Why the Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) Party is in a free-fall
September 20, 2013 by Paul McKeever
The Ontario Progressive Conservative Party commenced a three-day policy convention in London, Ontario, today (September 20, 2013). For that reason, I tuned into “London Today” with host Andy Oudman, who can always be counted upon to deliver compelling political radio discussion. The show was a magnificent piece of civic reportage (click here to listen to it). The PC party’s key local membership – who called in to the show – illustrated that the PC party is a conflicted mess in political free-fall.
That free-fall is not confined to London. To see the confused, conflicted, and drowning state of the PC party, watch the following segment of Steve Paikin’s The Agenda (TVO), with guests John Tory (former PC leader), John Capobianco (a long-time big-time PC insider who falls squarely into the my party right or wrong camp), municipal councillor (and Sun columnist) Maddie Di Mucchio, and John Mykytyshyn (pollster/strategist, long-time PC insider): http://ww3.tvo.org/video/195254/pulse-pcs. While Capobianco and Mykytyshyn play defence, Tory and Di Mucchio call for the PCs to do more to appeal to women, LGBTs, and people other than just “angry white males” in rural Ontario who want to take everyone’s stuff away (if that’s a category). At the same time, Tory is saying that Hudak cannot pretend be a red tory (even though, in fact, he is one, but tries to pass himself off as somehow right-wing), such that what he is implying is that they’re screwed with Hudak…yet, he says, they should stick with him and not vote on his leadership until after the next election (sounds, like Andy Oudman said, like Tory’s trying to open a door to his leading that party again). Meanwhile, Di Mucchio comes right out and says that Hudak lacks the charisma that, she says, is necessary if they are to win.
If you listen to it all, and take it all in, there is absolutely no common understanding, among them, about what’s wrong or what they have to do to right it. The over-reliance upon charisma betrays a belief that policy doesn’t matter, but that charisma does. The over-reliance on policy-making betrays an ignorance about the role of election platforms. The one bright spark among them came from Di Mucchio, who rightly explained that nobody gives a damn about systemic issues like gas plant e-mail non-disclosures, or disputes with unions over election campaign ads: the only things that matter are the…[blank out…she knows what doesn’t interest her, as a mother and a woman, but stops short of identifying anything that would be interesting to her].
Bottom line: the infighting is the result of the party having nothing to offer its members other than (a) its size, (b) a personality (whoever the beleaguered leader happens to be at the time), and c) its blue/PC brand identifiers. It seeks to win power, but for numerous conflicting reasons, or no reasons at all. Its leader, to maintain peace, accordingly must be everything and, therefore, nothing in particular…which leaves them looking for policy-less “charisma”.
There’s a reason that a party so lost once held power. It had a reason to exist: it was the party that served to keep Ontario a place for “white”, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It was anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and anti-French. There was a reason: so were the majority of Ontario residents.
That majority apparently continued into the mid-1980s before it started to dwindle substantially. I remember observing the anti-Catholic bigotry in the 1980s when I played with a band on the 12t of July (when all good Orangemen parade in the streets of some rural towns and speak of kicking the pope, as a celebration of Prince William of Orange’s victory over King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690): not knowing I was raised a Catholic, the Orangemen freely went on not only with anti-Catholic slurs, but with anti-black, anti-immigrant etc. slurs. Incidentally: that July 12th, the town in question was Orangeville which – as far as I can tell – has elected only PCs at the provincial level since Confederation (which is why the PCs plunk a candidate there when they need a sure win…like Ernie Eves, and John Tory).
Consider the effect of that demographic on provincial politics. Ontario’s first premier (John Sandfield Macdonald) was the only Catholic premier prior to…Dalton McGuinty’s win in 2003. According to wikipedia’s entry about the Ontario PC Party:
“After losing power in 1871, this Conservative coalition began to dissolve. What was originally a party that included Catholics and Protestants became an almost exclusively English and Protestant party, more and more dependent on the Protestant Orange Order for support, and even for its leadership. The party became opposed to funding for separate (Catholic) schools, opposed to language rights for French-Canadians, and distrustful of immigrants. Paradoxically, an element of the party gained a reputation for being pro-labour as a result of links between the Orange Order and the labour movement.”
The upshot: until changed federal immigration policies resulted in white Anglo-Saxon protestants no longer being the majority in Ontario, the PCs were able to win back-to-back governments for 42 straight years by being the party primarily of white Anglo-Saxon protestants. That run ended in 1985, when – at the urging of then Principal Secretary to Premier Bill Davis, John Tory – Davis extended public funding to Catholic high schools beyond grade 10. Not only had demographics rendered the PC party unable to win with its solely white Anglo-Saxon protestant constituency, but Davis had violated the trust of members of his own party, who recoiled in horror at Catholics getting funding to the end of high school.
Things were so bad for the PCs that, even when Liberal Premier David Peterson shot himself in the foot with a 1990 general election, those who had voted PC in the past could not bear to vote PC: instead, they helped elect the NDP to a majority government (don’t forget the links between the Orange Order and the labour movement in the wikipedia passage quoted above).
In the federal election of 1993 – half-way through the term of Ontario’s provincial NDP government – the federal PCs imploded due to Mulroney’s constitutional panderings to Quebec and, arguably also, due to free-trade and the GST. In its place, the vacuum was filled with the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois. In Ontario, at the provincial level, the PCs were terrified that their provincial party, likewise, would implode. Seeing the success of Preston Manning’s Reform Party campaign, which was largely built upon the then-foreign concept of balancing the budget, Mark Mullins (an economist who later would lead the Fraser Institute) penned the “Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution” document, and Harris began selling it. The three main planks: 1. ending photo radar (i.e., money/injustice), 2. balancing the budget while cutting taxes by 30% (money/fiscal responsibility), and 3. ending affirmative action (jobs and therefore money, but it was also attractive to white Anglo-Saxon protestants, who were the intended victim of the NDP government’s affirmative action legislation). Now, keep in mind, until that platform, there was no reason to think of the PCs as being “right wing” at all. It was the party that had given Ontario virtually every major socialist system that currently continues to plague the province: provincial income tax, provincial sales tax (now part of the HST), Business Improvement Area taxes, the ban on private health insurance, the OHIP government monopoly, nationalization of electricity production/transmission/distribution, rent controls…you name it. But the Common Sense Revolution platform had younger folks (and those who weren’t paying close attention to politics until then) thinking that the PCs had a “right wing” or even “libertarian” nature: it had given the PCs a new identity to mask its largely and ugly collectivist past.
However, within 4 years, the PCs had lost steam. They treaded their way through the 1999 election fueled not on ideas so much as public inertia. The budget had been balanced (primarily due to increased revenues, not due to spending reductions), and the creditors were no longer threatening Ontario. With the shooting of Dudley George, supporters of the Liberals and NDP had managed to revive the public’s awareness of the historic connection between racism/collectivism and the PCs. The e-coli horror at Walkerton offered NDP and Liberal supporters an easy opportunity to convince Ontario voters that improper water treatment was due to “hard-right” PC “cut-backs”, rather than due to irresponsible water treatment workers. So, by 2002, Harris – looking worn out – took his hat and left.
The Reform Party was gone, there was no immediate threat in 2002 that the PCs would implode provincially as they had federally, and the budget still appeared to be balanced. So Ernie “I’m not right wing” Eves was chosen to replace Mike Harris, and he campaigned on what has remained the PC focus ever since: more money for health care and education. The Ontario provincial PC party had gone back to being the pro-socialist party it had been before the federal PC implosion, seeing no need anymore to fend off fiscally responsible Reform-types. The PCs even added-in an ad hoc plank against immigrants coming to Ontario and using socialized services like health care (here’s the flyer).
After losing the election of 2003, Eves was followed by left-of-the-Liberals John Tory (who, for example, berated McGuinty for not saving the planet from CO2 catastrophe by banning the incandescent bulb immediately instead of waiting until 2012). Having infuriated PCs in 1985 by having Bill Davis extend funding to Catholic high schools above grade ten, he proposed funding private religious schools with taxpayer money and famously lost the 2007 election over it. Some people just never learn.
Tory was followed by pretend-right-wing-but-echo-liberal-policy Hudak. Hudak condemned the Liberals for all-day kindergarten, but refused to repeal it; he condemned the Liberal government’s deficit, but promised to keep borrowing for exactly as long as the Liberals (i.e., until 2017-18); he promised not to cut funding to health care and education and, instead, to increase it (even though those programs, together with interest payments on the debt, essentially soak up 100% of provincial tax revenues). And, during the election, he somehow thought it would be a good idea to release imprisoned child-diddlers into our public parks to clean them. He lost the 2011 election and…was kept on as leader by the PC membership.
Where are the PC party’s supporters now? Right where they were in the Reform Party days: mostly in rural, mostly white, mostly English-speaking, mostly protestant Empire Loyalist ridings. In some such ridings, such a large percentage continue to vote PC that it brings up the party’s province-wide “popular vote” numbers considerably, despite doing poorly in suburban and urban ridings. And those ridings – lacking much in the way of job opportunities – tend to have a large number of older people in them: folks who remember the 42 year reign of the PC party before Ontario’s demographics changed.
I hate to say it, but I believe it’s true: the folks who comprise what is left of the backbone of the PC party today are the same folks who were its backbone before 1985: a handful of somewhat old yet politically active white Anglo-Saxon protestants who still see the PC party as being, primarily, their party, for that reason. Economics, education, health care, balanced budgets: none of it matters – they are supporting the party of their collective. And – because all that these older folk have in common is their “W.A.S.P.”-ishness, they cannot agree on policy, on leader (Hudak is a Catholic, incidentally, and don’t assume that that has nothing to do with the discord in the PC ranks), or even on what is/should be the PC party’s political orientation. They cannot even agree with younger “white”, English-speaking, and/or Protestant people who see themselves as members of the human race, not as members of some sort of superior W.A.S.P. collective. Founded when the collective of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were the biggest collective in Ontario, that shrinking old bigoted collective is no longer able to give the PC party a majority, or even to win it seats in ridings that are populated by a widely diverse range of religious, genetic, linguistic, or national backgrounds.
And so, a dysfunctional family of aging angry folks who used to represent the majority of Ontario’s demographic sit bitter, wondering why they can’t seem to win elections like they used to. They point their fingers at PC party policy (“too left” or “too right”) and their leaders’ charisma (or lack thereof), forgetting – or not knowing – that the only thing that made their PC party popular in the first place was the popularity of the bigotry for which it stood. People who are “white”, or Anglo-Saxon, or protestant, or all three no longer tend to see those things as putting themselves in a collective separate from the rest of Ontarians. The better among people who were raised in Ontario in more recent decades – regardless of the colour of their skin; regardless of their religious affiliation; regardless of their mother tongue; regardless of their country of origin – no longer tend to see themselves as members of such a collective, and aren’t looking for a party that serves such a collective. So, as the old bigotry of some older people in Ontario continues to sink to its abode 6 feet under, the PC party – lacking any principled distinction from the Liberals other than its bigoted history; refusing to reject the socialism of the liberals and the NDP, because socialism has always been at the heart also of PC governments’ policies throughout its history – continues to lose its key players and supporters to mortality, and gradually slips into a grave of its own, where it belongs.