Leadership races can be bruising, bare-knuckled slugfests for political dominance. Those are the moments that tend to grab headlines.
But a leadership race also can offer an opportunity for a political party to engage in policy renewal — maybe even some soul-searching.
As the Conservative Party of Canada looks for a new leader, some young Conservatives are asking themselves what it would take to make their party more attractive to newer voters.
Dennis Matthews is one of them. He used to manage government advertising in Stephen Harper’s PMO; these days he’s a vice-president at Enterprise Canada.
In a recent Twitter cri de coeur, he reflected on what he described as his party’s need to be contemporary.
The Conservative Party should embrace policies for the new decade, he said, by engaging on topics that matter to younger Canadians, such as the opioid epidemic and the spread of workplace automation.
One thing I’d love to see on <a href=”https://twitter.com/Twitter?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@Twitter</a> or elsewhere is more discussions on conservative policies into the 2020s. What are the solid right-wing answers to poverty, insane housing costs, AI, opioid epidemic, manufacturing job loss, what social media is doing to society, China, etc.
We decided to ask some Conservative millennials which issues they’d like see their party take on to win over young voters.
Fighting poverty should be a Conservative goal, said Shakir Chambers, a former senior policy adviser to Ontario Premier Doug Ford who also worked in Stephen Harper’s PMO.
“I think if you’re a Conservative you believe that anybody who is able-bodied wants to work … So how do we create business incentives for folks to actually invest and hire those folks to get them the job experience they need and get in the door?” he said.
Chambers, 35, is thinking in particular about policies that would help people with criminal records.
“I think a lot of these folks, all they need is to open the door to get in and get some job experience so they can show people, ‘Listen, I have a criminal record but I’m not a bad person and I want to work.'”
The dream of owning a home seems increasingly out of reach for some millennials, said Matthews.
“This is an issue that has real electoral implications in urban and suburban Canada and means completely different things in other parts of the country,” he said, pointing to soaring housing prices in Toronto and Vancouver in particular.
Matthews said he doesn’t know any quick solutions. The federal government will need to get creative, he said, adding he believes it could play a role in “breaking the logjam” keeping many people out of the housing market.
The workplace is changing fast, thanks to widespread automation and the growth of the “gig economy.” Many millennials know they can expect their career paths to be much different from those of their parents. Young Conservatives say they would like to see their party come up with policies to address that.
Thirty-three year old Alberta MP Garnett Genuis said he would like to see policies that make it easier to work from home.
More and more stay-at-home parents are operating home-based businesses, he said. Other parents may want to take parental leave while still being able to work on a few files from the office.
He said he’d like to see what he calls “family friendly” tax changes that would make those things easier.
Parents, he said, should be able to earn some income while on leave without facing aggressive income tax clawbacks, while the work-from-home tax deduction should be easier to access.
The Conservatives also should be thinking about policies to address the spread of automation, and to attract young people to the skilled trades, said 27-year-old Lauren McDonald, a former director of marketing for Premier Ford.
She points to the Ontario government’s campaign to get young people to consider the trades. It’s intended to help address labour shortages, she said — but it also could help young people consider a career path they hadn’t before.
“When you traditionally think about skilled trades, you think about NDP and unions,” she said.
Chambers said he wants to see the next Conservative leader do more to grow support among minority voters. Doing that could involve everything from attending cultural events to putting forward policies that speak to those communities’ concerns, he said.
Chambers points to his own experience. His family is from the Caribbean and every year at Christmas, he said, he gets asked why he’s a Conservative.
He said he believes it’s something his party struggles with in many minority communities.
“They like our policy but they might think, as a minority, ‘I shouldn’t be a Conservative,’ because you don’t see a lot of minorities in the party,” said Chambers, a senior consultant with the PR firm Navigator.
He said he’s heard people say Conservative parties accept diversity — but don’t necessarily celebrate it.
To improve that image, Chambers said, Conservatives should take lessons from Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Back when he was the federal minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Kenney was a constant fixture at cultural community events across the country — part of a (largely successful) Conservative campaign to win over new voters.
Genuis said he would like to see his party tackle online hate aimed as minority groups as part of a larger emphasis on civil rights.
“We have a particular appreciation of the importance of freedom of speech that isn’t shared by other parties in the same way,” he said. “But I think we can and we must do both.”
He cites something he heard about recently through his work as the party’s critic on multicultural issues — an image being shared online of a mock “licence” for hunting Muslims.
He notes that while there are laws prohibiting some of the worst online behaviour, it’s not always clear that the authorities are as quick to act as some community members would like.
“Clearly, there’s a problem out there in this space.”
Technology has created a host of policy challenges, from growing automation displacing workers to new virtual currencies. Dennis Matthews wants to add social isolation to that list.
A U.K. government investigation into loneliness suggested it’s as harmful to human health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
“It’s a bigger question of what type of country and society do we want to build, and how we create a sense of patriotism, a sense of belonging that were hallmarks of conservative movements for so long,” said Matthews. “How do you create a 2020 version of that?”
While it’s not a problem that can be addressed overnight, Matthews points to social isolation as the kind of policy topic that could get many Canadians to engage with Conservatives.
Financial literacy means a lot more than just knowing how to use a bank account, said Chambers.
He said he’d like to see the federal government work with other levels of government to make sure young people know more about doing their taxes and how to invest.
“I think there are a lot of folks out there who know nothing about how money actually works.”
He said it’s an idea his party ought to embrace because young people who understand money would be more likely to support the Conservatives.
McDonald, who’s now director of digital public affairs and campaign strategy at the lobbying firm Proof Strategies, said she knows that the plight of seniors might not be the most obvious policy topic for a millennial.
But she said she believes many people her age are concerned about older Canadians.
“The huge baby boomer, silver wave is coming. They’re seeing that and worry about what their parents are going to be [experiencing] in terms of health care, long term care, hospital wait times,” she said. “How are we positioning ourselves to be ready for that?”
On this issue and others, McDonald argues Conservatives need to put more focus on the “people” side of policy.
“I know Conservatives, often times the language is ‘the taxpayer’, ‘the voter’, ‘the constituent’. I think turning our minds to the people on the other end of the policy can help us think more intimately about how that’s going to affect people in the long run.”