China treaty uproar signals growing rift between Ottawa, grassroots conservatives

Prime Minister Stephen Harper deserves credit for doing something extraordinarily difficult: keeping groups of people who share some values – but fundamentally disagree on others – focused on areas of common agreement, not on their differences, for the past six years.

The Prime Minister’s ability to keep his caucus and supporters focused on toning down differences to maintain unity has been impressive. However, now that the Prime Minister has a majority government, cracks are appearing within his party. The growing backlash over potential Chinese control of Canadian resources is just the latest example of a growing trend.

After years of strong party discipline, conservative-leaning voters are starting to speak out against the party position. The controversy about the proposed Chinese takeover of Nexxen and the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act (FIPPA) are the latest in a string of controversies that seem to have taken Harper by surprise.

This growing backlash from conservative voices is worth exploring more deeply. To investigate this, in late October, Dogwood Initiative reached out to almost 7,000 donors to the Conservative Party of Canada from across Canada to see what they thought about the proposed trade treaty with China. The results were revealing.

Those that answered got a recorded message about the proposal and two polling questions asking how the donors felt about the treaty the Prime Minister was on the brink of signing with the Chinese government. Eight per cent of those reached answered the first question (including almost 15 per cent in Alberta).

We were surprised by the Conservative opposition to the investor treaty.

The first question was: How do you want Prime Minister Harper to handle the trade treaty with China?

Three-quarters (74 per cent) said the deal should be delayed (46 per cent) or rejected (28 per cent). Only 13 per cent supported signing the deal now. The depth of opposition varied across the country. Opposition was highest in PEI and Nova Scotia at 89 per cent, followed by Saskatchewan at 83 per cent, and central/northwest Ontario at 82 per cent. Out west, opposition amongst donors was high in British Columbia (82 percent), and surprisingly high in the Prime Minister’s home turf of Calgary (76 percent).

We asked a follow-up question to those who indicated they wanted to delay or reject the treaty: Would you consider withdrawing your financial support for the Conservative Party of Canada if they sign this treaty?

We were shocked that 72 per cent of people who give the Conservative Party money said they would consider withdrawing their financial support if the treaty was signed. Harper should pay attention, as the threat of withdrawing financial support was highest in Alberta at 87 per cent.

To find out more about what Conservative donors thought, and to encourage them to contact the party about their dissatisfaction, we personally followed up with the donors in British Columbia who responded to the poll and were surprised by how angry they were. “Secretive” was the word we heard most often.

As with the oil tanker and pipeline issue, the Conservatives are clearly at odds with their own supporters on Chinese trade issues. Unwittingly, the Prime Minister has triggered deeply held values about Canada’s control over its own natural resources. And from what we heard from the folks who give the party money, it is clear this is not just a minor annoyance that can be glossed over with a targeted tax credit before the next election.

For now, the China trade treaty is still on the table. Two weeks have passed since it was first eligible to be ratified. We watch, wait and wonder: has Harper realized such a move could be toxic to his own base?

There’s no doubt the backlash could have electoral consequences. Numerous polls show that since the last election, the Conservatives have lost around 30 per cent of their support in British Columbia. Polls also show dropping Conservative support in other parts of the country. If an election were held today, it is unlikely the Conservatives would get a majority.

The election is almost three years away and a lot can happen before then. Until recently, the major threat to the Conservatives was the potential for unity between progressives, but now it appears that the biggest threat may be people abandoning the Conservatives.



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