At the end of 2018, Maclean’s magazine put five conservative leaders on its cover and presented them as “the resistance” – an apparent play on the name of movement who had emerged to oppose Donald Trump in the United States.
The three prime ministers and two party leaders on the cover were featured as a united front against pressure from the federal Liberal government to put in place a national price on carbon emissions.
Less than four years later, only two resistance fighters are still standing.
Andrew Scheer resigned as federal Conservative leader just over a year after appearing on this cover. Brian Pallister announced his intention to resign as Premier of Manitoba in August 2021. Jason Kenney announced he would step down as premier of Alberta Wednesday after discovering that only 51.4% of his party members supported his leadership.
Meanwhile, a carbon tax is in place in all 10 provinces, Justin Trudeau is still prime minister and one of the last two members of the resistance – Ontario Premier Doug Ford – now likes to point out to how well he gets along with Trudeau’s second. at the helm is Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.
The disappearance of the resistance tells us a lot about the politics of recent years. It could also pave the way for a new, fiercer type of resistance.
A losing battle against the carbon tax
the story that accompanied this cover image quoted a former adviser to former prime minister Stephen Harper repeating a Harper-era maxim: carbon taxes are political albatross for Liberals and political gold for Conservatives.
Scheer’s Conservatives dutifully ran in the 2019 federal election promising to repeal Liberal politics. But even with Ford’s government put stickers on gas pumps in Ontario who blamed the Trudeau government for raising gas prices, Scheer’s Conservatives could muster only 121 seats.
The Conservative Party’s miscalculation may have been twofold. It is possible, for example, that the Trudeau government’s decision to return carbon tax revenues to households through rebates undermines Conservative claims that the tax was a monstrous imposition.
It’s also possible that public opinion has changed significantly since 2008, when the Conservatives successfully pilloried then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s carbon tax proposal. In 2019, it wasn’t enough to condemn your opponent’s climate policy choice – you had to have your own credible climate plan. And Scheer didn’t.
(The resistance was also betting on a legal challenge that ultimately failed in the Supreme Court.)
Then COVID-19 arrived.
Pandemic eludes Kenney, Pallister and O’Toole
It is still too early to say exactly what impact the pandemic will have on Canadian politics (the pandemic is not over yet).
But when the Angus Reid Institute asked Canadians to rate their provincial leaders’ handling of the pandemic on the second anniversary of COVID-19’s arrival in Canada, the lowest ratings went to Kenney in Alberta and Pallister (and his successors, Heather Stefanson and Kelvin Goertzen) in Manitoba.
The premier of Alberta, in particular, seemed bound by the fact that many members and supporters of his party did not support the public health restrictions that the rest of the electoral public wanted to see in place. In the end, he may have been expelled by his own party because he was not considered conservative enough.
The same difference of opinion between Conservative voters and everyone else also eventually caught up with Scheer’s successor, Erin O’Toole. Last August, the Trudeau government announced its intention to require vaccinations for air and train travel, as well as for public servants.
O’Toole deferred to the libertarian sentiments of his party’s base and spoke out against the plan. The Liberals harassed him about this throughout the election campaign last fall.
O’Toole’s exit was then precipitated by his inability to figure out what to say about the so-called “freedom convoy” who arrived in Ottawa in February.
But O’Toole might have been better placed to survive a leadership challenge if he hadn’t tried to surprise his party by reversing his stance on carbon pricing. After seeking party leadership as a “true blue conservative” who would repeal “Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax”—like a late-day member of the resistance—O’Toole decided the party would champion a more complicated carbon pricing.
Had O’Toole won a majority government, the Conservatives would likely have gritted their teeth and learned to live with carbon pricing as the cost of electricity. But after more than a decade of being told by their leaders that a price on carbon is a ruinous and unfair burden, it’s no surprise that O’Toole’s malleability on the issue hasn’t been popular with conservative supporters.
Resistance creates a noisier residence?
But in the wake of O’Toole – and perhaps now in the wake of Kenney – conservatives don’t seem in the mood to be less resistant to a number of things.
Pierre Poilievre, the presumptive favorite in the federal Conservative leadership race, has vowed to repeal the carbon tax and attacked former Quebec premier Jean Charest and former Progressive Conservative leader of Ontario Patrick Brown for their support of carbon pricing policies. If Poilievre has his own plan to cut emissions, he hasn’t revealed it.
Even some of the more moderate candidates decided they wouldn’t go as far as O’Toole did. Charest said he remove the Liberal government’s consumption carbon tax (while leaving in place the price that applies to industrial emissions). Scott Aitchison said the Conservatives “never support a carbon tax.”
Poilievre – who appeared on the cover of a Maclean’s in March with the caption “Why is Pierre Poilievre so angry?” – also supported the convoy and opposes vaccination mandates. He said he wanted to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada.
After touching on a conspiracy theory about the “Great reset‘ in 2020, Poilievre now says he would ban his ministers from attending the World Economic Forum’s annual conference – apparently in response to people who perceive the WEF as a significant threat.
The Conservative Party still had to figure out what it should be after Stephen Harper. Each party out of power must reckon with a version of the same existential questions. And the resistance’s failure to stop a carbon tax might seem to some conservatives like the last gasp of an old approach that needs to be replaced with something different.
But now it looks like it could have been a harbinger of even stronger resistance to come.
High gas prices and an ever-increasing carbon price could be an easy target. And by the next federal election in 2025, the Liberal government will have been in power for a decade, which could make it much harder for the Liberals to win another vote.
But after Kenney was kicked out – and after federal Conservative finance critic Ed Fast felt forced to withdraw because he publicly expressed doubts about Poilievre’s attack on the Bank of Canada — it seems fair to ask whether conservative parties in Canada can hold together under the pressure of this craving for some form of conservatism even bolder.