Late in 2018, Maclean’s magazine put five Conservative leaders on its cover and billed them as “the resistance” — an apparent play on the name of the movement that had emerged to oppose Donald Trump in the United States.
The three premiers and two party leaders on the cover were presented as a united front against a push by the federal Liberal government to implement a national price on carbon emissions.
Less than four years later, just two members of the resistance are still standing.
Andrew Scheer resigned as federal Conservative leader a little more than a year after appearing on that cover. Brian Pallister announced his intention to step down as Manitoba premier in August 2021. Jason Kenney announced he would be stepping aside as Alberta premier on Wednesday after discovering that only 51.4 per cent of his party’s 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 two remaining members of the resistance — Ontario Premier Doug Ford — is now fond of pointing out how famously he gets along with Trudeau’s second-in-command, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland.
The demise of the resistance tells us a lot about the politics of the last few years. It might also set the stage for a new and fiercer kind of resistance.
A losing battle against the carbon tax
The story that accompanied that cover image quoted a former adviser to ex-prime minister Stephen Harper repeating a Harper-era maxim: carbon taxes are a political albatross for Liberals and political gold for Conservatives.
Scheer’s Conservatives dutifully went into the 2019 federal election vowing to repeal the Liberal policy. But even with Ford’s government slapping stickers on gas pumps in Ontario that blamed the Trudeau government for raising the price of gas, Scheer’s Conservatives could muster only 121 seats.
The Conservative party’s miscalculation may have been twofold. It’s possible, for instance, that the Trudeau government’s decision to return revenue from the carbon tax to households via rebates undercut Conservative claims that the tax was a monstrous imposition.
It’s also possible that public opinion had shifted considerably since 2008, when Conservatives successfully pilloried then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s proposed carbon tax. By 2019, it wasn’t enough to condemn your opponent’s choice of climate policy — you needed to have a credible climate plan of your own. And Scheer didn’t.
(The resistance was also banking on a legal challenge that ultimately failed at the Supreme Court.)
Then COVID-19 arrived.
The pandemic gets away from Kenney, Pallister and O’Toole
It’s still too early to say exactly what impact the pandemic will have on Canadian politics (the pandemic isn’t actually over yet).
But when the Angus Reid Institute asked Canadians to rate their provincial leaders’ handling of the pandemic on the two-year anniversary of COVID-19’s arrival in Canada, the lowest marks went to Kenney in Alberta and Pallister (and his successors, Heather Stefanson and Kelvin Goertzen) in Manitoba.
The Alberta premier, in particular, seemed tied up by the fact that many of his party’s members and supporters did not support the public health restrictions that the rest of the voting public wanted to see in place. Ultimately, he may have been pushed out by his own party because he wasn’t considered conservative enough.
The same difference in 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 in his party base and came out against the plan. The Liberals proceeded to needle him about it for the duration of last fall’s election campaign.
O’Toole’s exit was then hastened by his inability to figure out what to say about the self-styled “freedom convoy” that rolled into Ottawa in February.
But O’Toole might have been better positioned to survive a leadership challenge if he hadn’t tried to surprise his party by reversing its position on carbon pricing. After seeking the party leadership as a “true blue Conservative” who would repeal “Justin Trudeau’s carbon tax” — like a latter-day member of the resistance — O’Toole decided the party would champion a more complicated scheme to price carbon.
Had O’Toole won a majority government, Conservatives probably would have gritted their teeth and learned to live with carbon pricing as the cost of power. 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 not surprising that O’Toole’s malleability on the issue was not appreciated by Conservative supporters.
The resistance begets a louder residence?
But in O’Toole’s wake — and maybe now in Kenney’s wake — Conservatives don’t seem to be in a mood to be any less resistant to any number of things.
Pierre Poilievre, the presumptive frontrunner in the federal Conservative leadership race, has vowed to repeal the carbon tax and has attacked former Quebec premier Jean Charest and former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown for supporting carbon pricing policies. If Poilievre has a plan of his own to reduce emissions, he hasn’t revealed it.
Even some of the more moderate candidates have decided they wouldn’t go as far as O’Toole did. Charest has said he would scrap the Liberal government’s consumer carbon tax (while leaving in place the price that applies to industrial emissions). Scott Aitchison said Conservatives will “never support a carbon tax.”
Poilievre — who appeared on a Maclean’s cover of in March with the caption “Why is Pierre Poilievre so angry?” — also supported the convoy and opposes vaccine mandates. He has said he wants to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada.
After brushing up against a conspiracy theory about the “Great Reset” in 2020, Poilievre now says he would ban his ministers from attending the annual conference of the World Economic Forum — apparently in response to people who perceive the WEF as a significant threat.
The Conservative Party was always going to have to figure out what it should be after Stephen Harper. Every party out of power has to reckon with some version of the same existential questions. And the failure of the resistance 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 it now seems like it might have been a harbinger of an even louder resistance to come.
High gas prices and a steadily rising price on carbon might make for an easy target. And by the time the next federal election rolls around in 2025, the Liberal government will have been in office for a decade, which could make it much harder for Liberals to win another vote.
But after Kenney was pushed out — and after federal Conservative finance critic Ed Fast felt compelled to step aside because he publicly expressed misgivings about Poilievre’s attack on the Bank of Canada — it seems fair to wonder whether Conservative parties in Canada can hold together under the pressure of this urge for an even edgier form of conservatism.