What Conservatives should look for in a new leader

Former senior strategist Ken Boessenkool on the five critical qualities a new Conservative leader needs

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in Ottawa on Sunday, August 9, 2015. Canadian's will head to the polls on October 19, 2015.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper makes a campaign stop in Ottawa on Sunday, August 9, 2015.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The Conservative party has a remarkable opportunity to prepare to regain power in the wake of our equally remarkable nine-year run in government. Together we have moved Canada in a conservative direction on a broad range of policy fronts. And we owe it to our record, to our movement and to our party to continue to do so.

Key to regaining power is selecting the right leader.

Politics today is more leader-driven than ever before. This campaign, if anything, reinforced this. The public did not turn away from the broad policy agenda of Conservatives, instead they turned toward “change” as embodied in Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

Conservatives need to thoughtfully, and carefully, consider the qualities for our new leader. Conservatives will certainly face Justin Trudeau again. And while it is possible that our ads will finally prove true – that he’s just not ready – we shouldn’t count on it.

What qualities ought Conservatives to be looking for? I think there are five critical ones. Let me say up front that I don’t know of anyone that fills all five perfectly. And I am not shilling for, or against, any prospective candidate.

First, the leader must embody the current policy and political soul of the Conservative party. They must be small-“c” conservatives. This means favouring low taxes, controlled spending, balanced budgets, stronger families, a decentralized federation and a principled and muscular foreign policy.

But we can go deeper. Conservatives should look for someone who prefers direct payments to families over institutional childcare; who can vigorously defend our record of large (GST, income-splitting) and targeted (child fitness and arts tax credits) tax cuts; who prefers that provinces run health care unhindered from Ottawa; who supports Israel’s right to defend itself; and who supports smaller government and larger civil society. In short, a new leader should be excited about defending and consolidating the gains we have made.

Second, the leader must have, or enunciate, a powerful view of conservatives’ future and the future of Canada. This will be more difficult and each candidate will bring its own strengths to the table.

To do so, a new leader must answer some or all of the following: What is the right role of government in enabling and strengthening families? What is the right role of government in enabling and strengthening civil society? What is the right role of government in addressing the environment and climate change? What is the right role of government in enabling life changes: school, university, working or starting a business, marriage, home ownership, children and retirement? What is the right role of Canada on the world stage? Finally, a new leader needs to robustly defend Canadian values – because conservative values are Canadian values.

Third, gender matters. Fifty years ago it was accepted that leadership in politics was the preserve of men, I believe that leadership in politics today is increasingly the preserve of women.

Think I’m wrong? Tell me the last woman leader of a party in serious contention in a major province that was beaten by a man their first time out. Women rule, whether Conservative or Liberal or NDP. Christy Clark, Alison Redford, Rachel Notley, Kathleen Wynne, Pauline Marois—all won their first election as leader. You have to go back 20 years to Kim Campbell and Lyn McLeod to see a woman lose her first time out. Conservatives would be wise to carefully consider this reality.

Fourth, geography. Preston Manning, Stockwell Day and Stephen Harper all hailed from Alberta during their tenure as leaders. And while it is true that Jean Charest and Peter Mackay hailed from elsewhere and Joe Clark arguably didn’t, a leader from outside Alberta should be seen as preferable to a leader from Alberta.

Fifth, age. While Trudeau proved that a new, young and inexperienced leader could win a majority the first time out, Conservatives should not consider this the norm. We need a leader that can contest multiple elections, particularly if they don’t win the first one. I think this means a new leader should have sixteen years of runway ahead of them (a two-election strategy to win, and then two terms in office). We certainty shouldn’t consider anyone with less than 12. What age does that mean? Well, Chretien was nearly 70 when he finally stepped down.

Stephen Harper left us a Conservative party that is strong, vibrant and ready to contest for power. We must build on this legacy. We owe it to our record, to our movement and to our party to get this leadership right.

Ken Boessenkool has played senior roles on leadership campaigns for Stockwell Day, Jim Dinning, Stephen Harper (twice), Christy Clark and Ric McIver and in the 2004, 2006, 2011 and 2015 national Conservative campaigns.


What Conservatives should look for in a new leader

  1. I think that several of your requirements, if fulfilled, will ensure at least 16 years of runway for Mr Trudeau and the Liberal Party. The real answer lies in the return of a small measure of “Red Tory” to your requirements. Like it or not, Eastern Canadians believe in some Federal Government leadership on social issues. Since Quebec & Ontario control election outcomes this factor cannot be ignored.

  2. Sixth: they need to be petty, divisive and partisan beyond everything else.

  3. “Because Conservative values are Canadian values” You’re kidding, right? I’m pretty sure the election results prove that Conservative values are most emphatically NOT Canadian values. Canadians value inclusion, fairness, honesty and tolerance. None of these things are hallmarks of the Conservative Party.

    • “inclusion, fairness, honesty and tolerance”

      If you were to reduce those wooly pieties to clear definitions, you’d find that that common canadians wouldn’t ascribe them to progressives.

      • It is revealing that a literate person considers these qualities to be “wooly pieties” that might be difficult to define.

        That reflects the Conservative Party’s style, particularly in the recent Senate matters where truth telling seemed extraordinarily difficult. The concept of honesty was also problematic in the Del Mastro case. Remember, before his ethics spokesman was shackled & jailed, Harper said the disgraced politician “serves his constituents and this house honourably.”

        The Liberal’s most effective advertisement might have been when 94-year-old Hazel McCallion looked at the camera and said, “Stephen Harper’s not telling the truth…”

        Spin doctors and their political pals may be believe that fundamental human qualities no longer matter but I believe they’re mistaken. Consider that just about every major religion and belief system has a version of the Golden Rule. Across the world, ethics do matter to ordinary people.

      • What are these mythical “common canadians”?

        Are they the pure laine racists of Quebec, the old stock racists of anglophone Canada or both?

    • Could you tell me how inclusive Trudeau was when he stated that the best PM’s only come from Quebec, and that Albertans don’t deserve to be in the government?

  4. “Stephen Harper left us a Conservative party that is strong, vibrant and ready to contest for power.”

    Stephen Harper left a shattered husk of cynics and sycophants who have no coherent policies beyond grasping for power.

    • I think 30% of the vote, almost 100 seats, a solid grasp on the West actually isn’t that bad all considering. And I’m not a Conservative. It is much better than the whooping the NDP got this election or the PCs in 1993.

  5. At this point, imo, the number one requirement for a Tory leader for any hope of party success is for him or her to come from outside the current gov’t. All current Tory MPs, & especially former cabinet ministers, are Harperites, & therefore are, by definition, tainted by rotten-fish reek rubbed off on them by their rancid leader they enabled & bowed to for years. A Red Tory from outside the Harper gov’t might be a good bet – not that I’d be likely to vote for Tories, myself, mind you, but that might be a way to make Tories palatable to a bigger tent of Canadians than the 30%+ base of die-hard rednecks they can count on now. In the mean time, I’m prepared to enjoy 4 years (at least) of a Trudeau Liberal gov’t!

  6. “The public did not turn away from the broad policy agenda of Conservatives, instead they turned toward “change” as embodied in Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.”

    Bollocks. Partisan Conservatives simply don’t get it. Canada is at its very core a center-left country. The Harper years were created because there was too much diversity in the center-left for our electoral system to handle. At NO POINT in the past 22 years have we seen less than 60% of the electorate support center-left parties. We’ve now seen nearly 70% of the electorate support center-left parties.

    To me this signals a complete and utter repudiation of conservatism. While conservatives may be “united”, that doesn’t change the fact that they are increasingly becoming an endangered species. Look at what happened in Ontario. Mike Harris was the epitome of Harper’s neoconservatism. Mike Harris can STILL scare the bejesus out of Ontarians, a full TWO decades AFTER he was elected. While the Tories may have ruled Ontario from the 40s through to the 80s, they’re now STILL persona non grata after Mike Harris. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw a similar effect on the Federal level.

  7. So…basically Stephen Harper, except female and from not-Alberta.

  8. What? Just more of the same stuff nobody wants????

  9. You are right , there is a need for care in selecting a new leader. I will dispute however , several of your other comments. Firstly, I believe that the public turned dramatically away from the politics of fear , control and bigotry that this campaign and recent policy featured. Mr. Trudeau was the recipient of the public desire for a more reasonable and modern dealing with issues. Yes , he came across as a new generation of leader, however he was freely given the opportunity to shine.
    I am surprised by your emphasis on the ” right role ” for government to play in many issues esp. around the family. The CPC seemed to want more not less involvement in families , this is contrary to the real conservative nature of keeping out of people’s business as much as possible. A new leader should commit to never again putting the various ” boutique ” tax policies in place that only send the message that the CPC will reward through the tax system , the actions that they desire.
    One of the most odious major policies of the CPC has been the absolute support that has been given to every action of Israel. Yes , we must provide a strong message that Israel has the right to exist and to defend itself, however to have much of our foreign policy driven by Israel means that we will never be taken seriously until we establish a more nuanced approach.
    The need to have national leadership that supports a range of religions and beliefs should be mandatory for anyone seeking national leadership. The demonization of Canadian Muslims during this campaign was a national disgrace .
    Finally , I agree with you on the benefit of providing a totally new face to the CPC. To have a bright , younger leader , with real benefits if the leader is female , would provide the strong possibility of having a new perspective to the party, on that would be attractive to a broad range of people , outside of the grouchy old men that seemed to be the target of this last campaign.

  10. Hello all;

    We will find out who the contenders for leadership of the Conservative party are in the due course of events. My guess is that Mr. Harper wants to hang around, choose his successor (because he naturally knows best) and be “king-maker” of the future Conservative party.

    Either that, or his own party is going to ask him not to sit simply because like so many other Canadians, they are so, so, so very tired of hearing from him and nobody is listening anymore.

    How low the mighty Mr. Harper has fallen. He had to go, and now that the job is done, now that he is gone; I am just so pleased.

    Secondly, what kind of integrity can the Conservatives bring to the House of Commons as the Official Opposition given their complete lack of integrity when in Office?

    I’m laughing already. Like the Liberals before them not so long ago, and I hope that Mr. Trudeau takes heed, it is going to be so much fun watching the Conservatives tie themselves up in knots during debate.

    What can they possibly object to without getting laughed out of the House of Commons?

    Others may still admire the ignorance, bigotry and prejudice of Conservative ideology but as a Canadian I am simply too strong, too proud and too free for that.

    But, this is all getting ahead of myself. For now, it is good enough just to bask in the glow.

    Best wishes and best regards to all;
    Mr. Brian Leslie Engler

  11. So, your recommendation for rebuilding the CPC with a new leader is to select someone to articulate the exact same set of policies that just lost them this election?

  12. This is the craziest totally out of touch article you can imagine. Did you miss the election, the campaign completely?
    Years of power for Libs and NDP if this nutty blueprint is adopted.
    Thatcherism and it’s ugly young cousin Harperland are dead.
    It won’t take long to irradicate the pathetic Canadian legacy. Restore the prison farms, science, census, UN activism, hands off the courts, humane corrections, CBC saved, love peace not war, and history for all Canadians not Party, and leave Terry Fox free of branding.

  13. 1. The observation about woman and politics in the provincial elections was the best bit about the article. Perhaps the issues of healthcare and education, big provincial issues, are more seen the purview of women? I think it’s a silly worldview but societies can be silly.
    2. Perhaps more important to winning in Canada is having a leader that captures new-stock Canadians (yes, I trying to make the term a legit one… I’m not sure if it works though). The path to majority government is through Mississauga. I was thinking during the debates that the all-male candidates of exclusively British or French background were almost like a set of candidates from the 19th century. Even the odds-on leading Republican candidate (Rubio) is of Hispanic background. After the brief, but decisive, Conservative intrusion into the GTA in 2006, the Liberals ought not take the new-stock Canadian vote for granted.

  14. Dream on. The so-called Conservative Party of Canada was in reality the Harper Party. Hopefully Dear Leader will leave sooner rather in order to give the CPC time to decide what kind of Conservative Party it wants to be. What the election results showed was, in order to win elections, you need to appeal to a bigger percentage of the Canadian people than just the 30% who voted for Harper. You need to look beyond the ‘low tax, small government’ slogan. What good are those extra few dollars in your pocket when the national infracture is falling apart? And whether you like or not, national institutions do matter. You HarperCons have been mouthpieces for him for so long you have no idea what is really going in the minds of ‘ordinary’ Canadians. Stop looking for boogeymen around every corner, and (like Harper) treating everyone who might disagree with your personal worldview as enemies. Was Harper so egotistical that he actually thought he could change the Canadian psyche developed over almost 150 years? And re-branding the Government of Canada to the Harper government? This man’s ego seems to know no bounds.

    • Sorry about my grammar. I meant to say sooner rather than later, and infrastructure. This is the problem with not having an edit button.

  15. Take my 2 cents or not……anyone that has been with Harper in govt, you are unfit to lead the party….we will hear about how you couldn’t do anything about him being a pile of krap……bull krap….you didn’t have kahonas then, but you think you grew some now….most Canadians aint buyin’ it…put a new face in there, not your old brownnosers

  16. Stunningly delusional.

  17. Politics now belongs to women? The only reason Wynne’s Libs won in Ontario was due to the American Tea bagger platform of the PCs. The only reason Notley’s party won was due to a major split in the Conservative ranks. The Conservatives don’t really have anyone of sufficient merit as a female to lead them beyond Ambrose, and she cannot run for the leadership of her party. Whomever they choose, it will most likely be a placeholder for the next election.

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