ontario news watch

Beginning of blue wave or just a summer fling? Conservatives meet amid polling boost

OTTAWA — For Emily Brown, it feels pretty good to be Conservative. 

“It’s quite a time to be a part of this, honestly.”

Buoyed by successive polls showing the federal party’s message on the cost of living and housing resonating among a wider, and younger, swath of Canadians, Brown will be among the thousands at the Conservative convention starting today in Quebec City.

“Everybody is feeling hope and excitement. Even with (people) outside of those who would be traditional Conservative voters,” said the former candidate, who ran in the Toronto-area riding of Burlington in the 2021 general election.

But as summer turns to fall, one question hanging over the Conservatives’ fortunes is whether the embrace Canadians have given the party over the last few months is the start of a long-term relationship, or just an infatuation. 

Generally, summer polling should be regarded with some degree of caution, given many Canadians’ minds are elsewhere, says Philippe Fournier of 338Canada.com, which publishes a statistical model of electoral projections based on polling, demographics and elections history.

“Usually it’s the most motivated voters that will answer those summer polls,” he told The Canadian Press last month.

One of the keys to potential Conservative success lies in not taking things for granted — a lesson Pierre Poilievre himself adopted while campaigning to become leader last year, entering the race as its clear front-runner.

Elected in September with a crushing first-ballot victory, Poilievre has spent the last 12 months steering his front-bench team in Parliament, rolling out its message-turned-rallying cry of “Bring it home.” He has criss-crossed the country several times, fundraising and meeting with thousands, placing a heavy focus on growing Conservative support in immigrant and newcomer communities in large cities. 

He will enter the convention fresh off the road from a summer spent touring, often with his wife, Anaida, while testing a new, more casual look without glasses or suit jacket. The hope is to get more Canadians, including women over 50, to warm to the idea that he could become country’s next prime minister. 

“We have wind in our sails now,” said Geoffrey Turner, who failed to win a seat for the party in 2021 in the Toronto riding of Etobicoke Centre and is a current policy chair with the nearby riding association of Etobicoke-Lakeshore. “There’s this sense that our hard-fought efforts are about to pay off.”

Poilievre’s first convention as leader is expected to involve far less drama than previous ones. During the 2021 event, Erin O’Toole, who has since retired from politics, suffered a humiliating blow when delegates rejected adding the phrase “climate change is real” to the party’s policy handbook. He was rebuffed after delivering a speech in which he told the party it needed a serious plan to tackle climate change if it hoped to win. 

The last in-person convention was in Halifax five years ago, when Conservative House leader Andrew Scheer was at the party helm. Maxime Bernier, having lost the party leadership race, announced just before the event he was quitting the federal Tories. He would soon lead the People’s Party of Canada.  

Poilievre will address delegates and others at the convention in a speech Friday meant to energize the grassroots to fight in the next election and show himself as a prime minister-in-waiting.

Conservatives in the room want to hear a message of hope, said Garry Keller, former chief of staff to Rona Ambrose, who served as the party’s interim leader after it lost government to the Liberals in 2015.

“We’ve seen Mr. Poilievre sort of road test some of that over the course of the summer … (and a) convention is also a great opportunity to test drive some more messaging.”

While the leader’s speech is often a highlight, for Conservatives — who pride themselves on being a grassroots party — the event is designed to place members front and centre, offering them a chance to debate changes to the policy handbook, including its constitution, to carry the party into the next election. 

Over the next few days, riding associations and delegates will push their varying priorities. While issues such as crime and housing affordability match Poilievre’s focus as leader, others draw the party into more controversial debates of a cultural nature. 

That includes the suggestion a future Conservative government prohibit “life-altering medicinal or surgical interventions” related to gender for anyone under 18 years old, protecting rights for those who refuse vaccination, and cutting funding to both the English- and French-language programming of public broadcaster CBC. 

On Wednesday, before the convention even got underway, Poilievre told reporters in Quebec City that, as leader, he is not bound to accept the ideas of his party. 

For Turner and other party members, like those in British Columbia, there’s a desire to include more in the policy handbook on the environment, which is why he and others helped advance a proposal that the the party commit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

“Our policy declaration is currently silent on that critical issue,” he said. 

While the economy is top of mind for most Canadians, former Conservative candidate for the Toronto riding of Scarborough-Agincourt Mark Johnson says the party still needs a convincing climate change plan if it hopes to win over swing voters in big cities.

“It will still be a tough road for Conservatives to win in the (Greater Toronto Area),” he said. 

“I still think we need to make a lot more inroads.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 7, 2023. 

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press