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Data, farm systems and Lululemon: Inside the effort to get conservatives elected in cities

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Are Canada’s big cities hostile to conservatives? 

Conventional wisdom holds that they are the political Left’s permanent property and, while some cities like Toronto have mayors once part of conservative political parties, none are outwardly conservative in the same fashion as outspokenly progressive mayors

One of Canada’s most successful municipal conservative parties has all but collapsed in Vancouver. Even in Tory-voting Alberta, progressive mayors govern Edmonton and Calgary, the latter a city that Ralph Klein once won with ease.

Should conservatives abandon hope of being a municipal force again? 

The Pacific Prosperity Network, a British Columbia non-profit founded last November, certainly does not believe so. 

On its website, PPN advocates for lower-taxes, free-enterprise, and strategic investing in like-minded individuals and grassroots organizations. PPN also believes in the rule of law and supporting police. BC’s cities are currently experiencing historic levels of drug overdoses, homelessness, and proliferating violent crime

More important than that however, is the approach PPN is taking to make conservatism viable in cities once again. Lululemon founder and billionaire Chip Wilson recently gave $380,000 to PPN last week, a donation that brought PPN into the spotlight. 

“Our mandate is to work with civic leaders, or aspiring civic leaders, in order to train them and to provide them with campaign software, and essentially just campaign fundamentals so they can do better and have electoral success at the municipal level,” says Micah Haince, PPN’s founder and executive director.

Haince believes PPN is a model for conservatives across Canada and is necessary to counter progressive groups doing the same thing from the Left. 

“Without being too ambitious, I can certainly say that conversations have been had about an Atlantic Prosperity Network, a Western Prosperity Network,” says Haince. “There certainly is a need for it, because this suite of environmental non-government organizations that play ball and are influencing elections, they’re doing it all over the country.”

Despite Vancouver’s reputation for cannabis, rainbow crosswalks, and climate activists blocking traffic and gluing themselves to infrastructure, the city was a stronghold of a conservative party ironically called the Non-Partisan Association (NPA)

Founded in 1937, the NPA governed Vancouver for 51 of 71 years and produced 11 mayors before losing the mayoralty in 2008. They have not regained it since. One reason Haince gives is the NPA’s traditional base of homeowners who vote to protect property values and impede housing densification has eroded.

During this year’s ongoing municipal race for mayor and council, due to conclude in October, the NPA has imploded in unprecedented fashion. 

Last year, the NPA board controversially nominated John Coupar as its mayoral candidate without consulting the membership, resulting in an exodus of NPA council members who had won half the council seats in the 2018 municipal election. 

Coupar stepped down as the NPA candidate on August 3. Business in Vancouver reported the split resulted from an internal dispute about accepting donations from real estate mogul Peter Wall.

Vancouver’s incumbent mayor is Kennedy Stewart, a progressive and former NDP MP. 

With no run-off in Vancouver’s municipal elections, Stewart won the 2018 mayoral race with 49,705 votes against 70,544 votes split between several centre to centre-right parties

Vote-splitting is likely to once again propel Stewart to a second term this year. In addition to the NPA’s replacement for Coupar, three other parties led by, or partially made up of, ex-NPA members will be contesting the election. 

“Kennedy Stewart’s running completely by himself, you’ve got one guy on the Left and five on the centre-right,” says Haince, who was once part of a group that unsuccessfully lobbied the NPA to consolidate Vancouver’s political right in time for the 2022 election.

Angelo Isidorou was Coupar’s digital strategist before resigning last month. He says Vancouver is not as unfriendly to conservatives as it might appear. Despite vote-splitting in 2018, the NPA still came within 1,000 votes of defeating Stewart.

“Often times we’ll hear political pundits talk about how Vancouver is this uber-progressive city and why would you try to run a right-leaning candidate here?” says Isidorou.

Isidorou points out that despite the federal Conservative Party’s failure to win seats in Vancouver, their combined votes are enough to win municipally.

“That is the ultimate question,” says Isidorou. “How do we engage people who for whatever reason don’t vote?”

Haince says because the NDP is constitutionally united at all levels of government, it can share resources like data and staffers between municipal, provincial and federal elections, in addition to training candidates for elections.

Labelling it the “farm team system,” Haince says the NDP can funnel candidates between school boards and city councils, as well as provincial and federal seats, bringing name recognition and other resources along with them like volunteers, data, and staffers.

“You’re in the wilderness if you’re running for municipal politics,” says Haince of right-leaning candidates. “You have no support, no parties, no back loans, no infrastructure, no training, no software.”

While many centre-right campaigners tend to rely on an expensive piece of software called NationBuilder during elections, Haince says those candidates let their NationBuilder license expire when the campaign is over, with the data left to collect dust.

“We campaign for four months, put it away for four years, come back and campaign for four months,” says Haince. “There’s no question why we’re so behind.”

Part of PPN’s plan is to develop software similar to NationBuilder and sell it to centre-right candidates at low-cost to help them maintain data sharing between elections.

Haince says progressive non-profits like Dogwood and the Sierra Club funnel money and resources into movements supporting candidates like Kennedy Stewart, a vocal opponent of oil pipeline construction. 

“They’ve got all these E-NGOs also sharing and collecting data and mobilizing this data,” says Haince. “You can run an anti-pipeline campaign in Vancouver, find out who all the anti-pipeliners are, and then you’re able to call them to get out to vote for Kennedy Stewart.”

Turnout in municipal elections is lower than provincial or federal elections, but Haince says those who are engaged in city elections are usually progressive because of their networks and available resources to properly organize, resulting in their electoral successes.

Calgary exemplifies a city that votes conservative federally and provincially, but votes for progressive mayors and councils at the municipal level. 

Haince says the non-profit E-NGOs operate independently, and do not have to abide by election rules related to areas like campaign finance. Haince says PPN plans to be the first such non-profit to support conservative candidates in the same fashion.

“There’s absolutely nobody in this space on the centre-right doing this work at all,” says Haince.

Isidorou has done work with the PPN, and believes it is what urban conservatives need to have electoral success.

Raising issues like inflation, interest rates and reforming Canada’s institutions have animated federal Conservatives in recent months, but Haince says right-leaning candidates in urban areas must address matters where they can make an impact. 

“They are certainly in charge of allowing people to live affordably, allowing businesses to operate profitably, reducing the amount of red tape and bureaucracy around things like building a house or getting a permit for renovation,” says Haince.

Haince is keeping PPN out of Vancouver’s municipal race this year due to the chaos and vote-splitting on the Right, but is already operating in Vancouver’s suburbs, and smaller communities in rural and exurban BC.

When Vancouver’s election concludes this October, Haince will look into reversing the decline of Vancouver’s political Right.

Isidorou is optimistic. 

“The Right has finally begun doing what the Left is, which is working with third-parties, getting funding, training candidates and creating an ecology and funnel to government,” says Isidorou.

Moderate conservatives gather to preach ‘radical’ centrism and lament ‘rage-filled diatribes’

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Back in 2002, Trent Evans and his crew of icemakers from Edmonton buried a loonie at centre ice at the E Center in West Valley, the arena hosting the hockey games during the Salt Lake City Olympics. Both the men’s and women’s teams went on to win the gold medal in those games and the “lucky loonie” lives on as legend, proudly displayed in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. 

Not much brings Canadians together these days, but hockey (for the most part) remains a unifying force for pride and mythmaking.

It is no surprise, then, that a group hoping to bridge the divide between our polarized population, Centre Ice Conservatives, draws on the metaphor for their name. Centre ice: both the hallowed home of national history and a place where opponents face off. But what else does it represent?

Looking to provide an answer, the newly-formed advocacy group hosted its first conference in Edmonton on Thursday, entitled Let’s Grow, Canada! 

Businessman Rick Peterson, a co-founder of the group and the host of the event, positions the group as one that, while non-partisan, is hoping to pull the country’s conservative movement back to the moderate middle. It aims to be a platform for centre-right conservatives, for centrists in general, and for those who feel unrepresented in our politics today. Specifically, for those fed up with the lack of substantive public policy discussions happening in the current Conservative Party leadership race. 

Right up front, Peterson answers the question of the group’s intentions: “Are you guys looking to start a party?” 

Yes, he says: there will be a cocktail party after the event. 

But a new political party? Unequivocally no. “Nobody here wants to do that. That’s just a lot of work.” 

Rather, Peterson promises to make the political centre “radical, relevant, and successful.”

What does that look like? Throughout the day, the speakers explored a host of issues common to conservative conversations. A smattering of the themes discussed and conclusions drawn: culture wars, populism, and polarization (bad), serious policy discussions (good), climate change (bad), resource development (good, to a point), energy transition (necessary, but not too fast), nuclear energy (good), infrastructure (critical), Bill C-69 (withdraw it already), our regulatory system (overhaul it), economic growth (necessary), interprovincial trade barriers (a disgrace), military bases in the North and submarines in the Arctic (needed yesterday), the Freedom Convoy (foolishness), open dialogue and compromise on contentious issues (absolutely necessary), debating abortion (absolutely forbidden).

As the keynote speaker, former B.C. premier Christy Clark praised the group as a necessary corrective to a political climate in Canada that is veering too far to the fringes. 

“Our leaders are no longer talking about unity, and that is a problem,” said Clark. “Because we are not in fact a united country. I have never seen our country so divided.”

The key to healing this divide, Clark offered, was for our political class to focus less on “slice and dice” electoral considerations and more on unifying messages of compromise. We need to spend more time debating controversial and unconventional ideas instead of denouncing them, and work harder at finding areas of common ground with our foes, she said.

“The most important job for any prime minister is to stand up not for what divides us but what brings us together.”

Calls for compromise and moderation were common throughout the event. And while the ongoing federal Conservative Party leadership race was not an official topic of conversation, when prompted during a Q & A, Clark took the opportunity to again weigh in. 

“I think Jean Charest would be a fantastic prime minister,” she said to much applause. 

Oblique references to race front-runner Pierre Poilievre and his popular, confrontational style were also sprinkled throughout the day.

The leadership race has too often featured “rage-filled diatribes that accomplish absolutely nothing,” bemoaned Clark.

Without mentioning Poilievre explicitly, commentator Andrew Coyne quipped that “it’s good to be in a room where conservatives are talking about growth and economic policy and not the World Economic Forum.”

He also worried that the Tories are “retreating into unreality and extremism” and are “about to run themselves off of a cliff.”

The party, he said, has become more interested in yelling at others to make themselves feel better rather than offering up substantive policy alternatives. 

But what does a “radical” centrist message look like in practice? And how does this substantive policy agenda differ from the Conservative Party’s current platform and direction? 

This message was less clear. The most profound reaction of many conference participants seemed to be against the manner, style, and rhetoric of their opponents, rather than ideological differences. If Thursday’s conference is anything to go by and if Centre Ice Conservatives get their way, the future of conservatism will involve fewer enthusiastic rallies and more polite conversations. 

Coyne emphasized, however, that valuing moderation in temperament and presentation does not mean watering down one’s ideological commitments. 

“I’m not keen on centrism if it means taking half measures on everything.” Rather, he explained, a centrist disposition works if you draw on policies and philosophies from all sides to provide better, more efficient, and more equitable outcomes for all Canadians.  

Former MP Leona Alleslev was keen to point out that this approach does not mean getting mired in the “mushy middle”, but is instead focused on making the conservative movement more appealing to the rest of the country. 

The energy in the conservative movement seems to be elsewhere, however, as Poilievre remains the presumptive favourite to helm the federal Conservatives, has sold the most memberships, and has garnered the vast majority of support and endorsements from those within the party, including Stephen Harper

For their part, the organizers of the conference are keen on facilitating more conversations like these in the hopes of drawing on like-minded allies across the country. An upcoming conference in Halifax was announced, with details to come. 

But will any of this effort actually translate to political power in our populist era? Despite the group’s strategic association with this country’s national pastime, as anyone who knows hockey understands, it’s hard to actually score a goal from centre ice. All the action is elsewhere.