• Mar 11, 2022
  • Insights

The official rules – and a few pro tips – for the Conservative leadership race

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Photo: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

Written by Geoff Norquay. Published by Policy Magazine.

The Conservative Party of Canada is bracing for its third leadership race in five years. Last week, the party’s Leadership Election Organizing Committee (LEOC) announced that the party will choose its next leader on September 10.

Here are the key dates and requirements that candidates must meet:

  • Prospective candidates will have until April 19 to apply to enter the leadership election.
  • As was the case in the 2020 leadership election, candidates must provide a total entry fee of $200,000, in addition to a compliance deposit of $100,000 that will be refunded after the leadership election concludes.
  • Membership applications must be submitted by June 3. As in the 2017 and 2020 leadership elections, party staff will have several weeks to verify the eligibility, followed by a period for leadership campaigns to examine the proposed final voter list for accuracy and prospect for support.
  • Ballots will be mailed to party members in late July/early August.
  • The results of the leadership vote will be announced on Saturday, September 10 at an event whose location will be announced later.

LEOC released further rules on March 9; the principal addition is that contestants are limited to spending $7 million on their leadership bids.

The longer time frame announced by LEOC for the leadership favours the entry of contestants who need more time to sell memberships and become better known to party members. This timing has guaranteed the entry of Jean Charest, former federal Progressive Conservative leader and former Liberal premier of Quebec, who announced last night in Calgary. Patrick Brown, the current mayor of Brampton and former Ontario PC leader is expected to join the race this weekend. Both had been waiting to learn the date of the vote, their decisions to run or not being contingent on the need for more time to establish name recognition.

It is clear that the timing of the vote was carefully chosen with several factors in mind. September 10 steers well clear of the Ontario provincial election scheduled for June 2, and avoids conflicts with the Quebec provincial election, which will be held on October 3. The later date will also enable leadership candidates to meet and greet party members over the summer barbecue season.

A longer race makes good sense for the party. Having burned through two post-Harper leaders in less than five years, Conservatives need to take the time to get this leadership right. While Pierre Poilievre was hoping for a shorter time frame to press his early-out-of-the-gate advantage, the prospect of a quick coronation for him did not sit well with many in the party.

Mature political parties recognize that how leadership races are conducted often determines the ultimate success of the winner. As my Liberal colleague, Charles Bird, recently said:

“When Justin (Trudeau) ran for the leadership in 2013, everyone knew he would win, but he and his team took the process seriously and treated it as a contest. He ended that contest a far more capable campaigner than he was going in. By contrast, (Michael) Ignatieff was all but appointed by the Liberal caucus in 2009. By 2011, the Liberal party learned the hard way that how you become leader of a national party matters enormously.”

Bird’s sage comments are a useful reminder of the value of a comprehensive and tough leadership process, one that enables the contestants to engage in vigorous debate, withstand scrutiny, expand the base and capture hearts and minds both within and beyond the party by presenting an exciting vision for governing.

It is clear that the timing of the vote was carefully chosen with several factors in mind. September 10 steers well clear of the Ontario provincial election scheduled for June 2, and avoids conflicts with the Quebec provincial election, which will be held on October 3.

As Preston Manning famously said, Canadian political parties are by definition “big tents” – nothing else will work in a country so dominated by starkly different regional economies, two founding languages, 50 Indigenous nations, a substantial multicultural electorate and the second largest landmass in the world.

A March 2nd Abacus poll found that only 39 percent of Canadians would currently consider voting Conservative. That’s a decent start but it’s down from 51 percent a year ago and the Conservatives’ current pool of potential voters in Ontario is “13 points back of the Liberals among self-described centre voters and 20 points back among urban voters.”

These polling results and the party’s loss of two failed leaders in quick succession means that the imperative in the current leadership is to redefine the party and broaden its base in today’s competitive political landscape. Conservatives appear to be ready for a battle with the Liberals on bread-and-butter issues. Abacus found that: “More than anything else, today’s Conservative voters want a leader focused on economics: the cost of living, economic growth and taxes and spending…. Conservatives can build a bigger coalition by focusing on conservative economic ideas.” Getting from here to there requires navigating some challenging shoals.

Unfortunately, Conservatives tend to play “zero sum” games with each other over ideological purity when they are choosing leaders. The leadership race that elected Erin O’Toole wasted a lot of time battling over which contestant was “True Blue,” a proxy battle over who was authentically left or right. This totally missed the point that Canadians fed up with the Liberals just wanted to see a credible and comprehensive alternate platform.

In the early days of the current contest, this search for partisan purity is on again, with the Poilievre forces attacking Charest for being a Liberal. This divisiveness is distinctly self-defeating for the Conservatives; if they believe they can win government without the support of “blue Liberals,” they are living in an alternate reality.

Such attacks also ignore the fact that at the provincial level in Canada, the names of political parties tend to be accidents of history or flags of convenience, rather than loyalty tests. The provincial Liberals in British Columbia are happily supported by federal Conservatives and Liberals alike, while the hugely successful Saskatchewan Party was formed out of the ruins of the former provincial Progressive Conservative and Liberal parties. Targeting Charest for being a Liberal ignores how he reluctantly returned to his home province, yielding to a compelling national consensus that he was the federalist leader best equipped to vanquish separatism and save the country from yet another Quebec referendum. To his credit, he succeeded in that task.

Climate and energy policy is the most persistent policy silo in the party; members and supporters in Alberta and Saskatchewan understandably see their jobs and incomes threatened by Liberal climate policies. But a large national poll last fall by Abacus found that 66 percent of Canadians wanted governments to do more to reduce emissions, and “even among Conservative voters,” 44 percent wanted to see “more emphasis from governments,” while 24 percent wanted less.

Conservative activists who believe the party must address climate change have formed a new group – Conservatives for Clean Growth – to lobby within the party. This is a positive development, because it is essential that the party square this circle in the current leadership race and settle on a credible, dynamic and saleable set of climate change policies that are competitive with what the Liberals have on offer.

The leadership contestants face a particular challenge that is particular to Conservatives: how to get elected in a party with single issue interests while creating the centrist governing vision essential to gain office. A key part of the party’s base is the social conservative contingent. They present two challenges for aspiring leaders; first, the issues that motivate them – abortion, same-sex marriage and medical assistance in dying – are considered settled by the vast majority of Canadians, and second, socons tend to be absolutist in their policy demands, which instantly scares moderate Canadians. How much more influential might the social conservatives be if they mobilized their power to press for better public education and social services to address the challenges that lead to the alternatives they so vehemently oppose.

In the early days of the current contest, this search for partisan purity is on again, with the Poilievre forces attacking Charest for being a Liberal. This divisiveness is distinctly self-defeating for the Conservatives; if they believe they can win government without the support of “blue Liberals,” they are living in an alternate reality. 

The social conservatives also exact a continuing price for their support of the party. Andrew Scheer paid that price after he appeared distinctly uncomfortable discussing abortion and same sex marriage during the 2019 federal election. O’Toole courted their support for the leadership with a “wink-wink” approach and then enraged them by reverting to mainstream moderation as leader. While there were other issues at play, he too, lost the leadership. Message to leadership contestants: handle with care and don’t make promises you can’t (or won’t) keep!

If a bigger Conservative tent is to result from the leadership, bridges to immigrant communities that were destroyed in 2015 by Jenni Byrne’s national campaign team will need to be rebuilt. Their divisive proposal for a “barbaric cultural practices” tip line blew up years of work by former immigration minister Jason Kenney to court racialized voters, and last fall’s platform did not include the words “racism” or “Islamophobia.” Canada’s current immigration plan is set to welcome more than 1.3 million newcomers between 2022 and 2024. If the candidates for leadership are willing to cede social inclusion to the Liberals, they are missing a huge opportunity.

The two most successful Canadian Conservative leaders in recent memory are Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper. Both inherited parties that were dispirited and divided. Both triumphed by presenting an alternative vision for governing that was inclusive, substantive, competent and Conservative.

Both leaders offered comprehensive and inspired “leadership” and the party responded with “followership,” in the sense that the successful achievement of their vision for governing became more important than retaining narrow partisan wedges and self-defeating positions.

In building a party capable of winning, the contestants for the Conservative leadership have much to learn from Mulroney and Harper.

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