By Stuart Parker
There is so much to unpack from this weekend’s Conservative party convention vote on climate change that one struggles to know where to begin.
So, first, what happened: the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, Erin O’Toole, and his surrogates placed a resolution before the national convention of his party to affirm the scientific truth that anthropogenic climate change is real. In an apparent effort to be cast by the media as a moderate and modernizer within the party, he used his platform as leader, not just in the convention hall, but in the media in the days leading up to the vote, to strongly promote a “yes” vote in support of the resolution. The resolution was defeated.
This is fascinating, first of all, for anyone studying the changes in epistemology wrought by the 21st century. If there is one thing to characterize the Trump era it is the collapse of the separate categories of “knowledge” and “power” into a single category.
To quote OCAD professor Mary Eileen Wennekers, “Covfefe points us to the master discourse of the Trump Administration. What it means is that when Donald Trump says something, it becomes a word.”
To be clear, the party that received the largest share of the popular vote in the last election (from just over one in three Canadians) just held a vote on whether a piece of science is true. This is of a piece with a larger trend across the political spectrum of completely conflating knowledge and power.
Of course, a political party has the power to determine which physical laws are true. For decades now, the U.S. Republican Party has believed that how zygotes, embryos, and fetuses work is something to be determined by democratic voting rather than scientific investigation.
But this has spread to include a whole galaxy of physical laws now determined by democratic votes—the Anglo American conservative universe is full of science created by voting. Energy from solar power is impossible to store and cannot be generated on cloudy days. The Australian megafires were a combination of targeted arsons committed by climate change activists and false-flag operations that used special effects to simulate fires. And windmill cancer continues to kill Europeans by the thousand every year.
Progressives have taken a different direction. Science is now made by government-appointed experts. Prominent progressive activists and journalists now propound the theory that the political jurisdiction in which one lives determines how COVID-19 transmission works.
If one prefers the views of better-published, more qualified scientists over those of B.C.’s chief medical health officer concerning the utility of masking or the susceptibility of children and adolescents to COVID variants, one is “against science”. Even when the only public figure in North America who concurs with her views on these subjects is Donald Trump.
What makes Dr, Bonnie Henry infallible is the fact that she is the most senior public health government official in her jurisdiction and has been given a title and powers reflecting this. If the medical chief of the province’s oldest hospital disagrees with her, this does not mean that there is a debate over medical science. It means that Royal Columbian Hospital’s chief doctor has turned against science itself.
In other words, while progressives prefer autocratic, state-based authority to determine scientific truth and conservatives prefer democratic, party-based authority to determine scientific truth, both of Anglo America’s main political groupings concur that power can be converted directly into knowledge.
And that is just the first remarkable thing about this vote.
Until this weekend, whenever a fellow activist talked to me about how their party convention was going to vote on an important environmental or social issue, my response would always be the same: “Look at all the provincial and national party conventions in English Canada since 1993. Tell me of one vote on a policy resolution that has materially affected a party’s platform or policies it has enacted in government.”
That’s because, until this weekend, there was none. The only convention votes that have mattered since 1993 have been the selection and deselection of party leaders. Period.
As I have written extensively elsewhere, through a combination of changes in federal and provincial law and changes in political parties’ organizational structures over the past generation, Canadian politics has diverged from other democracies in systematically draining the power out of parliamentarians and party members and concentrating it in the office of each party’s registered leader.
Whereas in the 20th century, resolutions by party members could force changes in platform and government policy, these are routinely ignored.
Whereas in the 20th century, party members or legislative caucuses needed to approve party platforms, this is now done by head office staff and the office of the leader.
Whereas in the 20th century, candidates were chosen by the mutual agreement of local members and the party leader, local agreement is now an optional formality.
Given this situation, one must ask two questions:
(1) Why did Erin O’Toole place a resolution before his party’s membership and campaign for it to be passed, when he could just as easily have kept climate change off the convention floor and then written his desired policy into the party platform unilaterally?
(2) What are the implications of this concession of power to party members?
First, let us be clear: nothing has changed legally. O’Toole still has the power to write the defeated resolution into his party’s platform. The only reason the convention vote has power over him is that he sought and campaigned for the approval of the members.
It is his choice, not some institutional or legal change that has given meetings of his party’s membership this power over him. But this is now a real power.
By arguing that he required this vote in order to campaign effectively in the next election, O’Toole has turned the democratic vote of his members into something necessary and real.
So why did he?
Likely, O’Toole has been observing how the “rally around the flag” effect under COVID has made our leaders even more infallible than they were previously. Party activists, at least in parties like the B.C. NDP and B.C. Liberals, understand themselves, when they attend a convention, less as decision-makers and more as members of a lavish theatrical production.
A party activist’s job at a convention is to bust out of their role as an extra and get a brief speaking part at the microphone, praising their leader and his wise policies, irrespective of their private thoughts on the matter.
O’Toole must have expected that Tory convention delegates would behave like members of other parties and work from the script he had handed them. But they didn’t.
Instead, we witnessed the building of an impressive coalition against the resolution led not by oil industry shills but by Campaign Life Coalition, the largest anti-abortion organization in Canada.
The Religious Right has long chafed under the authoritarian leadership of the new Conservative party that they worked so hard to create in 2003, a leadership that has shown a surprising loyalty to Canada’s cross-partisan consensus to keep women’s reproductive rights out of Parliament. Stephen Harper, Andrew Scheer, and Erin O’Toole have all been effective at isolating, marginalizing and cutting off support from the anti-abortion movement when it came to voting on their key issue.
But what this establishment did not see coming was the emergence of a larger Trumpian coalition of forced birth advocates, climate change deniers, and other stigmatized groups fronted by an issue other than abortion.
In this way, the Tory establishment has found itself stuck in the 1990s, when these groups were separate and smaller, as compared to the present-day reality where, for many, climate change denial, assault weapon legalization and putting women with insufficiently documented miscarriages on death row are politically inextricable from one another.
This moment in Canadian politics should worry both left-wing and mainstream Canadians. A populist revolt against the autocracy of Canada’s political structures is happening. Rank-and-file party members are standing up to their leaders and building alliances to challenge the power of our country’s political class and the consensus they embody.
The problem is that this revolt is taking place on the political right; there is no sign of it on the left. The sense that people can organize together and, through democratic voting, challenge elites and their agenda is coming back to life in Canada but inside our party of the right.
While this, combined with an imminent election defeat, likely marks the death of O’Toole’s political career, it suggests the very opposite of death when it comes to the Tory party.
As we have seen again and again, movements that mobilize and engage regular folks with the idea that they can confront power and make change ultimately triumph over movements that do not, whether or not they immediately seize state power.
This weekend is a sad and troubling moment when it comes to the climate crisis, to women’s reproductive rights, and to the pursuit of economic equality. But it could be a good day for democracy in Canada, if rank-and-file New Democrats, Greens, and Liberals tear a page from the new book Tory members are reading.