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The Tory leadership race wears on—yet the work has barely begun

The Conservatives will surely survive their leadership race, says Paul Wells. But everything else isn’t so clear.


 
Candidates are seen on stage during a federal Conservative Party leadership debate, in Vancouver on Sunday, February 19, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

Candidates are seen on stage during a federal Conservative Party leadership debate, in Vancouver on Sunday, February 19, 2017. (Darryl Dyck/CP)

They’re punch-drunk now, with seven gruelling weeks still ahead before they know which of them will lead. They operate mostly on muscle memory and sorely depleted adrenaline stocks. A leadership campaign is a marathon, and surely by now you’d have thought more of the legions competing to lead the Conservative Party of Canada would have collapsed and dropped out. Yet they persist. Doggedness is a virtue in politics, hardly the only virtue but one of them, and this field has it.

Thirteen of them showed up Sunday at the Eglinton Grand, an art deco movie house in what used to be Joe Oliver’s riding. (Kevin O’Leary, a television pitchman with a powerful homing instinct, was once again in Miami, celebrating a wedding anniversary. He had confirmed he’d be at the Eglinton Grand, and as late as Saturday was still expected.) The occasion was an off-league debate organized by Oliver, who was the minister of natural resources, and then of finance, in Stephen Harper’s late governments. Oliver lost to a Liberal in 2015, as did every Conservative and New Democrat within Toronto’s city limits. Since then Oliver has sought, and lost, a provincial Conservative nomination, and now writes gloriously ill-tempered columns for the National Post and the Toronto Sun. He was 71 when first elected to Parliament, not much older when first ejected, and he plainly misses it.

But he resisted the temptation to let any part of the afternoon be about him. He put big questions in plain language—on relations with the United States, on immigration and asylum claimants, on housing prices and other broad topics—and let the candidates produce the drama.

They are less and less shy about obliging. The party faces “a very, very stark choice,” Michael Chong told the crowd. If it picks a leader who “plays to fear and prejudice,” it will “hand the Liberals majority governments for a generation to come.”

This call to moderation generated pretty good applause. And I saw a surprising number of Chong buttons in the crowd. But there was comparable applause for Kellie Leitch, the plain object of Chong’s “stark choice,” when she took a question on the asylum seekers who’ve lately crossed the border in Manitoba and Quebec.

“I’ve been speaking about our Canadian identity since September of last year,” she said. “One grounded in a set of values: hard work, generosity, freedom and tolerance. ….I believe strongly that if we have individuals illegally entering the country and we have mayors who have decided to harbour them, that those mayors should not receive federal tax dollars. And I’ve been clear on that.”

That sounded pretty good to a lot of the people at the Eglinton Grand. It was a decent crowd, perhaps 300 people, varied in age, multi-ethnic, maybe 70 per cent male. It was hard to discern a crowd favourite. They, and tens of thousands of Conservatives more or less distant from Toronto, have much to consider.

Kellie Leitch speaks during the Conservative leadership debate at the Maclab Theatre in Edmonton, Alta., on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Codie McLachlan)

Kellie Leitch speaks during the Conservative leadership debate at the Maclab Theatre in Edmonton, Alta., on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Codie McLachlan)

I happen to think this has been a pretty good leadership contest for the Conservatives. There is no evidence whatever of a clean division along the old “Red Tory” and “Reform/Alliance” fault lines, the sort of split that would threaten an undoing of the modern Conservative Party’s 2004 founding. Anyone who claims to fear or desire such a division would do well to pop by one of these leadership debates.

No, the divisions on offer here were harder to predict or map, and followed different contours on different questions. Just about all the candidates, with the possible exception of Chong, call for tougher enforcement at the border against the asylum seekers in Manitoba and Quebec, for example. Even here there are differences. Chris Alexander, the former immigration minister who’s been on every side of immigration questions, called for a suspension of the safe third country agreement with the United States, putting him squarely in agreement with the NDP on the issue.

Candidates who favour a harder line (hello again, Kellie Leitch) find themselves harshly policed by a combination of simple reality and the other candidates. “I’m advocating a common-sense idea,” she said at one point: “That we interview each immigrant, refugee and visitor coming to Canada and talk to them about our Canadian values. Those values that built this country.”

She keeps saying “visitor.” We must assume she means it. There were about 16 million visits to Canada lasting at least overnight in 2015, if we count only the top 15 countries of origin. Interviewing each of those visitors for 30 seconds would take 15 years.

But you don’t need me to make fun of Leitch; the other leadership candidates were eager to volunteer. “Who are Kellie’s little group of bureaucrats who’ll decide what the values are?” Vancouver businessman Rick Peterson asked, thus earning the loudest applause of the afternoon.

Deepak Obhrai won the biggest gale of laughter when he tried to imagine what Leitch’s entry interviews would be like. Hard work? “We all come here to work hard. We don’t have to be told, ‘You come here to work hard.’ That’s why we came here. To sit there while somebody says, ‘Are you going to go to Canada to work hard?’ Excuse me? What nonsense is that?”

MORE: The beginning of the end of the Tory race—but for whom?

I learned a lot of surprising things. Peterson wants to increase the GST to 9 per cent to fund cuts to income taxes and corporate taxes. Steven Blaney, who seems to believe he’s a serious candidate, wants to boost shipbuilding in Newfoundland by commissioning a fleet of nuclear submarines. Lisa Raitt thinks one of the biggest problems facing Canada in the years ahead will be the return of American attempts to charge “a levy for every (shipping) container coming into the United States through one of our two ports. That, my friends, is going to be coming at us once again. And I have no faith in the drama club that’s currently running student council to actually stand up and do something about it.”

Perhaps because of limited time, Raitt did not explain how she’ll do better against such protectionist measures. Perhaps she will tell the Yankees she was never in drama club.

Leadership hopeful Erin O'Toole applauds as interim leader Rona Ambrose addresses the national Conservative summer caucus retreat in Halifax on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Leadership hopeful Erin O’Toole applauds as interim leader Rona Ambrose addresses the national Conservative summer caucus retreat in Halifax on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Erin O’Toole, whose support seems to have grown from a very modest start since this race began, wants to give college and university graduates a $100,000 basic personal exemption once they finish school, which they can use to keep their tax bill low while they find their feet in the world.

“The great thing about it is, it’s all costed, believable and achievable,” O’Toole said of his plan. Unlike others’, cough cough. “My friend Max, when asked by the Globe and Mail about his plan, he said, ‘I didn’t do the math.’ If that is the response during an election, we would lose the election that day.”

His friend Max is, of course, Max Bernier, who jumped in to protest, “I did do the math.” Bernier wants to cut just about every tax known, “end corporate welfare,” privatize some stuff, and basically get the federal government out of much of what it’s done for decades. He has been protected in this race by the persistence of Leitch and by occasional appearances from the elusive O’Leary, because the former makes him look more palatable, and the latter more serious, by comparison. I have no idea whether the crowd at the Eglinton Grand was representative of anything outside Toronto, but by their reactions, they seemed in little danger of handing the leadership to Leitch. O’Leary’s appeal, on this day, was hard to measure because he couldn’t bring himself to show up to test it. But Bernier seemed to have few detractors in the room.

Conservative MP Maxime Bernier arrives outside the offices of the Conservative Party of Canada on Thursday, April 7, 2016 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)

Conservative MP Maxime Bernier arrives outside the offices of the Conservative Party of Canada on Thursday, April 7, 2016 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)

Beats me how this ends. A half-dozen candidates have no chance under any scenario. Chong and Raitt would astonish most Conservatives I’ve spoken to if they won, though both clearly have fans. Andrew Scheer and Erin O’Toole are serious candidates: Scheer a little too glib to hold his early support, O’Toole profiting because of that. Bernier and O’Leary—despite his best attempts to blow the whole thing off—seem to have real hopes. Leitch is a wild card.

The party will survive this leadership race handily, and should have little trouble rallying around any potential winner except Leitch and O’Leary. But the hell of it is, with a field this big and a rulebook as cumbersome as the one the Conservatives have written for these things, it’ll be very hard for any individual Conservative to exercise any influence over who wins among the top-tier candidates. So you might want Scheer but wind up with Bernier, or prefer O’Toole but get Leitch. It’s basically a crap shoot from here on in.

What this means is that for the new leader, and the party, the hard work won’t be over once the identity of the leader is known. The work of defining the post-Harper Conservative party will have hardly begun.


 

The Tory leadership race wears on—yet the work has barely begun

  1. You didn’t see many signs of a split between old style Tories and right wing Reform types because most Tories split years ago. What is left has little to do with Canada’s funding party or its traditions.

    What is left now is ugly and sad, whether Red Pill Bernier or Boston O’Leary or Barbaric Practices Hotline Leitch or Lock Her up Alexander is all the same. No one in their right mind would touch this lot with a ten foot pole.
    .
    I watched some of the debates early on and it would be hard to imagine anything more excruciatingly boring. Now in order to stand out each one is trying to come up with something even more foul than the other just to be noticed.

    There are one or two honourable exceptions but they are far in the rear view mirror and are part of a tradition that is out of step and no longer has a place in in the CPC.

    • If the “Red Tories” left, as you suggest, and with the Conservative Party consistently polling at 30%, that suggests the country HAS shifted to the right, and when the “Red Tories” come home and the “Blue Liberals” freak out at Trudeau’s deficits-to-infinity-and-beyond and Trudeau’s asset stripping of Canada for the benefit of the global 1%’ers (i.e. selling off airports and the privatization bank), then the Conservative Party has lots of room for growth if the BASE is 30%.

      • I don’t think the Cons are putting enough chum in the water to ever attract the red tories, red tories don’t want to get caught in a trap of identity politics. The cons are trying so hard to win back government in 2019, but it is just not going to happen, its definitely going to be a few terms, unless Trudeau really screws up. Thats all the liberals have to do is balance the center with jobs and the middle Class, and keep most NDP supporters happy by continuing to apply social policies important to the left, and further more, i don’t care what anyone says, if the left feels that the cons will have a chance at winning government, you can be assured, they will tolerate Trudeau over any conservative leader, any day, they just had a lesson of 10 years of con ruling that Jack Layton helped them win, and they(NDP)would get less from conservative government, than they would from a liberal government.

    • Any one of the Conservatives would be an improvement over the current dictatorship

    • Split is not accurate. Ostracized would be a better word. What happened in 2003 might have seemed to create a new Tory, but was merely a protest vote against the Liberals that needed to be done. The same voters who have been maligned by deep blue dandies for years then placed their faith in the Liberals last election. This was not due entirely to a protest, but as a result of the great sell out of progress in 2003. That large group of Red Tories who were forced from their own party are pragmatists and opportunists that have partnered with a revived liberal party that they hoped to influence, and are now realising that they’re once again being castrated.

      Mr. Wells has obviously not considered that those who show up to these Conservative events are not fans of the game, but Maple Leaf fanatics who don’t care if their team loses, as long as they get to cheer.

      If you’re looking for fault lines Mr. Wells, you’d do better surveying the multiplying fractures around the plates rather than waiting on the screams of less lazy seismologists.

  2. Welcome back aboard Mr. Wells, i don’t always agree with your blogs, but i do most times, find them very insightful and humorous. When i see Harper stalwarts like Jenny Byrne showing up on the weekly political torque shows, and Joe Oliver doing debates, its not a good sign for the Harper Cons of the past, its a sign, the Conservatives may have a new Sheriff coming to Dodge(O’leary). If O’leary wins, its going to be another chapter of the Harper Conservative Party legacy, slowly being eviscerated by the new O’leary regime, ‘The Carpetbagger from Boston’. Making Canada look like the Conservative Party of Canada, Chumps.

  3. Seven weeks is insufficient. But, I feel that seven months is unlikely to be any better.

  4. Criticizing the Tories again eh Paul? Like a junkyard dog on a bone. Time you got a new act as the old one seems to be wearing thin. Didn’t play well at the Star at least, or so it would seem. So now trying to refry the beans at Maclean’s?
    Maybe you need a new profession. Liberals are hiring all your media pals these days – maybe you should join them, instead of working free at an online clickbait regime.

    • I don’t think the Star wanted to get rid of him, i think Mr. Wells was offered a sweeter deal from his old employer. Mr. Wells has a crack at everyone, he may be a little more Conservative than he is Liberal, but he has been pretty good at taking jabs at anyone who leaves a door open for him to walk in through. I don’t agree with a lot of the MSM, but i respect them and their jobs, especially journalists who put their heart and soul into a story, and i don’t care what party it effects. If we didn’t allow or have all points of view of all people(not hate or racism), whether we agree with them or not, we would be like whats happening in the US, we would be living in a world of ‘Fake News’, ‘Banana Republic’ kind of stuff. I hope our MSM don’t get caught in the trap of Fake News. Americans still watch Dr. Phil, and they still realize, he is a doctor.

    • You evidently didn’t read the article since he says he thinks this has been a good leadership contest on the whole. His point is simply that the issue of Conservative identity going forward will not be settled by this contest.

  5. Komarade Wells welcome back to print version of TrudeauVision® were you fired from Al-STARzeera ??

    • Way to add absolutely nothing to the conversation!

  6. Whoa. Paul Wells making a guest appearance in Macleans. The media landscape sure is interesting. When you move on, you keep all your options open. Take that Toronto Star…

  7. I hope Kellie Leitch wins so we can put to bed that notion that we need a female pm because women are so much more compassionate and caring. I can not tell you how many articles I have read on those lines in the last few years.

  8. Democracy which ignores the rights of the minority is worse than a dictatorship which cares for all. A leader must look at the interest of all rather than self interest or the interest of a particular group only for self gain.
    This is what we have seen and are seeing. To provide leadership of the nation is one thing and try to snatch the chair by attempting to gain the lime light for self or its group another. Which immigrants are they talking about.
    Why don’t they come out with their profile and the profile of their ancestors and compare it with the profile of the contribution by immigrants? All of us are immigrants to this land and contributing for its betterment what we can. We stand guard for it.

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