happy to be acknowledged after feeling nearly invisible during the election.
Brown: Tories went ‘too far’ on niqab
Six current MPs — Lisa Raitt, Tony Clement, Erin O’Toole, Kellie Leitch, Maxime Bernier, and Michael Chong — headlined the event as speakers. Their names have all been tossed around as possible contenders for leadership.
Doug Ford pulled out of the event to be with his brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford who’s undergoing cancer treatment. Michelle Rempel and former MP Peter MacKay also cancelled.
Interim Tory Leader Rona Ambrose wasn't there, but was praised for bringing “bold new ideas” to the party after Stephen Harper resigned his spot at the helm. Among them include a seemingly renewed interest in youth, the environment, and women — topics and areas on which the Liberals focused their election messaging.
"I never bought for a second that you can’t care about the environment and be a conservative."
— Patrick Brown, Ontario PC Leader
“I know I raised a few eyebrows when I talked about the environment, and I really believe in my heart of hearts that conservatives must talk about the environment,” Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown told the group, referencing a speech he made at his party’s convention two week earlier.
“I never bought for a second that you can’t care about the environment and be a conservative.”
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown delivers a speech at the party’s convention in Ottawa on March 5, 2016. (Photo: Fred Chartrand/The Canadian Press)
He also raised some eyebrows after saying the party needed to reach out for unions — a voter base that traditionally veers toward the NDP and Liberals.
Brown resigned from his federal seat last summer after winning provincial PC leadership. Since taking control of the party, he’s been credited with steering it closer to the political centre.
The tone in his remarks were more critical than his former colleagues’ careful speeches. At one point Brown explicitly said the federal Conservative party “lost” its way after failing to defend ethnocultural groups “unequivocally.”
“I know this is a difficult conversation to have. But the reality is all those gains we made in 2011, we lost,” he said in reference to veteran Tory Jason Kenney’s work with multicultural communities.
And the “one mistake” the party made during the election was “going too far on the niqab,” he said.
Zunera Ishaq, pictured in a lawyer's offices in Toronto on Oct. 8, 2015, challenged Ottawa's 2011 decision to ban the niqab during oath of citizenship ceremonies. (Photo: Chris Young/The Canadian Press)
Similar sentiments were echoed by Michael Chong, who leaned on his identity and experience as a “mixed-raced kid in growing up in rural Ontario in the 1970s.”
New Canadians need to be able to see themselves in Conservatives, the Wellington-Halton Hills MP said. He added that the party had a lot of work to do to “reconnect” and “re-earn” trust from immigrant voters.
Starting from the ‘bottom’
An anticipated post-mortem on what went wrong for the Conservatives during the campaign has yet to be released. But if repetition at “Conservative Futures” is any indication of a renewed strategy, more humble childhood stories of Tory MPs and supporters will be heard to contrast a portrait of a “millionaire prime minister.”
With his mother Judy in the crowd, Nuttall got personal and told the audience about his experience growing up in social housing. He smoked his first cigarette at age eight and said being elected to Parliament was a dream come true for a kid raised on welfare.
He blamed the Toronto Star for reinforcing a stereotyped caricature of Conservatives as a party of “rich white guys.”
"We are the party of hope and opportunity."
— Kellie Leitch, Tory MP
Raitt shared a piece of her upbringing as a Cape Breton kid who grew up at the “bottom of the hill” next to a steel plant — a story that was a hit among attendees, especially younger ones overheard lauding about the MP’s “good vibes.”
Chong brought some levity to the room joking about the quirks of having an immigrant mother with a thick Dutch accent.
The party needs to reflect on who they are as Conservatives and why, said former cabinet minister Kellie Leitch.
“We are the party of hope and opportunity.”
‘Shit’ wages and political changes
But the Tories’ populist approach to rejigging its image to be more palatable to Canadians for 2019 is a “little late in the game,” according to a local.
Susan Macpherson was waiting for her clothes to dry at Courtney's Coin Laundromat while former Tory cabinet ministers, party donors and supporters took selfies and schmoozed during a reception, waiting for dinner tables to be set up a block away.
Macpherson had no idea the event, one where the call for a new national conservative movement was repeated through a loud PA system, was taking place right in her neighbourhood.
A Barrie resident for 13 years, she said she voted Liberal in the last election because she was “not so happy” with what the Conservatives did in their nine years in power with jobs and health care.
She noted that the local wages are still “shit” and many residents commute to Toronto and back for work. And as a long-term health worker, she said stories about the sick and injured waiting up to eight hours in emergency are common lore.
As for a post-Harper Conservative party metamorphosis, Macpherson said she isn’t holding her breath.
“They can say whatever they want, but actions speak louder than words,” she said.
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