Tory senator picks side in leadership battle
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OTTAWA — Manitoba Sen. Don Plett is taking the unconventional step of endorsing a candidate in the Conservative leadership race, saying frontrunner Pierre Poilievre can rein in “woke” elements of the party.
“Everyone has room in a Pierre Poilievre-led party,” Plett told the Free Press.
As Conservative leader in the Senate, Plett planned to emulate the rest of the party’s front bench by staying out of the race, which many Conservatives say is the most divisive in decades.
For example, interim leader Candice Bergen, the MP for Portage-Lisgar, chose B.C. MP Ed Fast as finance critic, but she announced his resignation shortly after he decried Poilievre’s pledge to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada.
Senate leaders tend to not make endorsements in leadership races. Plett’s predecessor did make an endorsement in the party’s 2017 leadership race, but Plett opted against doing so in 2020.
“As a member of the leadership team, I felt I should stay out of it,” Plett said in an interview Friday. “At the very tail part of this week decided that I would maybe not stay quite as neutral any more.”
Plett said recent comments from senior Conservatives had him alarmed, but wouldn’t name a specific person.
“When people say, ‘well if so-and-so wins, we can’t win an election’ … then I feel that maybe we all have to come out of the closet and declare our stances,” he said.
In recent weeks, longtime Conservative Marjory LeBreton said she was “very worried” by Poilievre’s lead in the polls. She said his embrace of the so-called freedom convoy went against conservative ideas of respecting law and order, and would make him “unelectable” in urban Canada.
LeBreton also feared the progressive flank of the party will be drowned out by a “grievance brigade” emanating from Western Canada. It’s a concern she raised in the lead up to the merger of the Progressive Conservative and Canadian Alliance parties. Ultimately, that concern abated under Stephen Harper, who became primer minister in 2006 — after which he gave her Plett’s current job, as Conservative leader in the Senate.
Plett said Harper proved his party can hold together different views.
“We have won elections with a diverse group of leaders, and we need to be a diverse party,” said Plett, the party’s former president.
Plett said he supported Poilievre in part because he stood up for convoy participants. To him, most were trying to make a point about vaccine mandates that lacked scientific justification, but ended up with Ottawa taking emergency powers to order some bank accounts frozen.
While the self-proclaimed leaders of the convoy movement had explicit plans to overthrow the government, many participants said they simply felt COVID-19 restrictions had gone too far.
“We have had our freedoms taken away by this government; freedom of speech has been taken away,” Plett said.
He took umbrage with people describing the Parliament Hill convoy as an illegal protest.
“It only became supposedly illegal when they were told to clean up and they didn’t move as fast as (instructed),” he said.
“This was a freedom convoy, of people who were frustrated.”
Plett said cracking down on the protests, and describing the unvaccinated as having unacceptable views, has put strain on Canada’s social fabric.
“We have a woke society out there that we need to move back to where we were in the days of, absolutely, Stephen Harper — but also in the days of Brian Mulroney and our very founding forefathers… and most Liberal prime ministers.”
Plett said he had a lot of respect for Poilievre’s main challenger, Jean Charest, despite disagreeing with Charest’s assertion that the convoy was an illegal protest.
Plett said he’ll support whichever candidate the Tories elect as their new leader on Sept. 10.
“The only way we can win elections is if we unite behind whoever wins.”
Updated on Monday, July 18, 2022 1:55 PM CDT: More information added