By Trevor Busch
As we drift through another week of the pandemic’s “new normal”, we’re still being constantly barraged by COVID-19 statistics, Trump’s ongoing spat with China, the WHO, and more antics from the deflect-the-blame game, Trudeau’s semi-virtual Parliament, and the circle-the-drain prospects for the provincial economy as we stumble toward the mid-point of 2020. Beneath the bold, black-letter headlines, the pandemic hero stories, and the regular hum-drum of a daily news cycle, one event that probably should be grabbing a few half-hearted mentions and some lackluster analysis from pundits seems to be falling well short of the mark: the federal Conservative leadership race.
While voters on all sides of the political spectrum are probably awaiting the departure of current Conservative leader Andrew Scheer with a mixture of relief and anticipation, the COVID-19 pandemic and all it has brought us has firmly relegated the current leadership contest to the back pages of any respectable publication. Scheer’s ponderous stab at the PMO in the most recent federal election reminded us all how not to go about seeking elected office in this country. Through an election campaign fraught with more missteps than a blind dance studio, Scheer managed an education in futility while competing against a vulnerable Liberal government. The results were to be expected: a healthy minority for Trudeau, probably another 20-or-so-odd months languishing in opposition for the Conservatives.
On the face of it, perhaps none of us should be all that surprised by the stunning lack of interest displayed by Canadians from all corners of the nation about who will be anointed as the next Great White Hope for the Conservative Party. Even in the conservative heartland of the West, the conversation — if it’s being held at all — has been kept to something significantly less than a roar. One would suspect the current government’s pandemic performance would translate into renewed interest in the leadership contest for what is still Canada’s leading political challenger to the Liberals. On most days in this country that’s probably a fair bet, but not today.
Pandemic or no, part of the problem probably lies with conservative political philosophy. Say whatever you want about the merits, but it’s an ideology that is only rarely blessed with dynamic, youthful personalities that are helpful in energizing wide swaths of voters in the digitally-obsessed, soundbite-oriented 21st century. While it might not be entirely accurate, it is still hard for the Conservatives to shed the image of being “daddy’s” or “grandpa’s” party when confronting Canada’s growing core of youthful voters.
And quite frankly, strong socially conservative messaging doesn’t resonate with the majority, and the party has had its problems in trying to keep this part of its house in order since ‘unite the right’ brought together most conservatives under a big-tent model. This inability to largely speak with one voice was already a problem in the Harper era, where a plain-dealing iron fist was needed to slap down independent upstarts; the fractures that have started to appear in this conservative marriage in Canada since could lead to divorce before the decade is out. And if conservatives in Canada know anything, it is this: splitting the vote on the right is a recipe for electoral disaster.
The two English-Canadian frontrunners in the race, Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, are an exposition of the dour and the dull, with both adjectives entirely interchangeable. Not that that’s a breach of normality for Canadian conservative politics; individuals like Stephen Harper, Joe Clark or Robert Stanfield were never about to win any Mr. Congeniality contests. The one leader absent from that list is Brian Mulroney — who came as close to charisma as virtually any Canadian conservative and is actually the only other Tory leader besides John A. MacDonald to win two or more consecutive full-term majorities in the history of Canadian politics.
That little statistic should illustrate for conservatives just how hard it is to achieve lasting majority power in Canada for their party. At some point, conservatives may want to consider selecting someone other than an aging Anglo-Saxon to lead their party if they hope to appeal to the broadest percentage of Canadians. Right now, either MacKay or O’Toole are bound to be leader.
Conspicuously absent from the race — and adding to the disinterest most voters are presently showing — are the conservative luminaries many hoped might add a little flair to the contest. Individuals like Rona Ambrose, John Baird, Maxime Bernier, Jean Charest, Pierre Poilievre, Brad Wall, and of course Alberta’s white knight on charging steed, Jason Kenney, all gracefully declined interest.
Challengers to the top running pair include social conservatives Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan, but most believe the role will flow to MacKay or O’Toole. Compounding the sobriquet of “boring” being stamped on the race is a complicated mail-in preferential voting system with bot compilers and the lack of a live convention.
Most observers, rightly or wrongly, believe party membership are stuck with two choices — MacKay or O’Toole. Right now, MacKay has the support of 39 MPs, while O’Toole has garnered 32. Scratching at the surface, MacKay, 54, would appear to be the stronger candidate; he is a former leader of the old PCs before merger, and has extensive cabinet experience under the Harper government. O’Toole, 47, is something more of a wild card and lacks MacKay’s cabinet resume. Both are lawyers, and both — critically for Western supporters — want to end the war on the oil and gas industry and push pipelines through, and eliminate the Liberal’s gun ban. Right now, the Conservatives haven’t picked a date to announce a winner. Sources in the party suggest it will be on or around Aug. 22 shortly after the ballot deadline.
To be fair, the Conservatives couldn’t have picked a worse time to seek the favour of their party membership. True to his rather disastrous form in the role, we have Scheer to thank for that parting gift — not that he had eyes further ensconced in the crystal ball than any of the rest of us when it comes to a global pandemic. But one thing seems clear — party membership, and Canadians in general, wanted to see Scheer depart come hell or high water. If it had to occur in the midst of a pandemic, that might be the most acceptable thing about the whole process.