The organizers call it a strategy session for the Conservatives’ next decade. And for the estimated 4,300 Progressive Conservatives gathering in Ottawa on Aug. 24 for a three-day national convention, their first since 1986, it is a chance to celebrate back-to-back election wins in 1984 and 1988. It will doubtless produce generous praise for the performance of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney— who, along with his wife,
Mila, will mingle with the party faithful at a wrap-up picnic on Saturday. But, in their more reflective moments, the Conservative delegates will be forced to confront some unsettling facts.
For one thing, the legislative agenda that Mulroney’s government will carry into the autumn session of Parliament is likely to be
dominated by the deeply divisive issue of abortion and the broadly unpopular federal sales tax proposal. At the same time, one major new initiative, on the environment, has been slow to emerge, while another, dealing with telecom-
munications, threatens to generate opposition from the provinces. But, for many older Conservatives, the most unsettling moments may come on Thursday, when party researchers unveil the fruits of an in-depth review of who supported the party in last November’s general election—and who did not. The central conclusion: the Progressive Conservative party that many Tories grew up with is vanishing.
For decades, the Conservatives were mainly the party of the Prairies and small-town Ontario. And remaining strength in those areas was crucial to the party’s 1988 election victory: Albertans sent Tory MPs to Ottawa from 25 of the province’s 26 federal ridings—both urban and rural. But the postelection analysis to be delivered to delegates at a workshop on Thursday evening—details of which Maclean ’s obtained last week—shows that, in much of the country, the party’s old bastions are being eclipsed. In their place, the party is consolidating its hold on French Quebec and emerging as the political voice of the suburbs, especially around Toronto. Indeed, the typical Tory voter of 1989 is less likely to be found riding a combine on the Prairies than piloting a fourdoor sedan through a snarl of commuter traffic.
The welcome message for Conservatives in those findings is that the party appears to have captured key elements of the electoral coalition that returned successive Liberal governments through much of the 1960s and 1970s. But some analysts struck a warning note as well: urban voters, they said, are notoriously less strongly wedded to their political allegiances than the old rural Tory loyalists. Said political scientist George Perlin of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.: “Have we got a new core of Tories? I think not. Urban voters are more volatile. You can’t count on them.”
For many delegates, however, the implications of the Conservative’s changing makeup are likely to be overshadowed by the party’s immediate political challenges. The party gathering is taking place one month before Parliament reopens, and the fall session is bound to be a stormy one. In the wake of a succession of controversial court rulings over abortion earlier in the summer, Mulroney promised to introduce a new abortion law to replace Criminal Code provisions struck down as unconstitutional last year. But the party’s parliamentary caucus has so far been unable to bridge its own divisions over the issue. At the same time, a backlash against Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s proposed nine-per-cent tax on most goods and services promises to make that a tough issue to handle.
But those are not the only storms gathering for the Tories. On one other front, Communications Minister Marcel Masse is expected to unveil a new telecommunications policy, after the Supreme Court of Canada cleared the way for the federal initiative with a ruling on Aug. 14 that the industry falls under Ottawa’s jurisdiction. Last week, provincial leaders in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta were quick to signal their opposition to the policy—designed to give Ottawa expanded powers to regulate provincial telephone companies. Saskatchewan Finance Minister Gary Lane, for one, warned that Ottawa will face “tremendous public resistance” if it attempts to take over regulation of provincial telephone services.
On the environmental front, the controversy surrounding the attempts to dispose of potentially harmful PCBs from Quebec in Britain last week underscored the fact that a national environmental policy—promised last year by then-Environment Minister Thomas McMillan and, after the election, by his successor, Lucien Bouchard—has not yet emerged. When it does, however, it too may prove to be an irritant in federal-provincial relations: Ottawa has already skirmished with Quebec and Saskatchewan over environmental reviews of dam projects in both provinces.
Still, organizers of this week’s Conservative gathering said that its primary aim is to involve the party’s rank and file in defining its program for the next decade. Said party president William Jarvis: “We are asking members to become involved in policy renewal as we move toward the next century.” For older Tories, however, that process may sharpen the differences between the party of the past and the new Conservative profile.
The most obvious change in that profile has occurred in Quebec, where Tories swept 63 of the province’s 75 seats last Nov. 21. Not even in 1958, when John Diefenbaker led the party to victory in 50 of 75 seats, had Tories done so well in the Liberal bastion. But by 1962, most Quebec voters had returned to the Liberal
party. In the 1980s, by contrast, the Tory hold on Quebec appears to have taken root among francophone voters of all ages and social groups. Said pollster Ian McKinnon, chairman of Decima Research Ltd. in Toronto, who participated in the postelection analysis: “It is an enormous transformation.”
But it was the pattern of Tory support outside Quebec that pointed to a dramatic shift in the party’s strength from the country to the fastgrowing suburbs. In every province except Manitoba, the Conservatives fared better last year in urban areas than in rural ones. Meanwhile, Queen’s University’s Perlin noted, the party’s former loyalists in rural ridings may be slipping away to new conservative fringe groupings, including the Reform party—which elected its first MP, from rural Alberta, in a byelection in March—and the Christian Heritage and Confederation of Regions parties.
Nowhere was the Tories’ new urban appeal more marked than in the crucial battleground of Ontario, which decides 99 of the 295 seats in the House of Commons. In all, Ontario voters returned nine more Tory MPs from ridings in or near cities and three fewer MPs from rural
ridings than in 1980. Declared David Small, a Tory organizer who participated in the vote analysis: “For years, the Ontario party was based on white Anglo-Saxons—Orange, antiFrench, anti-American, not very well educated.
Now our strength is in the suburbs.”
Still, there are weak spots in the Tory grip on the nation’s cities and suburbs— most notably among immigrant voters. With the exception of francophone Haitians in Montreal and wealthy Chinese Canadians in Vancouver and suburban Toronto, the party’s analysis showed that most inner-city Italian, Greek, Portuguese and Ja§ maican voters continued to £ vote Liberal last November. E Said Suzanne Warren, the y party’s chief Toronto orga5 nizer: “We have to work at broadening our base in the lower-income groups and the multicultural communities.” And, as Conservatives digest McKinnon and Small’s report along with their hamburgers and com on the cob at this week’s party gathering in Ottawa, they must weigh another challenge as well: how to reconcile their daunting legislative agenda with the uncertain loyalties of their new—and potent—surburban supporters. □
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