Iattended the Annual General Meeting of the Progressive Conservative Riding Association of Burlington Ontario earlier today. It was in some ways a sombre occasion being as it was the first AGM in several decades without a sitting PC member of the legislature representing Burlington at Queen’s Park.
The Riding is now Liberal red, Eleanor McMahon having won in the Jun. 12 general election. Former incumbent Jane McKenna, who attended the luncheon and AGM, lost her seat to McMahon even though McKenna got 258 more votes in June than she got in her successful 2011 general election campaign. More voters turned out in 2014 and they all seemed to vote Liberal.
AGM attendees had the pleasure of hearing first hand from three of the PC leadership candidates: MPPs Christine Elliott (Whitby-Oshawa), MPP Lisa MacLeod (Nepean-Carleton) and federal MP Patrick Brown (Barrie). Each of the three gave a short address, which were all enthusiastically received. I also thought the candidates handled the questions from the floor adeptly and never once did any of them read from prepared notes.
My takeaways from the meeting were:
Confirmation that the apparent front runner Christine Elliott is my choice for leader. Elliott has impressed me over the years, though I didn’t support her 2009 bid for the leadership. Back then, I supported Tim Hudak because I thought he had more political seasoning. Elliott also did a fine job in the recent leaders’ debate in Northern Ontario, so her performance today was to be expected.
The Party has some serious challenges ahead if it intends to form a government in 2018. To start, it has a seriously challenging membership recruiting campaign ahead. To get back to membership levels it enjoyed in the Mike Harris era it must increase membership numbers by a factor of nine or ten. Not insurmountable, perhaps, but nearly so.
The Party has what might be described as an identity crisis. By that I mean it needs to decide where exactly on the political left-right continuum it wants to reside. In recent elections, the Ontario PCs have run on a right-wing platform, not even giving lip service to policies that would be consistent with the “progressive” part of its name. And this I believe will be the critical decision for the new leader to make.
There are far more small “c” conservative voters in Ontario than the past four general elections would imply. Many of these reside in the rural areas, but many more live in the 905 region and in ethnic areas of the GTA including Toronto proper—as demonstrated by the two Mike Harris majorities, the support the Ford brothers have received in municipal elections and the success the Harper Conservatives have had among ethnic communities in the GTA.
For the most part, however, the sweet-spot seems to be somewhere just right of centre—and just about where one might expect to find a progressive conservative party—think Bill Davis conservatives.
Progressive conservatism is more than a political party name—it’s a distinct ideology that first arose in the United Kingdom as then prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s “One Nation” Toryism. It is one of the many recognized forms of conservatism. An article in Wikipedia describes it thus:
Progressive conservatism incorporates progressive policies alongside conservative policies. It stresses the importance of a social safety net to deal with poverty, support of limited redistribution of wealth along with government regulation to regulate markets in the interests of both consumers and producers.”
Many famous statesmen—dare I say conservative statesmen—have been proud to have their names associated with progressive conservatism, including Benjamin Disraeli, Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill, David Cameron, William Howard Taft, Dwight D. Eisenhower and many federal PC prime ministers who represented Canada’s conservative movement prior to Stephen Harper.
“Progressive” need not be a dirty word. Nor is—as is claimed by some hard-right conservatives—progressive conservatism an oxymoron. Progressivism may very well be corrosive when deployed by left-wing parties, but that need not be an automatic consequence.
To be a progressive conservative one needs not toady up to union leaders, but certainly a successful political party in Ontario needs to attract votes from union members and those sympathetic to the union movement. (Many union members and sympathisers in the private sector are as upset as PCs are about overly-generous wages and benefits of their public sector counterparts and want to see some common sense applied.) Nor need one succumb to the corrupt, spendthrift ways of the Kathleen Wynne/Dalton McGuinty left-wing Liberals.
Furthermore, this is an opportune time to claim the natural ideological position of a progressive conservative, for the Grits have vacated the middle—both left and right sides—in favour of the mid-left of the spectrum. In the June election, the Liberal campaign platform was noticeably to the left of the socialist NDP—I never thought I’d see that day.
This leaves the centre open to the PCs and I believe leadership candidate Christine Elliott is the most likely to reclaim that winning position. PCs have been there before and brought prosperity to Ontario. Our party under Elliott could do so again, or so I believe.
As I said before, “progressive” need not be a dirty word.