Federal Conservatives left their party’s policy convention in Quebec City feeling a somewhat unfamiliar sensation: Celebration.
Party members, MPs and insiders say the chance for a return to power feels within reach. Unity is also becoming more evident under Pierre Poilievre, elected leader a year ago.
With a mood buoyed by rising poll numbers and a sense of momentum, the challenge ahead, some say, is how to sustain the feeling, given the next general election could be years away.
The Canadian Press put that question to strategists, MPs and party supporters at the convention.
Five takeaways on what Conservatives say they need to do next:
Stick to the script
Keeping the focus on affordability is the most important thing, insiders and caucus members say.
Poilievre dedicated his more than hour-long convention speech to the issue, and there’s a feeling that after years of delivering a hard economic message, it has finally clicked.
Conservatives believe it’s a core topic that shows Poilievre as a prime minister-in waiting at a time when the governing Liberals aren’t persuading Canadians they have pocketbook issues under control.
Delegate Liam O’Brien of Newfoundland and Labrador said Poilievre looked like a winner because of his stand against a “high cost of living, high taxes, Liberal incompetence.”
Maintaining discipline means steering clear of distractions, strategists say, which is challenging with a base that wants to push the party further into “culture war” debates.
Indeed, party members voted overwhelmingly to change Conservative policy to prohibit transgender children from accessing certain gender-affirming care.
A delegate who introduced herself only as Andrea from Montreal warned of forthcoming attacks as members prepared to vote in favour of a policy stating the party believes in “single-sex spaces” for women in bathrooms and locker rooms, which would exclude transgender individuals.
“The Liberals would love nothing more than to throw this issue onto the table and say we are dividing the country,” she told the convention floor.
The party plans to keep spending money on ads featuring Poilievre.
Allowing new voters in key ridings to see him in action is also a priority.
The party says the advertising campaign isn’t about changing Poilievre’s image as much as introducing the leader to Canadians who don’t yet know him.
But at least one delegate said his advisers need to do something.
“The only reason we’ll lose the next election seems to be is if we get portrayed as quacks or too radical,” said Alberta delegate Todd McBride.
He said Poilievre’s support for last year’s “Freedom Convoy” protest in Ottawa and those who refused to get vaccinated against COVID-19 means “now of course we’re doing everything we can to show him as a reasonable man so he stands a chance of beating Trudeau.”
Poilievre has an opportunity to introduce himself to Canadians in a way predecessors Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer never did.
But if Scheer and O’Toole had the problem of insufficient time for voters to get to know them, Poilievre might have the opposite challenge.
Some strategists say one way to keep Canadians interested in Poilievre is to roll out more policy.
But campaigners often want to save their best ideas for an election platform, which makes timing difficult.
Poilievre, who often faces criticism from opponents for a lack of detailed policy, laid out for the convention his priorities of cutting spending, building homes and upholding freedoms.
The Liberals take particular aim at the absence of ideas from Poilievre to address climate change, aside from vowing to scrap the federal carbon price and developing clean technology,.
Realize polls change
While things look good now, MPs say they know public opinion ebbs and flows.
Those at the convention who have known Poilievre for years say he is driven and not the type to take things for granted.
Some point to his leadership contest as an example. His campaign hustled to sell more than 300,000 memberships, despite beginning with considerable support, and then focused on getting out votes down to the final week even though many observers had all but declared his victory weeks earlier.
Polls that put the Conservatives well ahead Liberals were done over the summer, which can mean attaching an asterisk.
“The better answer will be in a month from now,” said Philippe Fournier of 338Canada.com, which publishes a statistical model of electoral projections based on polling, demographics and elections history.
“People are taking vacation, it escapes their minds and they receive a call or they get an email and it’s like ‘Who do you want to vote for?’
“It’s very hypothetical.”
Fournier said the Conservatives will need to pace themselves, “to realize there might (not) be an election for two years.”
While Poilievre will remain the party’s communicator-in-chief, some party members and organizers say nominating candidates is another way to keep the momentum flowing.
Winning a nomination race is all about selling memberships, which energizes supporters. Getting a candidate installed in a riding helps ensure someone is spreading the Conservative message locally in regions where they are no incumbents to do that work.
The approach could help in the Greater Toronto Area, where Poilievre needs to break through.
Nadeem Akbar, who lost in the 2021 election in the riding of Milton said he plans to seek the Conservative nomination again.
He says watching Poilievre’s pace sends a message.
“The people like myself and all the other candidates, all the other people who are involved in the party, when they see the leader is working, definitely, you want to follow the footsteps of your leader and you work hard, too.”
But getting the nomination races going is complicated by the fact that the country’s federal ridings are undergoing a redistribution, and changes won’t kick in until next spring.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 10, 2023.