March 28, 2020

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Beware blind spots in drive to reshape party at Tory leadership event

Opinion

As federal Conservatives begin their search for a new leader — to be chosen at a convention in June — they are faced once again by the most fundamental of all political quandaries.

Should a political party choose a leader who will embrace and reflect the sensibilities of the electorate, or find someone to influence and remake the electorate in the image of the party?

It's a critically important question for Conservatives who find themselves searching for a new champion, someone who can pry the levers of power away from Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a politician who is as profoundly flawed as he is fortunate.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer (left) was not able to leverage missteps and baggage weighing down the election campaign of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Justin Tang / The Canadian Press files)

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer (left) was not able to leverage missteps and baggage weighing down the election campaign of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Justin Tang / The Canadian Press files)

In last fall's election, Trudeau managed to snatch minority victory from the jaws of what seemed to be almost certain defeat.

Just consider the baggage he carried into the campaign: multiple ethics transgressions, a cabinet civil war over the SNC-Lavalin affair, and the outrageous and offensive images where he donned brown or blackface makeup. Add in healthy doses of arrogance and hubris, and you have a political leader ripe for the picking.

Should a political party choose a leader who will embrace and reflect the sensibilities of the electorate, or find someone to influence and remake the electorate in the image of the party?

At first blush, voters responded: the Liberal share of the popular vote fell, as did its seat total; the Tories received more votes than any other party.

But when the smoke cleared, Trudeau and the Liberals were triumphant. How?

Names in the mix

The Conservative leadership race has begun and the deadline to register as a candidate and meet the first round of requirements is Feb. 27.

The party has three declared candidates; 10 others are considering bids.

The Conservative leadership race has begun and the deadline to register as a candidate and meet the first round of requirements is Feb. 27.

The party has three declared candidates:

Marilyn Gladu: Conservative MP for Ontario riding of Sarnia-Lambton.

Peter MacKay: former Progressive Conservative leader, Conservative cabinet minister and longtime MP from Nova Scotia, who now lives in Toronto.

Aron Seal: former director of policy for two Conservative cabinet ministers.

 

Others, in alphabetical order, who are considering bids:

Rona Ambrose: former interim leader of the Conservative party and MP from an Edmonton-area riding.

Jean Charest: former Liberal premier of Quebec, Progressive Conservative party leader and federal cabinet minister.

Michael Chong: former Conservative cabinet minister, current MP for Ontario riding of Wellington-Halton Hills. Ran in the 2017 race.

Gerard Deltell: current Conservative MP for the Quebec riding of Louis-Saint-Laurent and former provincial MNA.

Richard Decarie: political aide under former Conservative leader Stephen Harper while in opposition, helped run Harper's Quebec operations.

Michelle Rempel Garner: Conservative MP for the riding of Calgary Nose Hill.

Vincent Guzzo: movie-theatre mogul from Quebec who also stars in the reality-TV program "Dragons' Den."

Rudy Husny: longtime Quebec operative for the Conservative party, and businessman.

Erin O'Toole: former Conservative cabinet minister and current MP from the Toronto-area riding of Durham. Ran in the 2017 race.

Pierre Poilievre: former Conservative cabinet minister and current MP from the Ottawa-area riding of Carleton.

-The Canadian Press

The Liberals benefitted from a Conservative party with a scrambled brand. Soon-to-be-outgoing leader Andrew Scheer was thought to be the second coming of Stephen Harper, one who could suppress his social conservative sensibilities long enough to win an election.

Although Scheer did try to walk the Harper tightrope, he was neither as clever nor as accomplished a retail politician to pull it off.

In other words, a politician who does not attend Pride parades to visibly support the LGBTTQ+ community, and steers closer to the label "climate change denier" than any other legitimate party leader, is going to find it difficult to build a national base of support. Add in a few missteps (errors of omission about his citizenship and professional status) and you've got a leader unlikely to serve as first minister.

Who should Tories turn to as their next great hope? That's a question that is forcing hardcore conservatives to perform some awkward ideological contortions.

Who should Tories turn to as their next great hope? That's a question that is forcing hardcore conservatives to perform some awkward ideological contortions.

Former Tory MP and cabinet minister Peter MacKay, who left politics in 2015, announced Wednesday he will seek the leadership. MacKay is the classic Red Tory centrist, a politician who will likely try to take the party back to the Progressive Conservative pedigree of the past.

Peter MacKay is the classic Red Tory centrist, a politician who will likely try to take the party back to the Progressive Conservative pedigree of the past. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

Peter MacKay is the classic Red Tory centrist, a politician who will likely try to take the party back to the Progressive Conservative pedigree of the past. (Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press files)

That has some Tories fretting aloud about electing a leader too close to the centre of the country's political spectrum.

Some, such as Kory Teneycke, Harper's former chief of staff and one of Ontario Premier Doug Ford's campaign managers, believe this leadership race is an opportunity to move the federal party further to the right. Teneycke recently told the Hill Times an individual such as Pierre Poilievre, an Ontario MP with a genuine social conservative pedigree, has an excellent chance of winning the leadership because he probably the "most conservative" of the potential candidates.

These sentiments have been echoed by other social conservatives, including the Campaign Life Coalition, which believes it was exploited by Scheer in 2017 to win the leadership, only to see him abandon issues (abortion and same-sex marriage) once he won.

For Campaign Life, and in the eyes of other social conservative party members, the leadership is an opportunity to remake the Conservative party to embrace issues on the far-right edge of the political debate.

Some believe an individual such as Ontario's Pierre Poilievre has an excellent chance of winning the leadership because he is probably the "most conservative" of the potential candidates. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press)

Some believe an individual such as Ontario's Pierre Poilievre has an excellent chance of winning the leadership because he is probably the "most conservative" of the potential candidates. (Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press)

The problem is true conservative hawks like Teneycke and Campaign Life cannot look beyond the leadership race. If they did, they would see electing "more conservative" may not be a winning strategy.

This is where we return to the fundamental political quandary. Social conservatives are not wrong to seek a leader that will champion their causes; they clearly want a party that will work diligently to move public opinion in their favour, rather than pandering to it.

Of course, social conservatives could form their own party, but the colossal flameout of the People's Party of Canada won't encourage many people to go that route. No, these folks want a leader at the helm of an established party and brand, who can soft-peddle issues until they are in power.

Although there is nothing wrong with trying to move the public closer to the party's point of view, it does ignore the reality of politics in this country.

Although there is nothing wrong with trying to move the public closer to the party's point of view, it does ignore the reality of politics in this country.

A social conservative may be able to sweep huge tracts of Western Canada, but as Scheer found out, they will be significantly hampered east of Manitoba. That may be seen as unfair to the militants that keep the social conservative fires burning within the Conservative party, but it's a practical reality.

Social conservatives may have the will and resources to determine the next Tory leader, but in doing so, they won't be doing the party any favours.

The problem for the Tories is many social conservatives either don't care, or can't be bothered to consider, the only likely outcome of getting what they want: an eternity in opposition.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Thursday, January 16, 2020 at 1:13 PM CST: fixes typo

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