• Mar 26, 2020
  • Insights

The Conservative leadership: waiting for content

Written by Geoff Norquay for Policy Magazine. Click here to read the original,

There was a time when being the leader of one of Canada’s two alternating governing parties was seen as a gig desirable enough to obsess the otherwise rational and foment epic, Shakespearean rivalries. Now, it seems, many qualified candidates are finding better things to do. Veteran Conservative strategist and Earnscliffe Principal Geoff Norquay looks at a field eerily absent of presumed contenders and analyzes the state of play.

As the Conservative leadership race kicked off over the first month of 2020, the party produced a close approximation to the proverbial dog that catches the car and doesn’t know what to do with it. In the wake of last fall’s disastrous election campaign, Conservatives were broadly agreed on the future of Andrew Scheer. As to who might run to succeed him, that was another question.

Initially, there was no end of “perfect” candidates topping the wish-lists of party members, but between January 21 and 23, three heavyweights, all with a decent chance of winning, demurred:  

  • Jean Charest was the first, noting that the party had changed significantly since his days of leading the Progressive Conservatives back from the debacle of 1993 and acknowledging he would face an uphill battle in reintroducing himself to today’s Conservatives. 
  • Rona Ambrose, universally credited with being a brilliant interim leader after Stephen Harper resigned following the 2015 election, was the next to say “no,” citing contentment with her post-politics life back in Alberta.  
  • Pierre Poilievre, the youngest of the serious contenders and an accomplished question period warrior, gave the leadership a pass, too, in favour of his young family.

In a three-day period, the leadership race was deprived of: Charest’s broad experience, leadership skills and knowledge of the federation; Ambrose’s centrist appeal, sensitivity to the climate change file and bridge-building skills to Alberta; and Poilievre’s youthful enthusiasm and hard edge.  

There was likely another factor that helped scare candidates off. Politics at the level of leader has always been a brutal sport in Canada, but with the advent of social media and the prospect of subjecting one’s family to its toxic abusers and trolls, fewer experienced people are willing to make the leadership leap. Who needs the aggravation? Not John Baird, who also stood down from consideration.

The slow start to the leadership race was upstaged by tragic and contentious events in its early stages. The shooting down of Flight 752 on January 8 by Iran, killing all 176 aboard, including 57 Canadians, the world-wide coronavirus outbreak, the Wet’suet’en-inspired blockades of the rail system and Teck Resources Limited’s withdrawal of the Pioneer mine proposal all provided cover for the sputtering beginning of the contest.

With the party’s February 27 deadline for potential candidates to enter the race having been reached, the battle has been seriously joined by three main contenders.

As leader of the Progressive Conservative Party in 2003, Peter MacKay played a pivotal role in creating the new Conservative Party of Canada. MacKay, and then-Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper, agreed that their two parties had reached a stalemate, and that as long as the “conservative family” was divided, the Liberals would continue to rule the country indefinitely. It took a significant amount of courage on MacKay’s part to lead his party into the merger, particularly since it inevitably cost him the leadership. In the Harper government, MacKay served in three key portfolios: Foreign Affairs, National Defence and Justice. Since 2016, he has been a partner in the Toronto law firm of Baker McKenzie.

Erin O’Toole was first elected to the House of Commons in the southern Ontario riding of Durham in a by-election in November 2012. Prior to politics, he graduated from the Royal Military College and served 15 years in the Royal Canadian Air Force. Leaving the forces in 2000, he studied law at Dalhousie and then practised in Toronto before entering Parliament. In the Harper government, he served as Minister of Veterans’ Affairs in 2015. In the 2017 leadership, he placed third behind Scheer and Maxime Bernier.

Before politics, Marilyn Gladu had a career as a chemical engineer with Dow Chemical, Suncor and the multinational consulting company WorleyParsons. She was first elected for Sarnia-Lambton in 2015 and re-elected in 2019. In 2016, Gladu was cited by Maclean’s as the most collegial MP “who consistently works across party lines.”

Five additional candidates were given the green light by the party’s Leadership Election Organizing Committee following the February 27th filing deadline:

  • Jim Karahalios, an anti-carbon tax activist and a perennial critic of the Ontario PC party establishment;
  • Derek Sloan, MP for the eastern Ontario riding of Hastings-Lennox and Addington, who was first elected in 2019;
  • Rick Peterson, a Calgary venture capitalist who placed 12th in the 2017 leadership race;
  • Leslyn Lewis, a Toronto lawyer and defeated candidate in Toronto’s Scarborough-Rouge Park in the 2015 election; and 
  • Rudy Husny, a young Harper-era staffer who was Trade Minister Ed Fast’s press secretary and ran twice against NDP leader Tom Mulcair in Outremont, in 2015 and 2019.
  • Richard Décarie, who earlier stirred controversy when he stated earlier that LGBTQ was a “Liberal term” and that being gay is a “choice,” was denied candidate status.

For a party that desperately needs to offer a new take on a host of policies, the race so far has been uninspiring; in fact, it’s been little more than a contest of small differences. The initial appeals of the candidates have been directed inward towards party members and largely aimed at establishing Conservative bona fides.  

Reacting to the unexpected non-candidacy of Pierre Poilievre, Erin O’Toole has sought to position himself as the “true blue” conservative candidate in a play to cement the support of party members who were inclined towards Poilievre. O’Toole is also attempting to wedge MacKay, depicting him as too centrist. Marilyn Gladu has initially tried to position herself as the newcomer, able to build the party out and expand its base in directions that MacKay and O’Toole are unable to imagine. Hopefully, this is all pre-positioning and the candidates will soon turn to more substantive policy discussions.

The reality is that the events of the last month—the Indigenous protests, Teck’s withdrawal of the proposal to build the Frontier project and the implosion of the Prime Minister’s attempts to square resource development with climate change action—are rapidly overtaking the tried and true policy positions of all parties. Each side in the resource development-climate change debate has contributed to an atmosphere of distrust between the federal government and Alberta. 

When the federal government soon reveals its plan to take the economy to net-zero emissions by 2050, it will be easy for the Conservatives to criticize, but where are their alternatives? All that’s been put in the window so far by the candidates is a doubling down on repealing the federal carbon pricing regime. But that positioning is so 2019 and the issues facing the country today are much more fundamental. It was the lack of a credible climate change policy that resulted in the party being virtually shut out in the last election in southern Ontario and in most big cities across the country.  

The Prime Minister has failed to deliver on his promise to simultaneously restrain GHG emissions while allowing predictable resource development. With that middle-ground turned to quicksand, what better time for Conservatives to open a discussion on alternatives?

Perhaps the upcoming leadership debates in Toronto and Montreal in April will provide some answers.  

Contributing Writer Geoff Norquay, a Principal of Earnscliffe Strategy Group in Ottawa, was senior adviser on social policy to Prime Minister Mulroney and later communications director in the Official Opposition Leader’s office of Stephen Harper.

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