Federal Conservatives take a hard look at what went wrong

Last weekend, 125 Conservatives from across Ontario gathered to talk — frankly and openly — about why the party failed to connect with voters in the 2019 election
By Steve Paikin - Published on Nov 15, 2019
(L) Jasveen Rattan ran for the Conservatives in York South–Weston in 2019; (R) James Constable was the deputy campaign manager for two Conservative candidates. (Steve Paikin)

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Jasveen Rattan has a bandage on her forehead. It’s covering a four-stitch wound that she opened on her forehead three days earlier. She fell while cleaning up her campaign office.

Welcome to the joys of politics.

On October 21, Rattan watched the federal-election returns and discovered that, in finishing second, she’d become the most successful Conservative candidate the Toronto riding of York South–Weston had seen in 40 years.

And she still lost by 18,000 votes. York South–Weston is a tough riding for conservatives — progressive or otherwise. She’d be forgiven for feeling lousy.

Yet when the Conservative Leadership Foundation held a daylong symposium at the Albany Club, in Toronto, on November 9, there was Rattan — along with 125 other right-leaning stalwarts.

Yes, she’s now dedicated to politics and to figuring out why the 2019 election went so badly for her party in Ontario. The Conservatives took only 36 out of 121 seats in Canada’s richest provincial prize.

Rattan is everything you’d want in a Tory candidate. A 42-year-old Sikh woman, she holds a PhD from the University of Waterloo. Born in Singapore, she moved with her family to Edmonton when she was only seven months old and has lived in four provinces. She’s done tourism development work in Ethiopia, Thailand, and Grenada. It was when she pitched in on Progressive Conservative MPP Nina Tangri’s successful 2018 run for office in Mississauga–Streetsville that she caught the political bug.

Even though she lives in Mississauga, the party asked her to run in a riding that has never elected a Conservative and had $500 in the riding association’s account.

It was the very definition of a hopeless mission.

But Rattan dove in. “Everyone said, ‘You’re not going to win,’” she told me after the CLF’s morning post-mortem session on the election. “But I did it because I’m a bleeding-heart conservative.”

Nevertheless, she still had to put up with her share of crap on social media. Nominated just three and a half months before election day, she saw tweets that said, for example, “Prepare for the Bollywood dance.”

But Rattan put a team together and then went out and knocked on 30,000 doors.

“Others told me, ‘Indians don’t live in York South–Weston, so how can you win there?’” she said. “But I loved the riding. I wanted to know why there was so much poverty and gun violence. And I ended up coming second — the first time a Conservative has come second in 40 years.”

Rattan lost to Ahmed Hussen, the immigration, refugees and citizenship minister, who garnered more than 58 per cent of the vote. She acknowledges she’s a bit of an anomaly in today’s Conservative party. “I’m a woman, an ethnic minority, a PhD,” she says. “I believe in climate change — I run my own business, trying to reduce waste in the garment industry.” She acknowledges that those may not sound like the credentials of a typical Conservative candidate, which is a significant problem for her party.

“There’s a real disconnect there,” she admits. “At a candidates’ debate in the riding, someone yelled at me, ‘You guys are anti-immigrant!’ I said, ‘I am an immigrant!’”

As Rattan tells her story, the words just come spilling out — she’s bursting with enthusiasm. Hussen called her after the election to commend her on her campaign. “I told him if he needs help to call me,” she says. “I see the people in York South–Weston. They need help.”

I was the only journalist at the event and permitted to observe the election post-mortem on the condition that I not attribute quotes to those who had said them — the so-called Chatham House Rule.

For innumerable reasons, only a third of Ontarians saw the Conservative party as being the best vehicle to solve the country’s problems.

“We are nowhere in Ontario,” admitted one candidate, who was expected to win his 905 seat but instead lost by 5,500 votes. “We have nothing to say about compassion and climate change.”

Several campaign managers in southern Ontario ridings pointed out that their door-to-door canvasses didn’t reflect what ultimately happened at the ballot box. Voters would be pleasant, wish Conservative candidates good luck, and even ask for selfies. But, ultimately, many marked their ballots for Liberal candidates. Door-to-door canvassing turned out to be 5 per cent more optimistic than over-the-phone polling — on the phone, people were more apt to speak their minds.

One campaign manager, who’s been involved in election campaigns at all three levels since he was 17, characterized the hesitation to vote Conservative this way: “People are voting Liberal for the simple reason that they hate us, and they think we’re going to do damage.”

Another campaign manager at the post-mortem noted that all leader Andrew Scheer had ever seemed to talk about during the campaign were pipelines and no new taxes, and neither resonated in Ontario.

“We’re trying to sell people the same car again and again,” he said. “Maybe we should try a fresher and more interesting message for a change.”

James Constable was deputy campaign manager for two Conservative candidates, in Flamborough–Glanbrook and Hamilton West–Ancaster–Dundas. One candidate (David Sweet) won; the other (Bert Laranjo) lost. Constable, just 25, is motivated by “strong family values” and would like to run for office someday.

He notes that only twice in Canadian history has a party with a majority government been turfed out of office after just one term. So he’s not surprised that Scheer didn’t beat Justin Trudeau.

“Can we win in Ontario with Andrew Scheer?” he asked rhetorically in a post-symposium interview (and therefore I can quote him). “I don’t know the answer. We lost ground.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article miscalled the Conservative Leadership Foundation the Conservative Leadership Federation. It also misspelled Nina Tangri's surname. TVO.org regrets these errors.

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