• Mar 24, 2020
  • Insights

Full steam ahead: why the Conservative leadership race should proceed

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Written by Yaroslav Baran for Policy Magazine. Click here to read the original.

The world is united in a public health crisis. This is the time to come together and work on solutions. And, given the extraordinary powers we grant our government in times of crisis, this is also not the time to weaken our democratic institutions.

Foremost of these is Parliament, and its ability to scrutinize – in good faith and in responsible manner. This also means that, as remote as it may seem from the current priorities of the land, the Conservative Party should not postpone its leadership race. Now is not a time for lame duck scrutiny and a weakened accountability function.

The argument has been made that the leadership race should be postponed — that it is gauche and insensitive to be “doing politics” at a time when we are fighting a pandemic, trying to save lives and prevent a health care system crash.

True, we should be shelving partisan politics at a time like this. Canadians have rightly united in recent weeks to fight a health challenge unlike any we have seen in a century, with a welcome ebb in partisanship as politicians work together to find solutions for economic continuity, medical and commodity supply chain functioning, and relief for those Canadians most urgently in need.

And these exceptional times have drawn questions about how much “ordinary life” can continue, and indeed ought to continue.

But these exceptional times also bring exceptional powers. One of Canada’s greatest gifts to the world was the concept and practice of responsible government in a parliamentary system — first achieved in the legislative assembly of Nova Scotia in 1848.  This hard-fought principle of democratic accountability is the stuff over which wars and revolutions have been fought elsewhere. And we should cherish and protect it.

Canadians appreciate and respect that special powers need to be granted to governments in emergency circumstances, but that also means that full and competent scrutiny is needed now more than ever. And, whether we think its is polite to say this out loud, the fact is that our country’s Opposition leader is a lame duck to whom few still pay attention — from journalists to his own caucus. As hardworking as he may be, everyone knows he is only keeping the seat warm.

Nothing is gained by extending that status quo for another year — particularly if government (legitimately or not) contemplates emergency powers that gives it prerogatives normally thoroughly vetted by Parliament and its institutions, including and above all the spending and taxation power. We need a real, full-time leader of the Opposition. The leadership campaign must stay on track but be reconfigured.

We are almost at the membership cut-off date set by the party; that could even be moved up. The candidates could — and should — agree among themselves to hold no more in-person events until emergency social protocols are lifted. They could even decide to stop doing fundraising drives — particularly at a time when food banks and health charities could use those scarce donations more.

But there is no reason party members cannot vote remotely in June to elect their new leader. And, between now and June, the various candidates can decide for themselves how active (or not) they want to be. And woe betide anyone who misjudges the public mood and behaves like a petulant Question Period schoolboy. But the party does need a new leader — because the current one resigned.

When a monarch ceases to reign, it is appropriate to ask whether the time is right to hold a lavish coronation for the new one — but there is always swift action to swear in a new one either way, because our institutions must be ready to do anything that may be asked of them.

If we were to find ourselves with a ministerial vacancy in a minor portfolio — say, Sport — the prime minister would not wait until the public finds it appropriate to hold a swearing-in ceremony, potentially leaving the role vacant for months. He would race to the governor general immediately and have a new minister sworn in. Our institutions must always be ready to discharge their functions fully.

The Ontario Liberals just selected their new leader while the COIVD-19 crisis was unfolding. Canadians were already preoccupied by the health crisis, but the Liberals did the right thing and finished their job — so that Canada’s largest province would have a fully functioning scrutiny and accountability function for its government. It ended up being low-profile due to circumstances, and most Ontarians probably don’t know Steven Del Duca’s name. But it doesn’t matter. They got the job done and they are ready. The Conservative Party of Canada needs the same thing.

It doesn’t have to be big. It doesn’t have to be flashy. It doesn’t have to be in-person. And it doesn’t have to be politics as usual. But it does need to be done. A quick, safe and secure vote to empower a major parliamentary office to be fully stabilized.

Ultimately, it is the party, not the candidates, that will decide whether to stick with the original timetable. I do not know what the final decision will be, but I do know what it should be. No important organization should ever leave itself decapitated for a second longer than it needs to be — especially in challenging times, when sober and responsible work is needed most.

Contributing Writer Yaroslav Baran, managing principal of the Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa, was communications director of Stephen Harper’s 2004 Conservative leadership campaign, ran party communications in the following three elections and was chief of staff to the Government House Leader.

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