When 141,000 ballots were counted on May 27 at the Toronto Congress Center and the results reported for the 14 candidates seeking the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, it was obvious the push by Canadian pro-life and pro-family groups to get their supporters to purchase a membership to the party to back the social conservative candidates was going to influence whoever was eventually selected leader if not determine who the leader would be.
The hope was that grassroots social conservatives would make such an impact that whoever became the new leader would not be able to ignore this large and important group within the Conservative coalition. Sometimes during the Harper years, many pro-life and pro-family leaders complained, life and family issues were ignored by the government and that social conservative voters had been taken for granted by the party.
Last month, the social conservative vote determined the outcome, propelling former Speaker of the House, Andrew Scheer, to the leadership. Libertarian Maxime Bernier, who reached out to social conservative voters with a promise to reverse C-16 (a transgender rights bill) if it passed and vowing to allow MPs to speak up and bring forth bills and motions on whatever topics they wanted, finished second. Bernier led in each of the first 12 ballots, but lost by less than two per cent to Scheer, who has a perfect pro-life, pro-family record as MP.
Campaign Life Coalition did not endorse Scheer because the Regina MP said he would not reopen the abortion issue. Despite CLC’s disqualification of Scheer in their Voter’s Guide, they expected many pro-lifers to vote for Scheer somewhere on their ranked ballot. CLC vice president Jeff Gunnarson told The Interim that Bernier courted the social conservative vote and Scheer was counting on these same voters; Gunnarson said for many social conservatives, the pro-life issues are paramount and that might be why Scheer won; Scheer had a solid voting record on these issues while Bernier was pro-abortion (while voting against euthanasia).
CLC did endorse MP Brad Trost (University-Saskatoon) and former Ottawa-area MP Pierre Lemieux, both of whom ran on a social conservative platform. The ranked ballot ensured their support would not harm one another as members could vote for both of them (and others if they wanted). It appears that many who supported Trost and Lemieux also voted for Scheer further down their ballot, helping propel him to victory.
Trost and Lemieux both exceeded expectations when they were announced as the sixth and fourth place finishers respectively in the first round of voting. Polls typically had them in the low single digits and few experts had them going far. Eric Grenier of the CBC developed a Leadership Index and he predicted that Trost would finish eighth behind Lisa Raitt and Lemieux fifth behind Kellie Leitch. It didn’t end up that way. Both won more than 7 per cent of the points (not votes, as the party allocated 100 points for each riding so that a seat in Calgary or Brampton with more members would be worth the same as ones in Quebec or Atlantic Canada that had relatively few members). Raitt did not even win four per cent of the points, while Lemieux had 7.38 per cent (just between Leitch’s 7 per cent and Michael Chong’s 7.55 per cent) and Trost began with 8.35 per cent.
Few polls had Trost making any impact in the race whatsoever although some pundits thought Lemieux had a little momentum going into the final weeks of the long leadership campaign. When Chong was announced in fifth spot, many in the audience reacted with shock; it was obvious that Trost was, at worst, fourth. Trost would briefly overcome Erin O’Toole for third, as down-ballot votes were counted as each round’s loser was eliminated and points were reallocated, which elicited another audible gasp from the audience.
Neither Trost nor Lemieux were surprised by the results. They knew how many memberships they and supportive groups had signed up. Unlike the frontrunner campaigns, they did not brag – or exaggerate – the number of memberships they sold. Doing so would have made them a target for those who worry about the influence of social conservatives within the party.
It was immediately evident that pro-life and pro-family party members were a force in the leadership race. In the ten minute interval between the announcement of the first round results and the next batch of results, journalists gravitated like a herd to the social conservative impact narrative for the convention. It was a surprise to them, but not to Trost and Lemieux, both of whose camps told The Interim they knew their support was larger than polls suggested. The Trost campaign had a motivated base and their volunteer telephone bank made nearly 900,000 phone calls to ensure they identified their supporters and got them to vote.
CBC’s Rosie Barton said Trost’s performance “was well beyond what people expected” and the first ballot indicated “the social conservative part of the party remains strong.” She described Trost as the more radical social conservative candidate of the three – including Andrew Scheer – in the race. She did not explore why the most vocal of the three did best measured against expectations, perhaps indicating it tapped into a group of voters excited to face so-called controversial topics head-on.
National Post columnist Andrew Coyne said the first-round results proved “social conservatives showed up. They are motivated voters. They are organized voters.”
Kevin O’Leary, the social liberal television personality who dropped out of the race in April, was a panelist for the CBC’s convention coverage. He said he was impressed by Brad Trost’s showing, saying it was a surprise because when he was polling when he was still a candidate, Trost was not even a factor. He suggested that social conservatives were disproportionately among the 90,000 memberships submitted in the final week of February and that they were more motivated to vote than others.
Fellow panelist, former Progressive Conservative leader and Harper-era cabinet minister Peter MacKay said, while the results were not anticipated, perhaps it should not have been a surprise. MacKay said, “you only have to see a pro-life rally on Parliament Hill to know how many social conservatives there are.”
The results should not have been a surprise and one didn’t have to remember the annual National March for Life to know why. On the first night of the convention, the candidates were allowed to make one last pitch to voters (who hadn’t mailed in their ballots and were voting in person). The loudest applause lines of the evening were for Trost and Lemieux’s explicit references to pro-life and pro-family ideas and support for social conservative voters.
As each candidate entered the room, their partisans clapped and cheered. Same when the candidates wrapped up their speeches. Candidates like Lisa Raitt were applauded when they called for unity within the party after the election. But there were few applause lines for policies and values.
Brad Trost was cheered when he said “I am also a proud social conservative, as are tens of thousands of our most dedicated members.” Some of them were in the audience. They also cheered when he talked about the “culture of life” and “support (for) traditional marriage.” More applause when he talked about those who want to focus on fiscal issues or crime and ignore the concern of “old-fashioned” conservatives: “they say we need either to be quiet or be dropped altogether. I say, they are wrong.”
In his speech Lemieux said “I want a bigger party,” that includes a “special invitation to those with social conservative values, to those with faith-based values, and those who value life from the moment of conception through to natural death.” Again there was cheering. Lemieux said social conservative values “are the strength of our country and they are the strength of our party.” Lemieux said “if you share these values and you are not in our Conservative Party then our party is too small.” He reiterated the line that has received the loudest applause at the debates in Edmonton and Toronto: “I am Pierre Lemieux. I am pro-life. I am social conservative. I am pro-freedom of speech. And I am Canadian. These are Canadian values.” Once again, that mantra received enthusiastic applause. Lemieux said pro-life and pro-family voters “have a rightful place within” both Canada and the Conservative Party.
Lemieux said political correctness threatens freedom of expression. “Canadians must be able to discuss and debate any subject that is important to them, and this includes life issues.” He explained, “it is undemocratic and it diminishes those who value life when politicians state that the debate is over, that debate is shut down, or I will not reopen the issue.” He said “we need a leader who has the courage to discuss life issues in an open and respectful way.” He said that the Conservatives must run as conservatives and that the only way the Tories will beat the Liberals in 2019 is by presenting a different vision for Canada.
The CBC’s Peter Mansbridge said he thought social conservative issues were settled and wondered aloud if talking about them hurt the Conservative brand. Peter MacKay said everyone has the right to speak out on whatever issues concern them but that it was “disrespectful of democracy” to try reopen issues decided by the Supreme Court. Calgary MP Michelle Rempel was visibly upset with both Lemieux’s and Trost’s speeches. After Lemieux said the Conservative Party must be coalition that includes pro-life and pro-family voters, Rempel went on a rant: “six years of having this debate, compassion means caring for women when they are in this situation and not condemning them for a choice they might make one way or another.” She wondered if those who “march” against abortion “are going to care” for the children of women who do not want them. She also claimed the party’s founding principles of equality and non-discrimination meant the Conservatives Party supports abortion and LGBQT rights. Talking about moral issues, she said, “denigrates what this party is about.”
Rempel said “I’ve never been quite as candid about this” as she continued. “As one of the few people in our caucus with a functioning uterus, this is something that is very important to me and if we are going to be reopening this issue, I’ll be vocal about.”
During their speeches, Lisa Raitt and Erin O’Toole, two Ontario MPs often labeled as social moderates, said the party needs to be united and welcoming to all conservatives, presumably including social conservatives.
There was very little movement in the point total until Raitt fell off on the seventh ballot. Her support moved disproportionately to Leitch, propelling the controversial candidate who ran on a platform of screening immigrants for Canadian values over Lemieux for sixth. Lemieux dropped down to seventh and fell off the ballot next.
When Lemeiux’s ballots were re-ranked, they went to both Scheer and Trost, though mostly the latter. On the eighth ballot, Trost fell to fifth, but when approximately two-thirds of Lemieux’s supporters went to Trost, he leap-frogged over both Michael Chong and Erin O’Toole to third, jumping from 8.53 per cent to 12.84 per cent. It was the largest gain any candidate had made to that point. On the same ballot, Scheer closed the gap between himself and Bernier, jumping from 23.85 per cent of the points to 26.03 per cent, the second largest gain thus far.
When Chong was dropped from the ballot, most of his support went to O’Toole, propelling him back ahead of Trost. The tenth ballot had Bernier ahead of Scheer 36.5-30.2 per cent followed by O’Toole at 18.9 per cent and Trost with 14.3 per cent. When Trost’s votes were reallocated for the 11th ballot, Scheer was virtually tied with Bernier: 40.38 compared to 38.36. The support of Trost and Lemieux helped Scheer narrow the gap. When O’Toole’s votes were reallocated, Scheer won. In a traditional delegated convention with multiple rounds of new voting, O’Toole’s voters would have put Scheer over the top, but in the ranked ballot system in which (most) votes were completed before conventioneers even arrived in Toronto, that’s not quite right. Scheer would not have been in a position to win without the support of those who ranked Lemieux and/or Trost first and second. CLC’s Gunnarson said while it is ultimately unknowable, he guesses that many grassroots pro-life and pro-family Canadians joined the party because they got excited about the explicit appeals to their values made by Trost and Lemieux, but also ranked Scheer. “I’m not sure if Andrew Scheer would have convinced many of our supporters to buy a membership, but probably many of them thought to themselves ‘what the heck, might as well put his name down, too. It’s hard not to vote for a guy who has a perfect voting record’.”
The media’s main takeaway from the convention was the reemergence of social conservative voters. There was barely an outlet that did not take note of the presence of these voters and most analysts said they delivered Scheer his victory. It is not accurate to call all Trost and Lemieux supporters pro-life and pro-family voters, but it is a useful proxy. (Bernier, a libertarian, also had social conservative support.) The Toronto Star’s analysis found Trost and Lemieux’s strength was Scarborough and Mississauga in Ontario and concentrated pockets in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Trost and Lemieux’s national point share was 16 per cent, but they combined for 20 per cent in the country’s largest province. If you view the voting membership as a focus group, the Star argues, there is significant support for pro-life and pro-family views, and more so in the country’s most populous province. Trost and Lemieux said in their convention speeches that many immigrant and young voters are attracted to the pro-life and pro-family message.
The Liberal Party’s messaging was that Scheer was dangerous and extreme because he was personally pro-life and opposed to same-sex “marriage.” Former Harper spokesman Andrew MacDougall wrote in the Globe and Mail that the Liberals were close to attacking Scheer for his personal religious beliefs because the new Conservative leader has repeatedly insisted his government would not revisit these issues. Despite stating his clear intention to focus on the issues that unite Conservatives and implicitly suggesting he’ll stay clear of controversial subjects (and reiterating he will not reopen the abortion and marriage issues), Scheer probably hasn’t put to bed the charge of harbouring a hidden agenda. His political opponents will use his voting record and personal views to paint him as unfit to lead, if not downright unCanadian.
The leadership campaign demonstrates that pro-life and pro-family issues resonate and that Canadians concerned about those issues are willing to act on their principles. Conservative MP Alex Nuttall (Barrie–Springwater–Oro-Medonte), a key player in the Bernier campaign, was quoted by the National Post: “The social conservatives are a key pillar of our party and they turned out in big numbers.” And Erin O’Toole’s director of communications, Melanie Paradis, told the Post, that Brad Trost’s rallying of support “sends an important message that the social conservative voice is strong inside the country and needs to be respected, and now we have a leader who will do that.”
The question is what does respect mean? And is respect really enough?
The leadership campaign and results show the Conservative Party is a conservative party, made up of social conservatives, libertarians, democratic populists, Red Tories, fiscal conservatives, and law-and-order conservatives. They will need to work together and compromise. In terms of offering a vision and set of policies for a united Conservative Party, the various elements of the Right, among the membership, within caucus, and the movement, must do more than merely politely tolerate one another. Working within a political party means working for the policies one cares about and accepting some policies with which they don’t entirely agree. And that goes all ways. Usually talk about Big Tent conservatism and compromise means social conservatives get a “say” – the right to complain about this or that – but when policy is hammered out, they are expected to get behind a platform of moderate fiscal conservatism and near total silence on social issues. Real respect means that everyone must be allowed to get some policy victories. Not merely a chance to win policy victories, but to get them, too.
For pro-life and pro-family Conservatives, the work begins immediately for the party’s national policy convention in August 2018.