Conservatives talk with real confidence about winning the next federal election and most concede that to do so will require at least some success in Atlantic Canada.
In Halifax this week for its bi-annual national convention – the last before that election – the party hopes that flying its colours down east will help loosen the Grits’ grip on some of the region’s 32 seats in the House of Commons.
Confidence seems to be a natural state for members of most political parties. Optimism abounds, although it often seems rooted in false-consensus bias – the belief that others share your point of view.
Conservative confidence comes from their blessed assurance that by October 2019, Canadians will have come to see Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as an empty vessel, and his government as profligate and oppressive.
They, on the other hand, will return order and fiscal probity to the land, leave you alone and lower taxes for an encore.
Even with all that, Conservatives allow that Atlantic Canada will remain tough terrain for their candidates. Convention conversation becomes a tad halting when it turns to where the party will pick up seats in the Atlantic Provinces, although New Brunswick springs first to most lips.
Conservatives held eight of New Brunswick’s 10 parliamentary seats before the Liberal sweep of 2015. The ridings in south-western New Brunswick, around Saint John, are considered the best bets to return to their old habit of voting Tory.
Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland were not fruitful ground for Conservatives led by Stephen Harper, whose comment that Atlantic Canada suffers from a “culture of defeat” – a remark he made when he led the Canadian Alliance – seemed to follow him and haunt the region’s Conservatives throughout Harper’s decade as Prime Minister.
Tories are hopeful that Atlantic Canadians will be more favourably disposed to their earnest and slightly cherubic new leader, Andrew Scheer. It is easier to warm to Scheer than to Harper, but that’s not a particularly high bar to clear.
When Harper’s Conservatives won their lone majority, in 2011, the party took one of Prince Edward Island’s four ridings, and one of eight in Newfoundland and Labrador. That Labrador riding flipped decisively to the Liberals in a byelection two years later.
Harper’s Conservatives faired better in Nova Scotia before 2015 when, perhaps sensing the inevitable, three of the four incumbent Tories did not reoffer, and Liberals handily defeated both Tories and New Democrats to win all 11 seats in the province.
Some Tories are hopeful that long-serving Liberal MPs – Wayne Easter in PEI and Nova Scotia’s Scott Brison are sometimes mentioned – will bow out of politics before the 2019 vote, opening the door, if only a crack, to a Conservative win.
Political polls aren’t much more than grist for political palaver a year out from a federal election, but while national polls have the Conservatives within hailing distance of the governing Liberals, the spread in Atlantic Canada remains a gulf, with Trudeau’s Liberals almost 30 points ahead of Scheer’s Conservatives.
How Maxime Bernier’s pre-convention exit from the Conservative Party, in a self-righteous huff punctuated by harsh criticism of Scheer, plays out for Conservatives remains to be seen.
Bernier was an ex-Tory in all but name from the moment Scheer beat him on just one of 13 ballots – the one that counted, the last – to become leader.
If convention delegates are representative, it’s Andrew Scheer’s party now and Bernier’s attack helped make it so.
Conservatives in Halifax surrounded their freshman leader in a protective cocoon after Bernier jumped ship and tried to take the party and especially the leader down with him. Whatever delegates thought of Andrew Scheer before Bernier’s attack, with few exceptions, they are four-square behind him after.
Bernier practices a populist, libertarian brand of conservativism that too often comes tinged with a distasteful bias against “others.” The laisse-faire economics and less-government-is-best-government ideology that comes along with that brand hasn’t grown well in the hard-scrabble ground of Atlantic Canada, so Max’s move is mostly a non-event east of Quebec.
Conservatives find comfort by viewing the 2015 defeat as inevitable after a decade in power, and the decisive Liberal sweep of Atlantic Canada as a one-time event. It is unlikely that they will go 0-for-32 in the region again, but a return to government will require major gains starting on the east coast and spreading through central Canada. No mean feat.