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Conservative Party delegates ignore their leader's plea to acknowledge climate change

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Federal Opposition Leader Erin O'Toole during his remarks to the Conservative Party of Canada’s virtual policy conference on Friday. Image: Screenshot of CPAC video

Question: What is Erin O'Toole supposed to do now that we all know 54 per cent of the delegates to his online Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) policy convention have formally refused to acknowledge climate change is an actual thing?

Answer: Pretend it never happened, of course.

If that doesn't work, he can beg the party's auxiliary in right-wing media to bury the story. They'll probably oblige.

O'Toole's supporters in right-wing media, who are legion, are already advising us not to trouble our pretty little heads because as leader he can say whatever he wishes in his platform and the acknowledgement of climate change he wanted is already in the party's policy book.

But as former journalist and senior Alberta and B.C. bureaucrat Eric Denhoff observed on Twitter: "So he either blows off half his base or more than half the country. Enviable position to be in."

If pressed by some impertinent questioner, the CPC's latest leader could always argue that climate change is just so obvious party delegates decided the troublesome resolution, which also called on polluters to stop polluting so much, was as unneeded as one acknowledging the existence of gravity.

Mind you, it's not 100 per cent certain these days that you could get CPC members to acknowledge that gravity is a real thing either. Getting the party's social conservative wing -- which with the exception of O'Toole himself seems to be pretty much the entire party nowadays -- to recognize that the Earth revolves around the sun might be an even tougher sell.

As anyone who lives here on the Canadian Prairies understands, a considerable portion of the CPC's core membership in the party's electoral heartland believes climate change is not real, and if they reluctantly acknowledge its reality will insist nothing we humans do has anything to do with it.

It shows just how difficult the position is in which O'Toole finds himself.

In his keynote speech to delegates Friday, he asked them to accept that the debate about climate change is settled. That may be obvious, but as subsequent events proved, it's not obvious to his party.

"We have now fought and lost two elections against a carbon tax because voters did not think we were serious about addressing climate change," he lamented, pleading with them not to make Conservative candidates "defend against the lie from the Liberals that we are a party of climate-change deniers."

But as the result of his own members' vote quickly proved, it's not a lie and come election time candidates are going to have to acknowledge it and mount some sort of defence.

As for the carbon tax, O'Toole has pledged to scrap it. But, channelling Donald Trump, he says he'll come up with a better plan soon. "We will have a plan to address climate change. It will be comprehensive, and it will be serious."

We forget now that carbon taxes are an invention of the market-obsessed political right. But "fighting taxes" is just too easy -- and too instinctive -- for parties of the right, and so carbon taxes have become the Obamacare of Canada: a right-wing idea adopted by the progressive centre only to see it hysterically denounced by the people who came up with it.

And, therefore, they are yet another corner into which O'Toole is wedged.

He spoke the truth, though, when he told his delegates that if the CPC hopes to succeed, it must "move beyond a party that does well only in certain parts of Canada, while leaving other Canadians out." (Emphasis added.)

Alas for him, his party's base, mostly here on the Prairies, will not move. They'd rather move him out as soon as possible and replace him with someone more in tune with their prejudices and superstitions.

Having a solid regional core of support on the Prairies is a comfort to Canada's Conservative party. It is also a curse.

At election time, it gives the party the luxury of being able to focus its efforts on regions like the 905 zone around Toronto where the vote can swing either way. Also at election time, it drags the party down, making the case in most of Canada against voting Conservative effortless.

This is because in Alberta and elsewhere on the Prairies the CPC is a party of climate-change denialism, vaccine denialism, science denialism, gun nuttery, and social conservative opposition to reproductive, LGBTQ+ and minority rights.

I have no doubt it was partly with that crowd in mind -- now steeped in Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's cynical appeal to regional grievance and souverainiste tendencies -- that O'Toole made his dangerous pitch to Quebec's remaining separatists.

Accusing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of intervening in provincial jurisdiction under the cover of the pandemic, the CPC leader invited Quebec separatists, en français, "to come and share power with me in Ottawa."

"We are going to form a grand conservative coalition," he promised them. "We defend a federalism of co-operation, even decentralizing."

What could possibly go wrong?

The dog whistle to his unhelpful allies in Alberta is that they too can have all this, even if it destroys the country.

That idea may not sound scary to a lot of Alberta Conservatives, steeped in a political culture that lets them say outrageous things and get away with it. But it's sure to frighten lots of Canadian voters. This is yet another example of how Alberta's predilection for voting Conservative instinctively harms the party, diminishing its chances to form another national government.

In the same speech, O'Toole pledged to create a national suicide-prevention hotline -- about as clear an example of intervening in provincial jurisdiction one can think of, and certain to arouse the ire and opposition of his powerful Alberta caucus.

But never mind, just like acknowledging climate change, it's just a promise, not an actual plan.

Whether this indicates complete cynicism or merely muddled opportunism is hard to say.

It surely doesn't seem like a formula for electoral success.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: Screenshot of CPAC video

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