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Is there room for centrists in the current Conservative Party?: Tasha Kheiriddin on the right path forward for Conservatives in Canada

Podcast & Video

This episode features Sean Speer in conversation with political activist and pundit Tasha Kheiriddin about her interesting new book, The Right Path: How Conservatives can Unite, Inspire and Take Canada Forward.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Tasha Kheiriddin, a public affairs consultant, political commentator, and co-chair of Jean Charest’s leadership campaign for the Conservative Party of Canada. She’s also the author of the interesting new book, The Right Path: How Conservatives Can Unite, Inspire and Take Canada Forward. I’m grateful to speak with her about the book, its key ideas, and their implications for the future of Canadian Conservative politics. Tasha, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

TASHA KHEIRIDDIN: Oh, thank you so much, Sean, I appreciate it. It’s great to be here.

SEAN SPEER: I want to start a bit differently than usual today. Conservatives love to debate amongst themselves about philosophy and ideas. If you spend enough time with a group of conservatives, you’ll invariably hear disputes about Burke and Hayek, Ayn Rand and Bill Buckley, and so on. Although these distinctions may have a useful meaning for conservatives, they won’t mean much to most people. Tasha, your book uses a lot of shorthands to describe different ideas and persuasions on the Right that are ultimately key to your overall argument. I’d like to spend a minute defining them. At different times in the book you refer to centrists, centre-right, Progressive Conservatives, Red Tories, and populists. Do you want to help us understand what these terms mean to you? And how do they differ?

TASHA KHEIRIDDIN: Okay, so we’ll start with the first basket you mentioned. Centre-right generally describes voters who adhere to fiscal conservative policies. So, they will believe, for example, in smaller government, lower taxes, less intervention, less regulation, and more of a market economy approach, but they would not be what you would call socially conservative. So, they would not be in favour, for example, of restrictions on abortion rights. They would not be in favor of restrictions on LGBTQ rights. They would not necessarily adhere, perhaps, to a religious perspective in terms of politics, as someone who’s socially conservative and believes that faith would dictate some moral concepts or government policies. That is a distinction that’s made, because we have, as you mentioned, within the Conservative family, many different stripes of conservatism and some people feel that social conservatism, or a faith-based view of the world, is where they come to conservatism, because one of the pillars of original Burkean conservatism was faith.

Others come from his perspective, like I said, of the free enterprise piece, which is the centre-right, smaller government piece. We still have others. The Red Tories are an interesting species. They’re unique to Canada. The term developed in the 1960s—if I’m not mistaken it was coined then—and it describes conservatives who are a bit more big-government conservative. They are still fiscally responsible, but they have kind of hewed to a sense of the government replacing what used to be called the noblesse oblige, or the nobility aristocracy, in England—the more stratified view of society where the wealthy would give back to the poor. It was called at that time “High Toryism.” There are a lot of terms, I agree, but High Toryism was a term that described an obligation of the nobility to care for people who are less fortunate. In Canada, that was subsumed into the welfare state. So Red Tories had a view that government had this greater role in society to provide for the unfortunate. That became part of our lexicon in the 1960s. So you have Red Tories who would be a little more pro-government than a centre-right or fiscal conservative.

So, all these species live together in the Conservative family. Traditionally, they come together most often around the economic concepts of conservatism. That’s really the most common rallying point. But there are other elements of conservatism that are also incredibly important: freedom of the individual; freedom of speech; personal freedoms and liberties; also a sense of community. That’s a piece that’s often lost in the conversation today: the responsibility of people to each other. And it’s a very conservative concept.

The idea also that local government, local community, the little platoons of society like the family or, for faith-based conservatives, their religious organizations, are important to the organic whole. We all work together. So it is not, as some people would say when they paint conservatism as just pro-business or are just cut and slash and burn everything. It’s not that at all. It really is about relationships. And that’s the part that I think we have to get back to a lot when talking about conservatism.

With regard to populism, populism is very different. Populism usually arises when there’s this sort of lack of social mobility or a sense of people being trapped or blocked, not able to get ahead. And, unfortunately, they tend to often blame groups and society or elites, as we’re doing now. But it is a sense of frustration that there’s a disconnect between government and the people. And populism is supposedly the will of the people. But as we know, it’s never the will of all the people. It’s always a subset of people who get particularly agitated about something that they are feeling hard done by. The wave will carry other people along or will appeal to a particular party as a way to get votes.

Brexit was an example of populism in the U.K. Donald Trump is an example of populism in the U.S., and Bolsonaro is an example of populism in Brazil. We’ve also seen some very bad examples of populism throughout history. You know, I’m not delegitimizing populism. I think it’s actually a very normal human reaction to circumstances within society, and usually bad economic ones. But at the same time, it is not ideological, it’s not philosophical; it is a reaction to a situation. Conservatism, actually, does not subscribe to populism. Conservatism was born out of a reaction to the French Revolution, which was the ultimate populist uprising where people literally lost their heads. So, all these terms are already complicated. But this is really where we’re coming from in terms of a dialogue between populism and conservatism. They’re very different, but they both seek the betterment of society just in very different ways.

SEAN SPEER: Okay, there’s a lot there. It’s a good table setting though because, as I said, these different terms are really kind of foundational to the book’s insights and analysis.

I want to pick up on your point about the compatibility, or lack of compatibility, between populism and conservatism. You describe the current leadership race as “a battle between populism and conservatism that’s playing out in a proxy fight between Pierre Poilievre and Jean Charest.”

But you also observe that historically populism “did take the Progressive Conservative Party in new and sometimes highly successful directions”, including under the leadership of John Diefenbaker. So I’ll have you just elaborate a bit. Based on your working definition, how should we think about populism and conservatism? And are they ultimately irreconcilable?

TASHA KHEIRIDDIN: When you look at the history of Canada, populism has infused the conservative slash the right-of-centre political movement for the better part of 100 years. We’ve had different parties, with progressives in the 1920s and 30s, and then we had the Social Credit party, which formed the government provincially both in Alberta and British Columbia and also had cousins in Quebec that never formed government but were part of the picture, so to speak, at the provincial level. All these parties were populist.

In fact, populism in Canada is really centered mostly in the West. The Quebec piece was not an anomaly; it was a sort of a mirror of its Western cousin, but things started in the West. In Canada, populism has been a reaction to the establishment, and usually is an anti-elite or anti-establishment movement. The establishment in Canada was considered to be the Laurentian Elites: people from the east, Ontario, Quebec, and to an extent Atlantic Canada too, but really mostly Ontario and Quebec.

You still feel that populism in the West is rooted still in that. I was in Calgary most recently for my book launch. I talked to folks in the Conservative Party and movement there who felt still very hard done by with equalization, sending money to eastern Canada, that don’t like Quebec. I encountered quite a bit of that, to be honest. And, you know, as someone from Quebec, it’s important to understand that that is there. It is. It’s disheartening that is still an issue for Canada so many years later, but it is still a reality. We have to acknowledge that, and politicians have to acknowledge that. So populism grows from this.

John Diefenbaker, as you pointed out, was really the only Canadian Conservative or Progressive Conservative, and in his case prime minister—and Progressive Conservatives, I didn’t address that, but it was a marriage of the Progressive Party and the Conservative Party in 1948. I think that was the convention where they officially came together. The Progressives also infused the Liberal Party. They didn’t all go to the Tories. It was sort of a more socially progressive view of the world that merged with the Conservative Party. And he was the only Progressive Conservative leader of a populist stripe to take the party to power. He really did so on the basis of being pro-immigration and in the 1950s, in ’57 or ’58, when he got his majority, this sense that Canada was moving beyond simply the English-French dialogue, which was the history that had infused it until that point.

The problem today with populism around the world is, as we’ve seen, populism has become associated with many negative elements. With far right-wing extremist points of view, Donald Trump in the United States, this anti-abortion movement in the United States as well where the Republicans have become the populist party. They’ve taken up that mantle. So for Conservatives in Canada, we’re being faced with all these currents that have really little to do with our domestic politics. They’re very different. Canadian and American conservatism evolved very differently. Canada has always dealt with this duality of keeping the country together, with national unity. The United States has had a very different history in terms of its relationship with slavery and other issues that are a much greater part of its history than they were in Canada.

We have a unique brand of conservatism, and that’s why with populism here, many people are reacting to it very negatively. They see it as bringing in American points of view or American-style polarization to the country. Other people really embrace populism here. We’ve seen that Pierre Poilievre has recruited many, many members. There’s a reason for that. So, we’re having this debate right now about where populism fits in Canada. We haven’t really reached, I don’t think, the endpoint. But what I say in the book is that you can address populist issues and the sense of discontent and being blocked in your aspirations in life with conservative solutions. You don’t have to resort to the slogans and rhetoric we’ve seen south of the border or in other places.

SEAN SPEER: I want to stay on the topic of intra-conservative tensions. You write in the book’s introduction that Conservatives must ultimately “find common ground if they are to effectively compete for power.” Let me ask a two-part question. First, isn’t there pretty compelling evidence that Poilievre’s agenda and message are the sources of considerable party unity? And second, what parts of his program—which, to be fair to him, he is pro-immigration, pro-same-sex marriage, and pro-choice—do you take exception to? Is it, in other words, Tasha, more about rhetoric and style than it is about substance?

TASHA KHEIRIDDIN: It’s both. Like I say in the book, the book isn’t about who should lead the party. It’s about how the party should lead the country. But you’re right. I mean, the currents of populism and conservatism are sort of incarnated by different candidates in this race. And Mr. Poilievre is definitely incarnating the populist side. I’ll start with some of the substance. It is partly the focus on issues that, while there are many issues like inflation and others that are important, it is the approach to them and the sense that if you remove the elites, remove the gatekeepers—it’s not just slogans, because when you look at the website of the campaign and other things, you will find very little substantive policy, but the thrust is the same way. It’s that there are people in the way, they have to be removed, you have to get rid of gatekeepers, that if you just get rid of the people at the top of the Bank of Canada, for example, you will get better decision making. That you have to attack institutions.

There are certain things I agree with in his platform, no question. There’s common ground on things like woke culture and other parts that conservatives will agree on. And the issues he mentioned are important ones to tackle. But it’s a sense of policy that comes from a place of tearing down and I’m not sure what’s going to be built up. And that’s very common to populists. It’s that you have got to replace what’s there with something else, but that something else is not completely defined. It’s also rooted in, usually, a sense of being hard done by and grievance. In Pierre’s case, vaccine mandates are a big part of that. The freedom conversation has really moved over from what’s traditionally a conservative view of freedoms and liberty: a more grand vision, if you go to Reagan’s call to tear down the wall to Gorbachev, or personal freedoms of people who are really oppressed by their governments today, for example in China where people are incredibly oppressed.

Those are people who need freedom. And back in the day in South Africa where Blacks were kept down for so long. That’s a call for freedom. That’s what conservatives took up, right? Vaccine mandates are a concept of freedom that are an issue of freedom that not everyone in this country subscribes to. It’s not the same. It’s not an assault on your freedom so grievous that it really rises to the same level. But, you know, the convoy, as I talked about, it has become very much associated with Mr. Poilievre’s candidacy and his support for it. And it is a very divisive point in Canada. You look at polling, you will see clear divisions, especially within different parties, on where they stand on this. So the problem I have is that it associates the conservative movement and freedom with that movement and its grievances and it is, hopefully, only a limited factor in that the pandemic won’t be here forever. And secondly, it is very alienating to a lot of people who see dog whistles, who see American stuff in there, who saw various elements like Trump flags, this kind of thing—yes they were limited in the protests, but still, the fact that they were associated with it makes people uncomfortable in the centre-right and Blue Liberal spaces.

So the problem with that is you will attract some voters, no question, on the side of the further Right or, you know, the populist vein, but you will alienate others in the centre-right where there’s a lot of opportunities for us to grow. So that’s my issue with populism: the way it’s playing out. Populism itself is not so much the problem as the way that it’s being used in the campaign and both the rhetoric and the substance of it to attract people.

SEAN SPEER: I’ll come back to your point about how to reach new and different voters because that’s a pretty fundamental part of the book. But before we get there, I want to take up the proposition personified by Mr. Charest. You make the case in the book that “Charest would likely remake the party in the image of the former Progressive Conservative Party.” Again, let me ask a two-part question. First, do you think there’s a large enough constituency within the Conservative Party to go back in that direction? And second, what would you say to the argument that Erin O’Toole actually represented that political approach and it ultimately failed?

TASHA KHEIRIDDIN: Okay, I’ll tackle the second one first, which is that Erin O’Toole represented centre-right conservatism. He did and he didn’t. When he ran for the leadership, he ran as a Blue Tory, you know, “True Blue.” It was actually a slogan. So there were expectations of where he would land politically. And then he pivoted more to the centre-right. I think the environmental issue, you know, when he was at the policy convention of the Conservative Party and there was a defeat of a resolution to recognize climate change. And he came out and said “Climate change is real”, and words to that effect. There was a sign there was a disconnect between what people thought he was going to stand for, and what he did. And so that got the ball rolling on this piece of where’s the party going to go?

My understanding is also the way policies were rolled out, including on that issue. There was not as much consultation within caucus and people were unhappy. So there were internal issues, too. But then during the election, he kind of played both sides and flip-flopped on issues like gun laws and urban policies. People in cities were kind of confused and saying “Where does he stand on on these things?” So it was more that he tried to pivot but people at the end of the day didn’t feel that he was genuine.

Charest is different because he is running as how he is and he’s not gonna pivot. You know, I’ve known the guy for 30 years. This is who he is. And I think Pierre is also running as who he is. So I think that actually in this in this race, you’re getting archetypes and people who are running in the way they would govern. So that is actually healthy for the party to know that. Because ambiguity is killer. You have to be authentic. Jean Charest does incarnate what I would call the Progressive Conservative or centre-right vision of what conservatism is. It’s a big tent vision.

One of the pillars is law and order, and this is a difference that has been pretty starkly drawn between Poilievre’s approach and Charest’s approach. Law and order is a central tenet of conservatism. And that is where a lot of people felt the convoy broke faith with what conservatism is. A respect for institutions, tradition, what has come before, and incremental change as opposed to a wholesale “Let’s throw the bums out” attitude. Charest is very much about respect for those institutions. And yes, reforms are necessary, but not the sort of aggressive attack on them that some people feel that the convoy represented. He also has a track record of policies on the centre-right when he was premier of Quebec. He was a Liberal because that was the party that was on the Right in Quebec, and would have been classified as centre or centre-right. He had a good record on deficit reduction, on reducing the debt, and put in policies there to do that in the long term.

He’s for lower taxes. He’s not a big government conservative. Under the government of Brian Mulroney he was a champion of free trade, and he championed policies that were, obviously, what we consider conservatism today. So he has this conservative track record, but on social issues, he’s definitely progressive. I say this in the book: on the issue of abortion, for example, Stephen Harper had it right, and Jean Charest would do the same. You just don’t go there. Do not touch it. It is settled. Many people won’t want to hear that. But I’m saying it because if you want to get any votes in Quebec, if you want to get votes in more progressive, urban areas, you are not going to get them if you are ambiguous about abortion or if you say you’re going to reopen that debate. It is just not going to happen. So that is something that for the Conservative Party, some people will find a hard pill to swallow.

But there are other ways of pleasing social conservatives and recognizing their contribution and what they need within the conservative family that do not involve that issue that Conservatives should pursue. And Jean would pursue those. He’s very pro-family. Family is another pillar of conservatism, a definite tenant of that. And generally speaking, his approach to it is very much in line with how the former Progressive Conservative government approached things. But he does also recognize the need for national unity in the country. That is an issue that is always overarching in Canadian politics. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Liberal or Conservative or other. It is one of the fundamental challenges our country has. It’s a bigger challenge for Conservatives because you see this division between the more populist West and the more Progressive Conservative east. And how do you square that circle has become, I think, the real conversation of his leadership. How do you do that? It’s something that we are grappling with as a nation, once again.

SEAN SPEER: How much of the differences that you describe in the book reflect generational change? That is to say, to what extent is the real fault line here less about conservatism and populism, or Progressive Conservative and Reform, and more about Conservatives who came of age politically before and after, say, the end of the Cold War?

TASHA KHEIRIDDIN: It’s a very good question, because generationally there are assumptions about how Millennials and Gen Z behave that the research does not bear out. People, of course, don’t remember certain things. Gen Z and Millennials will not relate necessarily to the conversations even around national unity. Never mind around the conservatism of Ronald Reagan, or Margaret Thatcher, or the Cold War reality. They don’t remember that, obviously, they weren’t around. But what we do see is these two generations have been affected by economic issues, certainly, as well as woke culture and the actions of the Left and Justin Trudeau in particular. And we haven’t talked about him, but his influence is very much on how people see the role of government and how those generations see government in their lives.

Millennials are a less conservative generation than Gen Z. It’s very interesting. There’s about 20 percent of them, according to a very interesting embryonic study that I cite in the book. And other research, too, that I talked to in interviews with Millennials and Gen Zs finds that about 20 percent of them are accessible, or consider themselves centre-right. Another 20 percent are potentially accessible but are concerned about issues like the environment and things that Conservatives of a previous generation may have been less aware or impacted by. So they’ve been impacted by these issues and they matter to them. So when you’re reaching out to those voters, Conservatives have to realize, if they’re of a previous generation, that that stuff is on the radar and they have to understand who they’re talking to within the Millennials.

It’s not all Millennials, but most Millennials are Left, they lean Left. This is just a fact that people probably don’t want to hear but it is true. But they are about 40 percent that if you target, right, and you really listen to what they have to say, you can get. Gen Z is different. We’ve got about 48 percent of Gen Zs who consider themselves right of centre. It’s a very polarized generation. It doesn’t surprise me. They’re very much engaged in social media, which is an extremely polarizing environment. They also have been affected by things like—both generations lived through the 2008 and 2009 financial crisis, but Gen Z’s are coming into an environment where they are feeling very much that either—they’re very much a striving generation—and they’re either very woke or very not. They’re running into this at university. Many I spoke to said, “Woke culture is what woke me up to conservatism. I reacted against it, I did not like it.” So the social environment we’re in right now, actually for conservatives, they’re better defined. It’s kind of like political correctness in the 1980s. That’s what woke culture is like today, and I remember political correctness in the 80s. You know, it was a polarizing force. It drove many people to conservatism. So you’re seeing that that generation is very accessible.

The problem is only part of them can vote right now. It’s all under 24. So 18 to 24-year-olds can vote, but not a lot of people. But over the longer term, this is a generation Conservatives have to connect with because they will be the dominant demographic group in about 10 to 15 years if I’m not mistaken. So that’s really, I think, this is a generational issue. That’s what Pierre Poilievre does connect with some of the Gen Z’s and particularly issues of personal freedom and this kind of thing. Younger people also love freedom. Let’s be honest, it resonates with them. But in the longer term, as I said, issues of vaccine mandates and stuff will not be around forever. So I think we need to connect with them on other things as well to keep them in the fold.

SEAN SPEER: In the book’s first chapter, you cite Stephen Harper and Tom Flanagan to describe a shift in Canadian electoral coalitions whereby high-income professionals, who used to be reliable Conservatives, have shifted to the Left and working-class voters who you describe as “tradespeople, small business owners, blue collar and retail workers” have increasingly moved to the Right. This trend isn’t unique to Canada either. It reflects a broader political realignment across the Western world. If one accepts this realignment is indeed occurring and Conservative voters are no longer the same ones as in the 1970s and 1980s, how, Tasha, should that be reflected in the Conservative Party’s messages and policies?

TASHA KHEIRIDDIN: Stephen Harper identified this and Flanagan too. It’s what we call laptop culture today, but it’s really the government culture. The shift was that the relationship of professionals to government changed. Government became a bigger actor. If you think about people who work at universities, or who work in the private sector but are consultants and now are hired by government, government took a larger role in that quotes-unquote “university educated class” in terms of their professional advancement. The arts is another really big area, obviously. So you’ve got people who then are basically dependent on a relationship with government to work and to advance their careers. And so this symbiosis made it more attractive for them to embrace policies of the government, which tended to be most of the time Liberal, right? Conservatives have not held power for the majority of the last 40 years.

So you’ve got a growth of this class of professionals and they concentrate in cities, which is partly why the Conservatives don’t do well in urban areas. And they also dominate in certain areas, like media, for example, and their voices dominate. So what end up getting is this perfect storm of Conservatives saying, “You know what, those people will never vote for us.” Or those people say to themselves, “I don’t identify with the Conservative Party, because they’re very different from me.” This is a problem because yes, you do then have his class division that ends up happening. You do see people of the working class, so to speak, or small business people, people who are not as dependent on government contracts or government relationships for their work.

In fact, you might bump up against government and say, “Oh, you’re over-regulating me” or in the case of professionals who come from other countries and can’t get their credentials regulated, they’re angry at bodies, quasi-judicial bodies that are like, “You’re in my way.” This is the whole gatekeepers argument, right? And these folks say, “Well, government’s in my way, as opposed to government is my friend.” And so what you’ve got now is an appeal to those people, especially post-pandemic, many of whom were hurt more by the pandemic than the laptop class. They worked from home, government workers weren’t thrown out of work. But if you had a hair salon, you couldn’t open it.

This whole environment has accelerated this disconnect that was already happening. So for Conservatives, there’s a natural tendency to say we’re going to reach out over here to the people who’ve been hard done by and that’s going to be our base. I think you should do that. But you can’t ignore—this is where the populism and conservatism thing comes in—you can’t ignore, also, the professionals over here because the reason that they become more friendly to government is because government has taken up so much space. Government doesn’t have to take up that much space. In fact, it shouldn’t. That’s one of the issues that Trudeau exacerbated: “The government is your friend and we’re going to throw money at the problem. We’re going to give money to the middle-class and everything will be better.”

This actually made things worse economically. We’re entering an era where government has no money. We’re over a trillion dollars in debt. Government is not going to be your friend because it just cannot be. So I think there’s going to be a weaning in a sense of that class from government. They’re going to start to say, “Wait a minute. I can’t rely on government either.” So I think Conservatives will be able to connect more perhaps with those people as well. And they need to, especially in urban areas, because if conservatives don’t get votes in suburbs and urban centres, they’re done. I mean, that is where the growth is, where people are moving to. There has to be both. You have to reach out to both groups, and you can’t pit them against each other, which is a lot of what’s happened within this populism versus conservatism dialogue. You have to find common ground for both. And to me, the common ground is opportunity. I talk about that in the book. It’s not the freedom language but opportunity. People want the opportunity to live their lives, to buy that house, get the job they want, and have a better future for their kids. That language is common to both groups, and I think could be used to meet their needs and get their votes, obviously, which Conservatives need to do.

SEAN SPEER: A major idea in the book is that the Conservative Party is going to have to grow its support if it’s to consistently compete for power in national elections. You see what you described earlier as “Blue Liberals” as key to growing the party support. Pierre Poilievre, by contrast, seems to be targeting supporters of the People’s Party of Canada as a potential source of growth for the Conservative Party of Canada. Why is he wrong and you’re right? What evidence is there for a critical mass of disaffected Liberals who are accessible to the Conservative Party?

TASHA KHEIRIDDIN: Okay, well, I’ll enter a couple of things that have happened in recent days, actually. A poll just came out from Angus Reid that showed quite clearly that if you have the archetypes, Charest and Poilievre elected as leader, where would votes go? What you do see is definitely under a Poilievre Conservative Party you would have an uptake from the People’s Party. Their numbers dropped significantly. But the gap with the Liberals is much smaller. The Liberals still have 29 percent. And even the Conservatives have 34. Which means that the Conservatives, based on the last election—if you look, they had 34 percent popular vote last time—would not from government, likely. The gap is smaller. They pull from, like you said, the PPC. If you had a Charest or a more centre-right Conservative government, you see that the Liberal numbers dropped. I think it’s 25, or a nine-point gap. Charest still has 34 percent, but he pulls from the Blue Liberals. I call them Blue Liberals because that’s what they call themselves.

Bill Morneau is a recent example of someone who came out and said “My government wasn’t Right enough for me,” basically. Said they weren’t focused on prosperity. It was just redistribution. That’s all Trudeau is about. And he was bemoaning this. And I can give you 100 anecdotal stories of people from the Liberal Party who have connected with various campaigns, including the Charest campaign, and said, “We don’t feel at home anymore. We feel like our party’s gone off to the Left with the NDP, and this is terrible. We’re homeless.” And Charest has himself said there are homeless Liberals out there. This is a relatively new phenomenon. But it doesn’t surprise me because the Liberal Party has been very, very Left.

These are people who are traditional switch voters. They are mostly Liberal, but they are fiscally inclined to the same policies as a centrist or right of centre politics. Those are the voters I think that the Tories have the biggest pull towards, and the gap that you see in the polling, that shows what the Liberal vote would be and what the Conservative vote would be in that situation, shows that the Conservatives could form a government. Because the issue with the Tories is vote distribution, right? Their vote distribution is very concentrated in the West, in rural areas. That isn’t helpful. They need to broaden that base out to the GTA and Quebec and other places where Liberals are winning by like three or four percent. But with that three or four percent you could capture and then you could take those seats. Harper did that in 2011. He divided the Left and conquered. We have to do the same. The royal we here being the Conservative Party—it has to do the same if it’s going to form government.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s come to the theme of opportunity, which as you say, Tasha, is key to the arguments in the book. You make the case that Conservatives should root their message and policies in a vision of broad-based opportunity rather than freedom. I broadly agree with this idea. As a parent, I’m motivated by opportunity for my son, rather than freedom as an abstract idea. But at times, it’s hard to discern what you mean by opportunity and how it would manifest itself in a particularly conservative policy agenda. What, in your view, would represent an opportunity agenda? And how would it differ from say Pierre Poilievre’s vision, or even Justin Trudeau’s vision, for that matter?

TASHA KHEIRIDDIN: Okay, so starting with Trudeau. His vision is the vision that was articulated in Chrystia Freeland’s book Plutocrats. It’s a leveling vision. It is not a vision of raising people up. It’s a vision of redistribution. It’s prioritizing groups based on identity or class, or personal politics and saying, “If the feminist agenda is the perfect thing, I’m gonna be a feminist, and I’m going to appeal to women, and we’re gonna put a feminist lens on the budget, and all will be well.” And what does that mean? It means that you are basing your politics on the needs of one group over others. And it’s not to say that, you know, women’s views shouldn’t be considered, and impacts and policies on women shouldn’t be considered, but the way it’s portrayed is definitely as a voter calculus. But also a calculus of government is the friend to you. It is anti-opportunity because it’s not about equality of opportunity. It’s about who you are.

The flip side is what populists hate, which is it’s about who you know, right? So if you’re a third-generation Torontonian who knows everyone in certain professions or business, or your family does, then you’ll get ahead because you’ll be privileged and prioritized over other people who may be new Canadians who don’t know anyone or because you are just from a middle-class family and don’t have those connections. On both ends of the spectrum, you get the sense that the elites are favoured over here, or identity politics is played over here. And that is a recipe for lack of social mobility and a sense of social frustration. Populism feeds off that on the one side, because they blame the elites for it. And Trudeau and woke culture feeds off the other side because they basically say “Government is the one that’s going to fix it, not the private sector. You can’t leave it to people because their judgment is not what it should be.”

So in the middle of all this are the common sense Canadians who are looking around going “Neither side of this really appeals to me. The populist anger against elites doesn’t appeal to me. The woke stuff doesn’t appeal to me. Where’s my political home? And this is what I say in the book about opportunity, which is that most people are just looking to get ahead. They’re looking for a fair outcome. And a fair outcome can be unequal. And not everyone is going to end up in the same place. But if you all have the same shot, if it’s considered that the game is not rigged in favour of X or Y, you will be satisfied with the result. This is not just me talking. It was research that’s been done.

I cite a recent book by Eric Prosser and David Somerville, who’s at the University of Victoria. Prosser is an American researcher. And they found that the lack of social mobility is really what feeds populism. It’s the sense that you cannot get ahead, even if you do all the right things. And that’s not fair. And they say that policies about equality of opportunity can take different forms, but essentially a government that favours that, that provides sort of a floor of basic things like health care and education, these are essential for people to have a certain measure of if they’re going to have a fair shot and an equal chance as other people. So it’s not about redistributing income, it’s about essentially ensuring there’s a floor for opportunity. And then people are left to their own devices to take from that and do what they can to achieve their goals or their family’s goals.

But you have to have a perception that you’re not favouring someone simply based on identity or connections or other things. And then people will feel like they have a fair shot. And conservatives have been about equality of opportunity since the days of Edmund Burke, who even talked about it in 1789. That this fair shot should be part of what conservatives are about. So to me, that’s really where we should go. Yes, you need a certain measure of freedom to do that. But like I said, the call for freedom has become associated with elements that some people find very negative right now. So language matters. And I say wrap it in the bow of opportunity and people will be much more open to what you’re talking about.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s wrap up on what comes next for Canadian Conservatives. There has been some controversy in recent days, about whether you and others are essentially calling for a fracturing of the Conservative Party. The source here seems to be the final chapter of your book entitled “The Return of the Liberal-Conservative Party”, in which amongst other things, you discuss the prospects of a new centre-right party in Canada. The press release accompanying the book states the following: “I think the best outcome would be for the Conservative Party to choose the centre-right path. The Liberal-NDP deal has opened up a huge window of opportunity to get Blue Liberal voters into our tent. But the party could also split and see the creation of a new party. I suggest it could be like Macdonald’s Liberal-Conservative party that founded Canada.” Tasha, help me and our listeners understand your point. What are you saying? Do we need a new centre-right party in Canada?

TASHA KHEIRIDDIN: No, we don’t. In fact, I say that in the book it is quite clear that that is not the preferred option. Because if you do that you end up fracturing the vote. And we’ve seen this movie before with the Reform Party, more recently. The Liberals were in power for 13 years as a result. That’s usually what’s happened in the history of Canadian politics when seeing a new centre-right party emerge, or a new right-wing party emerge. That’s why I say it’s not what I’d like to see happen. I see the bridge made between the populists and the Conservatives and finding a way to keep everyone in the same family.

That being said people are worried about this issue, which is why I address it. When I say the Liberal-Conservative Party, it’s a bit tongue in cheek, because that is the name of the original party of Confederation that Johnny McDonald founded. The Liberal-Conservatives, as in small L. And it was a party that represented as he described it, progressive-conservative values. He described that back in 1867. He used the words progressive-conservative. The party then became known as the Conservative Party, it dropped the Liberal piece. But the “liberal” was not what we consider Big L “liberal.” The “liberal” was Lockean in its views of personal freedom, and that kind of thing. Classical liberal philosophy that infused the Conservative Party of the day. So his party was this progressive, conservative, forward-looking, but incrementally changing party that sought to not only advance conservative views but also keep the country together. To knit together this Confederation that has been challenging since its inception. So to me, that is where we’re at. 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 and all the other challenges that we have.

I think we can do that if we take the right path, as I call it, and we take this language of opportunity, and we look for the three voter bases that we need. But I worry and other people do worry, which is why I raised the issue that the party may fracture again. So it’s a cautionary tale. But I’ve been very clear that I do not want us to start a new party because it sets you back and it ultimately comes back to the same thing of what kind of party we need. And we have one so let’s work with it. Let’s stay together keep the family together and win the next election because we don’t want to lose the fourth time.

SEAN SPEER: The book is The Right Path: How Conservatives can Unite, Inspire and Take Canada Forward. Tasha Kheiriddin, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

TASHA KHEIRIDDIN: Thank you so much, Sean, it’s been a pleasure.