OTTAWA – Former Conservative cabinet minister Tony Clement is expected to throw his hat into the ring Tuesday to seek his party’s leadership.
The longtime Conservative politician served in the Ontario provincial government of Mike Harris before becoming a versatile cabinet minister over the nine-and-a-half years of the Stephen Harper government in Ottawa.
In government, the gregarious 55-year-old most recently served as Treasury Board president before the Conservative defeat transformed him into one of his party’s two very vocal foreign affairs critics.
It is a new role that Clement admitted early on would carry a steep learning curve, but he embraced it enthusiastically, dutifully hammering the ruling Liberals on a range of issues from withdrawing Canada’s CF-18 fighter jets from the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition in Iraq and Syria to the government’s decision to re-engage diplomatically with Russia.
Clement, who also severed as Harper’s industry and health ministers, is the last standing member of the troika of Harris-era provincial Tories who migrated to federal politics in 2006 after the Conservatives won power. But he is the only one still in politics.
John Baird abruptly resigned his Foreign Affairs portfolio and seat as an MP early last year, following the untimely death of longtime Harper finance minister Jim Flaherty the previous year.
The departure last week of another former formidable cabinet colleague has also made more room for Clement: Jason Kenney said he would seek the leadership of Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives, a run Harper himself has endorsed.
This isn’t Clement’s first leadership race. He’s run a pair of unsuccessful leadership campaigns — to replace Harris in 2002 and to lead the newly minted Conservative Party of Canada a year later.
“Tony Clement is the Energizer bunny of Conservative leadership races — he just keeps going and going,” said conservative strategist Tim Powers.
“If persistence matters, he’ll score well among the Conservative electorate — but persistence isn’t fresh and new, which might be his greatest challenge.”
Clement is joining a race that includes Kellie Leitch, a former labour minister; Ontario MP Michael Chong; and Quebec MP Maxime Bernier, who also held the Foreign Affairs and Industry portfolios.
But several other high-profile candidates are rumoured to be biding their time and could join the race later, including former cabinet colleagues Peter MacKay and Lisa Raitt, as well as outspoken television personality Kevin O’Leary.
Clement’s Muskoka riding was the scene of the 2010 G8 summit, a setting which saw him run afoul of the auditor general who found he should not have diverted $50 million in federal funds to his riding for various buildings, including a gazebo.
Clement was also an energetic supporter of the Harper’s government’s decision to scrap the long-form census and he took a hardline during labour negotiations with public sector unions.
Most recently, Clement has raised the ire of some fellow Conservatives for seemingly throwing his support behind the British referendum decision to part ways with the European Union — an entity with which the former Conservative government fought tooth and nail to craft a lucrative free-trade agreement.
The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, was one of the economic cornerstones of the Harper government and a pact that the Liberals are fighting to implement.
However, one day after the so-called Brexit vote, Clement said on Twitter: “What a magnificent exercise in democracy as Britons vote #Leave. Canada should respect this choice & engage with both.”
Former trade minister Ed Fast has said Brexit is a threat to the CETA, and supporting the referendum decision runs counter to the country’s economic interests.
“Mr. Clement’s recent cheerleading for the success of Brexit may have been an opportunistic calculation to tap into disgruntled Conservatives who don’t like the new world order here in Canada,” said Powers.
But fellow Conservative MP Peter Kent, Clement’s co-critic on foreign affairs, said he respects his colleague’s opinion, and also understands Britain’s frustration with an overly bureaucratic EU.
“He (Clement) is not afraid to take a contrary position on issues that he thinks very deeply and capably about.”