HALIFAX – As MP’s and Senators with the federal Conservative caucus meet in Halifax ahead of the fall sitting of Parliament, one political expert believes the party will have some tinkering to do to again appeal to Atlantic Canadians.
Kevin Deveaux is a political consultant, an expert on parliaments and political parties and also formerly served in the Nova Scotia Legislature as an NDP MLA.
He said while some changes will be needed to regain a foothold in the region after being shutout in last fall’s federal election, it’s far from impossible.
“I’m old enough to say, don’t forget 1997,” he said, referring to when the Liberals lost all 11 seats in Nova Scotia after sweeping to power in the previous 1993 election, only to be wiped out again when the NDP and then-Progressive Conservative’s won all the seats.
“What may now look like it’s the darkest before the dawn for the Conservatives and you could make the same argument for the NDP, I could see where in the next few years there is an opportunity,” he said.
Right now with the Liberals largely in power in Atlantic Canada in both provincial and federal governments, Deveaux said it also means a risk of complacency and no one to blame when things go wrong.
“They have no one else to point the finger at and at some point, people are going to want change and the Conservatives and other parties need to be ready to pounce on that,” Deveaux said.
Former Conservative approach didn’t play well in region: Expert
Deveaux believes part of the reason the Tories have been unpopular in region was the party’s “pivot” to what he called a more hard-line Conservative style employed when former leader and Prime Minister Stephen Harper took over the party.
“Atlantic Canadians I think generally are not as socially or economically Conservative as perhaps our cousins in the Prairie provinces, and as a result, I think it was only a matter of time people tired of the way the Conservatives were governing,” he said.
So while the party heard at the polls change was needed in the last election, Deveaux said it still remains to be seen ultimately what identity the party will take on moving forward, something he feels will be more clear after the current leadership race is complete.
“The leadership race is obviously going to bring out many different perspectives, I mean you have Maxime Bernier who is almost a Libertarian talking about some fairly radical economic changes,” he said.
Deveaux thinks a candidate either based in or from Atlantic Canada could pull strong support from the region for the party and while Peter MacKay announced he will not be running on Monday, Deveaux said a wild card remains in the mix.
“Lisa Raitt, who is from Whitney-Pier, if she was to run I think that could have a major impact on their ability to attract interest in Atlantic Canada,” he said, adding the hope for the people in the region though would be that the best ideas lead the way.
He believes Atlantic Canadian voters will be looking for something a little different from the Conservatives the next time around if the party hopes to bounce back with some regional representation.
“Obviously anything that economically looks like it’s going to benefit the four Atlantic provinces would be an important signal from the Conservative Party,” he said. “But I think also think things like compassion, the way they’ve treated veterans, the closing of offices and the unwillingness to address the issues that our veterans have.”
“That’s another very good example of where I think Atlantic Canadians may differ from people in some other parts of the country, particularly with an aging population, I think there’s a need for the Tories to show a willingness to be more compassionate and more engaging in a way that Atlantic Canadians would want them to be.”
‘Canadian Values’ test may have traction
One of the hot topics for the party recently has been a proposal from leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch that would see immigrants and refugees screened for what she calls ‘Anti-Canadian values’, or those against gender equality and intolerance of religious freedom.
Deveaux said he hopes Leitch is genuine about her beliefs on the issue but did say that one only has to look south of the border at the Donald Trump campaign to find “issues that used to be the third rail of politics that you never touched have created political change.”
“She can’t look at that and not say that maybe there’s an opportunity here in Canada and in a place like Atlantic Canada, where there hasn’t been a lot of immigration and there has been a lot of impact from globalization, it may be an issue she has some traction on,” he said.
“It’s something we’re going to have to watch carefully.”