Andrew Scheer’s abrupt exit from the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada is a “step in the right direction” for Tories who want their party to get more serious about the climate crisis, Globe and Mail columnist Adam Radwanski writes in a new opinion piece.
But it’ll take more than just policy to get the party to change course, he warns.
“By the time he announced his resignation as leader on Thursday, Mr. Scheer had made clear that he would never make carbon emissions reduction a policy priority,” he says. “After October’s election, he doubled down on the indifference that may have contributed to the Tories’ grim results east of the Prairies—scarcely mentioning the issue at all, other than to continue attacking Justin Trudeau’s Liberals for imposing carbon pricing and being insufficiently supportive of fossil fuel extraction.”
But the ability of more environmentally-minded conservatives to [change the conversation] [make any headway] [bring their party into the 21st century] during the impending leadership campaign will depend on organizational prowess as well as their conviction on the issues.
“Conversations with Conservative elites in recent years have gone down an increasingly familiar path,” Radwanski writes. “Some people who have worked at high levels of government or past campaigns will acknowledge that they believe modern conservatism should involve a strong environmental streak, and that market-oriented carbon pricing theoretically aligns with conservative values. They worry about establishing the impression among younger voters that the party doesn’t care about the future of the planet. Then they’ll lament that the party base seems increasingly inclined to treat opposition to policies such as carbon pricing as a conservative litmus test.”
And if that point conjures up a mental image of Alberta and Saskatchewan, Radwanski cites the recent experience with carbon pricing policy in Ontario as “the best recent evidence of how Conservative leadership contests can serve as vetoes of ambitious climate policy”. While the Ontario party seemed on track to enter the 2018 election with a platform built around a carbon tax, it didn’t resonate with the grassroots—and in the last-minute race to replace disgraced leader Patrick Brown, all the candidates disavowed that part of his policy agenda.
“Eventual winner Doug Ford continued to play to the base by rolling back even less contentious provincial climate policy, such as support for electric vehicles.”
That doesn’t mean the federal Conservatives can’t develop robust climate policy before the next election. But while one option would be for a new leader to wait until after the leadership race before releasing a plan, Radwanski sees that as a lost opportunity.
“The better hope, for Conservatives who believe they can’t keep ceding the issue, is that there emerge leadership candidates capable of persuasively selling climate policy as part of their overall vision—and of backing it up with political organizing,” he writes. With no more than a couple of hundred thousand people voting in a leadership campaign usually dominated by the party base, “it doesn’t take many new signups to affect the result. If a decent number of voters who align with the Conservatives on other issues but want more climate seriousness were enticed to take out memberships before the leadership vote, the party’s complexion could change in a hurry.”
Not that engineering that change would be a pleasant experience for the Conservative Party.
“Trying to land on a level of climate advocacy that doesn’t totally abandon the people who have most enthusiastically bought what the Conservatives have been selling for more than a decade is a much more precarious undertaking,” Radwanski concludes. “We’re about to find out how many senior members of the party, those who would stand for the leadership and those who would back them, think it’s worth the effort.”