Last weekend, the Manning Conference brought together the conservative movement’s best and brightest in Ottawa for two days of seminars, speeches, and strategy sessions. Photographer Alex Tetreault and I were there for The Tyee, looking to get a sense of who might lead the party into its next era. I’ll say this: the bench is deep.
“It’s been a rough year for conservatives.” André Turcotte, Preston Manning’s pollster from the Reform Party days, shifts from foot to foot at the lectern. “When I present data to my clients and the data is not all that positive, I usually say, ‘Don’t shoot the messenger.’ With most audiences, I mean that as a figure of speech.”
The crowd chuckles. There are indeed a few clean-cut young men in attendance with gun pins on their lapels — they’re annoyed by the RCMP’s recent decision to ban a Swiss military-style rifle. Other buttons pinned to people’s jackets and conference lanyards betray more momentous concerns: the Senate, Rob Ford, pipelines, Justin Trudeau.
Turcotte’s annual “barometer poll” found fewer Canadians consider themselves Conservatives than at any point in the last five years: 26 per cent. By contrast, at 31 per cent, Turcotte says “the Liberals have reemerged as the party a plurality of Canadians identify with.”
“That 26 per cent is a little bit misleading,” he continues. “It’s really driven by one region in Canada.” The Prairies. There, Conservative support has grown by five points since last year, to 48 per cent. Meanwhile in B.C. it has dropped five points, to 20 per cent.
In a result Turcotte calls “weird,” a full 68 per cent of British Columbians say they believe the country itself is on the wrong track.
Preston Manning doesn’t think it’s weird. Asked for his take on West Coast malaise, he says, “I think it’s mainly the temporary controversy over the pipelines.”
If he’s right, B.C. has a pivotal role to play in the near-term fortunes of the Conservative Party of Canada. That relationship could look very different depending who leads the party next, after Stephen Harper.
To be clear, there is no leadership race officially underway. Harper continues to say he will run in the next election. Nonetheless, and perhaps it was a coincidence, this weekend Manning Conference delegates got a chance to compare four more-or-less viable candidates to lead the party into its post-Harper era — whenever that begins.