Like The Hub?
Join our community.
Join

Centre Ice Conservatives want new ideas, not a party split

News

The Centre Ice Conservatives, a group of self-described moderate conservatives gathering in Edmonton next week, have been playing a lot of defence lately.

There have been accusations they are plotting to undermine Conservative leadership frontrunner Pierre Poilievre, allegations that it’s the beginning of a movement to form a new “Red Tory” party, and critics have suggested the conference is simply in response to Poilievre’s “bad manners.

On all counts, the organizers plead not guilty.

But the nature of the conference does raise a key question: what even is a moderate conservative these days?

The advocacy group, co-founded by businessman Rick Peterson, describes itself as a platform for centre-right conservatives, and centrists in general, who feel marginalized in the political sphere. 

The group argues that Canadian politics are being dominated by the “woke” Left and the fringes on the populist Right, leaving the “majority of mainstream Canadians” without representation, a void that CIC hopes to help fill. 

“My concern is, right now, we have a political discourse that’s dominated by people on the Left and Right saying everything’s terrible and that nothing short of stripping everything down is going to make things better,” says Dominic Cardy, a CIC advisory council member, and cabinet minister in New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government. Before joining the PCs, Cardy was the leader of the New Democratic Party in New Brunswick.

Cardy says there are huge numbers of Canadians in the political centre who want to see institutions reformed, not torn down, but lack a voice.

It’s hard not to see this as a response to Poilievre, who has dominated the leadership race with a large social media presence and boisterous rhetoric about some of the country’s beleaguered institutions. He has promised, among other things, to replace the Bank of Canada’s governor and remove the “gatekeepers,” who he says hurt the aspirations of everyday Canadians. 

Bryan Brulotte is another member of CIC’s advisory council and also a supporter of Poilievre’s candidacy. He disagrees with the idea that “populism” is always a negative impulse, instead seeing it as an expression of the will of Canadians, or at least a large number of them.

“The tone that’s expressed sometimes, it is a tone of maybe exasperation or a sense of frustration that it’s not being heard,” says Brulotte.

Poilievre is known as a staunch fiscal conservative, but is also pro-choice and supports marriage equality. Brulotte agrees that Poilievre fits the mold of a centrist in some ways, believing it is possible for him to be both a populist and a centrist at the same time.

The Centre Ice Conservative gathering—officially dubbed the Let’s Grow, Canada! conference—boasts some well-known speakers, with the Globe and Mail’s Andrew Coyne, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Brian Lee Crowley, and University of Calgary economist Jack Mintz all scheduled to speak. Former B.C. premier Christy Clark will be the keynote speaker at the event on Aug. 11.

The key question for attendees will be whether the Conservatives can veer to the centre without losing too many voters on the Right.

In an upcoming episode of Hub Dialogues, Tasha Kheiriddin, another member of the CIC’s advisory council and campaign co-chair for Jean Charest, cites the old Conservative Party of Sir John A. Macdonald as a model. She said Macdonald strove for progress that was guided by conservative ideas and the goal of national unity.

“I’d like to see our party look like that, I’d like to see our party be that big tent that can address issues of unity, but also focus on economic development and inflation,” said Kheirridin.

Her words come at a time when the province of Quebec’s nationalist government is re-asserting autonomy from the federal government. Meanwhile, candidates for the leadership of Alberta’s United Conservative Party debate about an “Alberta Sovereignty Act.” 

Kheiriddin says that while conservatives of all kinds tend to unite around economic policies, there is more to conservatism than that.

“There are other elements of conservatism that are also incredibly important, freedom of the individual and freedom of speech, personal freedoms and liberties, but also a sense of community,” says Kheiriddin.

For Brulotte, the ideal scenario is a Poilievre-led Conservative Party that is infused with ideas from a lively faction of moderates. He believes CIC has a role to play in conservative politics when the leadership race ends on September 10 and says he wants a big-tent Conservative Party, not a fractured one.

“I think that the CIC, what it does, is it represents an engaged group of concerned conservatives who want to make sure that a centrist position is heard within the existing Conservative Party today,” says Brulotte. “And as in any party, at the end of the day, we follow the leader, and we stick together, because united, we’re stronger than divided.”

Danielle Smith’s big week: UCP leadership hopefuls go head-to-head in first debate

News

It was a big week for United Conservative Party leadership candidate Danielle Smith, for reasons both good and potentially bad. 

A Leger poll released last Sunday had Smith leading all other contenders, with 22 percent of UCP supporters tentatively backing her. In second was Brian Jean, MLA for Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche, with 20 percent. Travis Toews, a former cabinet minister in Premier Jason Kenney’s government, came in third with 15 percent. 

Smith, a former columnist and radio host, has emphasized strengthening Alberta’s provincial sovereignty, specifically its ability to develop and export its natural resources without federal interference, in her campaign’s flagship promises. 

Her proposed “Alberta Sovereignty Act” would empower Alberta’s government to refuse to enforce any federal law or policy that threatens Alberta’s interests or provincial rights. Smith has promised to introduce the bill on her first day as premier if she wins the race.  

Commentators have called Smith’s plans unconstitutional and unworkable, but others acknowledge she has turned Albertan sovereignty and autonomy into key issues in the leadership race. 

Whatever boost Smith’s campaign received from the Leger poll was dampened, if only slightly, by her comments on a podcast last week where she appeared to suggest cancer patients could control the sickness, as long as it was before stage 4. 

Smith’s comments were criticized and condemned from all sides, making Smith’s already-contentious campaign even more controversial. It helped set the stage for Wednesday’s first official UCP leadership debate in Medicine Hat. 

Lasting roughly two hours, and beset by technical difficulties, several of the eight candidates on the debate stage took thinly-veiled shots at Smith during their opening statements.

“Being premier is a lot more than being a talk-show host. We need stable and serious government in Alberta now, more than ever,” said Rajan Sawhney, MLA for Calgary-North East, and former provincial cabinet minister.

Next up was Rebecca Schulz, MLA for Calgary-Shaw, who said Alberta needed, “…someone who is disciplined, who won’t let you down with embarrassing comments…”

Opting to not attack Smith in his opening statement, Jean emphasized his desire to increase the autonomy of Alberta and the people who live within it.

“I believe that the United Conservative Party has the best ideas and the best principles,” said Jean. “If the UCP is led in a way that connects with everyday Albertans, we will have success.”

In Sunday’s Leger poll, 42 percent of surveyed Albertans indicated the next UCP leader needed a clear plan to stabilize Alberta’s economic growth. Twenty-one percent of respondents prioritized rebuilding health care and education, while 18 percent valued “conservative “ values and freedom as their top concerns. 

Despite the data, the UCP debate often resembled less of a conversation about those issues and more a collective interrogation of Smith, interspersed with some wonkish policy debates. 

Affordability was the first major topic brought forward by debate moderator Jeff Davison, leading to a spirited back-and-forth between Toews and Todd Loewen, MLA for Central Peace-Notley.

The two argued about the Kenney government’s fiscal record and whether Toews ever entertained the idea of introducing a provincial sales tax in Alberta. Sawhney, Smith, Schulz, and Leela Aheer, MLA for Chestermere-Strathmore, briefly spoke about re-indexing tax benefits, combating inflation, and tax relief, among other fiscal matters, before the debate topic switched to the environment. 

When called upon to discuss the issue, Smith initially spoke about getting Alberta to net-zero carbon emissions. However, Sawhney followed up by criticizing the Alberta Sovereignty Act, prompting Smith to begin discussing economic corridors to out-of-province ports without federal involvement.

Sawhney responded by saying economic corridors were already in the works, forcing Davison to try and steer the debate back to the environment, to little avail.

“Ottawa has created chaos, Ottawa has cancelled our projects, Ottawa has caused Energy East and Teck Frontier Mine, and tens of billions of other projects to be cancelled,” said Smith. “Part of our strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is exporting our clean LNG to displace coal in India and China. We cannot do that because Ottawa keeps standing in our way…”

Both Sawhney and Toews asserted Smith’s proposed Sovereignty Act was an unrealistic solution to Alberta’s problems.

“There are no shortcuts, there is no magical Sovereignty Act or any other legislation that is going to let us bypass those steps,” said Sawhney. “The problem is when we shoot ourselves in the foot with provincial policies like the Sovereignty Act.”

While the topic soon moved on to health care, Sawhney kept challenging Smith, demanding to know when she would apologize for her comments about cancer being controllable.

Soon after, Smith demanded to know when the present former cabinet ministers would apologize for imposing COVID lockdown restrictions, resulting in raucous cheers from the gathered audience.

When given time to speak, Toews and Jean both emphasized the need to improve health care, especially in rural Alberta. Jean, who lost a son to cancer in 2015, ended his pitch by expressing his disappointment in Smith for her comments and took the opportunity to stare her down.

When the subject shifted to relations with the federal government, Smith jumped at the opportunity to again hammer home her ideas about Alberta’s sovereignty, 

“…We have allowed the federal government to walk all over us in every area of our jurisdiction,” said Smith. “We always lose when we go up against Ottawa, they take all our money and they dribble it back with conditions. They steal the rest, and they use it to win votes in Quebec and Atlantic Canada…”

Smith’s words raised another loud cheer from the crowd before Schulz attacked Smith’s Sovereignty Act for the economic uncertainty that, in her words, would lead to another NDP government. Aheer and Toews followed suit in condemning the Sovereignty Act but said tougher negotiations with Ottawa were needed. 

Sawhney echoed this message. 

“Alberta must fight back, but we must not be risky and hotheaded,” said Sawhney, saying confrontation and division were Justin Trudeau’s tactics. “I’m actually focused on solving real-world problems, and when we respond with anger, it feels good in the moment, but it’s (counterproductive).”

Jean also ruled out the Alberta Sovereignty Act. 

“It’s a fiscal fairy tale, it is not going to work,” said Jean, while agreeing Alberta must do things differently going forward and force the federal government to open constitutional negotiations.

When it came time for closing statements, Sawhney again cautioned against any rash approaches to dealing with Ottawa. 

“A Danielle Smith victory today, means a Rachel Notley victory tomorrow,” said Sawhney. “…We do have a choice, one choice is to roll the dice on risky and hotheaded ideas, but if we lose that gamble, the losers are Albertans.”

Quito Maggi, the founder of Mainstreet Polling, wrote in iPolitics on Thursday that after studying Alberta’s electorate, Smith, in fact, has the best chance to defeat the NDP in the next provincial election. 

Despite the contentious nature of the debate, Smith individually praised all her rivals onstage in her closing statement and said all were good candidates for cabinet. She finished by returning to her campaign’s central theme.

“Who is going to stand up to Ottawa?” asked Smith.

Smith’s ambitions to become UCP leader and Alberta Premier have been evident since before Kenney’s May 19 resignation, following a leadership review where he barely won with just over half the vote. 

The UCP will elect its new leader on October 6, 2022. The Alberta general election will take place no later than May 29, 2023.