The federal Conservatives have problems. Is Brad Wall the solution?
POLITICS by Gregory Beatty
These are perplexing times for Canada’s conservative movement. After riding high for a decade, they’ve lost eight straight elections (seven provincial and one federal). They’ve been beaten by the Liberals seven times and the NDP once.
Saskatchewan and Manitoba have elections in April, so the losing streak should end soon. Although how much weight the victories will carry is debatable.
In Manitoba, the Conservatives face a worn-out NDP that’s been in power since 1999, and is led by an unusually unpopular leader. And in Saskatchewan, despite growing economic turbulence from the resource bust, Premier Brad Wall remains insanely popular and that gives the Saskatchewan Party a decisive edge over a NDP opposition still struggling to define itself [see sidebar].
Both provinces have moribund provincial Liberal parties, too, so the expected victories, while heartening, won’t stem the soul-searching that’s been going on since the Harper government was turfed in October.
In fact, as the leadership race to eventually replace Harper heats up, the debate about the party’s future is likely to intensify.
The final vote will be on May 27, 2017, and there’s no shortage of candidates. The latest to express interest — Mr. Dragon’s Den himself, Kevin O’Leary — is a red-meat conservative. How that would play with an increasingly moderate Canadian electorate, especially when combined with O’Leary’s bombastic personality, is a big question mark.
Former Harper cabinet minister Jason Kenney falls into the red meat camp too. Cabinet colleagues Lisa Raitt, Michelle Rempel and Kellie Leitch have also been name-checked. All would represent a degree of continuity with the old regime on the policy front, although perhaps with a less acrimonious and divisive tone.
That was a point Rona Ambrose made after succeeding Harper as interim leader. But while that might be the party’s public line, says University of Regina political scientist Jim Farney, the soul-searching needs to go beyond messaging and branding.
“They’re going to have to come up with something serious on the environment,” says Farney. “I think they had come to a workable compromise on multiculturalism until the whole niqab issue and foot-dragging on refugees blew that up. Rethinking the relationship with Canada’s indigenous population is another big one.
“But I don’t see core things such as a commitment to the free market and free trade going anywhere,” says Farney. “Same with [presenting themselves] as the party of family values. That kind of took off under Harper, and I don’t think they’ll move that.
Then there’s the question of rebuilding a base.
“Another thing they’re going to have to decide is whether they’re a party of the west, or of the west and Ontario,” Farney says. “Their electoral success was pinned on being both, but I don’t know how much of that seeped into their identity and that’s a discussion they’ll need to have.”
Federally, that goes to the heart of the Conservative Party. Its very genesis, after all, involved a merger of the western-dominated Reform Party and Progressive Conservatives elsewhere in Canada. Under Harper, the party tilted toward Reform. If change is in the air, that could open the door for candidates with solid P.C. credentials, such as Peter MacKay and Jean Charest.
Then there’s the one name that won’t go away, and it’s a big one.
The Wall Factor
Despite repeated denials he’s interested, Brad Wall remains in the mix. As an alliance of PCs, Liberals and Reformers, the Sask. Party has similar mongrel origins. And Wall’s successfully navigated that minefield since becoming leader in 2004.
“The thing that’s impressive about Mr. Wall is that while he’s a conservative, he’s governed as a fairly moderate right of centre premier — except on a few files like labour,” says University of Saskatchewan political scientist Charles Smith.
“Yes, he was always very close to Harper and supported his policies — even some of the more reactionary ones. But that never seemed to stick to him the way it did to Harper. That’s strategic on his part, but I think he’s just a much more likeable guy. He relates to grassroots small-C conservative people far more effectively than any conservative I’ve seen at the federal level.”
Still, Wall would be tilting against political history were he to seek the Conservative leadership.
“Robert Stanfield was the last notable contender who had been a premier, and that’s over 40 years ago,” says Farney of the former Nova Scotia premier who became the federal P.C. leader in 1967.
When you’re a provincial politician, your focus is naturally on provincial issues. But Canada is a vast country with many regionally distinct histories, economies and cultures, and the transition from the provincial to federal realm is not easy to make.
Wall’s French, for instance, is weak, which would hurt him in Quebec. And while he enjoys a reasonably high profile in western Canada, that’s not the case nationally.
“We perhaps forget in Saskatchewan that he’s relatively unknown elsewhere,” says Smith. “So it would be an uphill battle for him, especially with conservatives in Atlantic Canada and Ontario.”
Then there’s the biggest barrier of all to Wall entering the race: the upcoming provincial election.
“He’s running for re-election to be Saskatchewan’s premier so he can’t realistically say, ‘I’m interested in running federally’,” says Smith. “If he stepped away now, it would be devastating to the Sask. Party.”
Yet the rumours persist. And Wall stokes the fire occasionally by launching broadsides against the Trudeau government on the environment, Syrian refugees, equalization, resource extraction and other issues.
“I think it’s worth taking him at his word that he’s not interested in being party leader,” says Farney. “But by default at present, he arguably is the leader of conservatism as a movement. So I think that’s the role he’s stepping into. ‘Yes, there’s Rona Ambrose,’ he’s maybe saying. ‘But otherwise I’m the only person left with a national profile to articulate this viewpoint and I’m going to use it.”
“I think there’s some realpolitik going on here,” Smith agrees. “Let’s assume he has some federal ambitions — and I think he does. He’s testing the waters a bit.”
Even if Wall doesn’t throw his hat in the ring, he could still play a prominent role in the leadership race, says Farney.
“I think some candidates would look for his support, or at least his advice. I think it would matter a lot, especially if you’re one of the folks who might run in Ontario, it would be really helpful to have Wall’s support in the west.”
SASK. PARTY ELECTION STATUS: STRONG
Judging by recent polls (which show the Sask. Party with a 59 to 28 per cent edge in public support over the NDP) the upcoming election won’t hold much drama.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some intriguing subplots to consider.
To begin with, the Sask. Party is in transition with several founding members, such as Ken Krawetz, June Draude, Don Toth and Bob Bjornerud, stepping down. All are former Liberals who joined with Reform and P.C. party members to create the Sask. Party in 1997.
Under Wall’s leadership, the coalition has generally tacked centre-right. But if the Liberal influence is waning, could that signal a shift to the right? Wall himself has taken some stances lately, such as on prison food, that seem designed to appeal to his “base” more than middle-of-the-road voters.
“There’s probably something to that,” says Jim Farney. “But I think it’s more a situation that times have changed. I wouldn’t call it a recession but with the end of the boom, the party’s having to make [tough] choices. So we’re probably seeing more of the conservatism that was always there come out.”
“The province’s fiscal health is certainly a question mark,” agrees Charles Smith. “I think everyone realizes the existing budget is no longer relevant given [the collapse] in commodity prices. That’s going to hurt Saskatchewan.
“Unless the government is willing to raise taxes on certain things, and there’s no indication they are, if they’re committed to balancing the budget, which they say they are, I think there’s going to be a real push toward austerity,” Smith adds.*
While the Liberals only won one Saskatchewan seat in October’s federal election, they did increase their popular vote from 8.6 to 23.9 per cent. Then, in the Trudeau honeymoon period, an Insightrix Research poll registered provincial Liberal support at 14 per cent.
The Liberals have since returned to single-digit popularity. So for now, the Sask. Party’s grip on the centre-right vote remains firm.
Could that perhaps change, though, if Wall continues to pursue an aggressive national profile as a conservative leader in opposition to the Trudeau Liberals?
Short-term, Smith doesn’t see any harm to the Sask. Party’s political fortunes.
“Really, no western provincial government has ever done poorly internally by saying, ‘What about us here in the west?’ It’s part of the same classic federalism battles we’ve seen in the past, and I think Mr. Wall is calculating that he’s not going to lose anything in Saskatchewan by being the voice of opposition to many of the more socially progressive policies the Liberals are talking about implementing.
“Longer term, though, what does it mean about Saskatchewan’s place in Confederation? In many ways, we look like an outsider.”
With virtually every Sask. Party cabinet minister having endured their share of stumbles, Wall remains by far the Sask. Party’s greatest asset. And assuming he wins re-election in April, Farney doesn’t rule out the possibility of him seeking a fourth term in 2019-20.
“Tommy Douglas did it with the CCF. Given how dominant Mr. Wall is in the party, I think it will be a personal decision on his part. Does he still like the job, does it still capture him, or does he want other challenges. I can’t see him going past four terms, but I don’t see any reason for him to stop at three.” /Gregory Beatty
*After this interview was conducted, the Saskatchewan Party announced plans to run deficits in 2016-17 if elected.