LILLEY: Conservative leadership about picking someone who can win

The party’s next leader needs to attract enough voters, in the right places, to oust the Liberals

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Members of the Conservative Party of Canada have one job ahead of them: Select the leader who can take them from 34% voter support to the halls of power.

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That’s it. That’s the job.

Once again, there’s overwrought talk about the fight for the soul of the Conservative Party and navel-gazing over what it means to be a Conservative. Often, that talk is driven by people like me in the media who aren’t members of the party and won’t be casting a ballot.

In the 2021 election, the Conservatives scored just shy of 34% of the total ballots cast. In the 2019 election they scored just over that level. The next leader needs to close the gap and attract enough voters in the right places to oust the Liberals.

That doesn’t mean abandoning principles and becoming like the Liberals, but it does include appealing to those who didn’t vote last time or who cast a ballot for another party. Swing voters are a reality in Canadian politics. These are people who switch their votes based on what the parties put on offer or the character of the leader at the top.

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The current race is still taking shape and candidates are jumping in or dropping out by the day. MP Michael Chong announced he is out on Friday while former MP and current Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown will officially announce his bid on Sunday morning.

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Conventional Wisdom

This past week has focused on the battle between the first candidate to announce, Pierre Poilievre, and a big name from the past, Jean Charest. The Poilievre team obviously see Charest as a potential threat given that they have come at him hard and early with attacks on social media and an op-ed by Sen. Leo Housakos in the Sun.

The early conventional wisdom is that Poilievre is the favorite of the party base and can win the leadership easily, but will have difficulty in a general election against Justin Trudeau. That same wisdom claims Charest could easily win a general election against Trudeau but he will have a hard time winning over the party base and the leadership.

The problem with that line of thinking is that it assumes Trudeau will be around for the next election and that the party base and membership are the same thing. Trudeau may very well bow out before the next vote and those willing to buy a party membership aren’t always the same people who engage in angry conversations and mudslinging about politics online.

Poilievre is not the caricature his opponents would paint of him, a “hard-right” angry man who talks more than he listens. In the same way, Charest is not the Liberal his opponents are claiming. Both men are actually closer to each other than they are to Trudeau or the Liberal team around him.

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Freedom, Justice and Winning

Poilievre’s campaign so far has focused on personal freedoms, ending COVID-19 mandates and scrapping the carbon tax. It’s a classic set of values ​​for any Conservative leadership aspirant.

“I want to give Canadians back control of their lives,” Poilievre told me recently on a campaign tour through Western Canada.

He’s also focusing on the rising cost of living, the impact of inflation on family budgets and housing affordability, pounding the drum about people in their 30s unable to find an out of control housing market.

Along the way, he’s using petitions to gather data to allow his campaign to sign up members when the time comes. His energetic campaign from him is creating a lot of buzz, but he needs to turn that buzz into memberships, which is the only way to win a leadership.

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Charest’s campaign is running on a slogan taken from that conventional wisdom: “Built to win.”

To win though, Charest and his team will need to up the energy from his launch video and sell more memberships than any other campaign. After years away from active politics, he’s starting at a deficit.

The campaign though is counting on his past record in politics, including helping to win the 1995 referendum, and his time as Quebec premier when he championed Alberta’s energy sector, to show he’s the leader needed now.

“We need a leader who understands that winning a national government is built through consensus and unity, not through division and alienation,” his campaign website states.

Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest speaks on energy and resources to a luncheon gathering of the Chamber of Commerce in Winnipeg, March 4, 2015.
Former Quebec Premier Jean Charest speaks on energy and resources to a luncheon gathering of the Chamber of Commerce in Winnipeg, March 4, 2015. Photo by Brian Donogh /Winnipeg Sun / Files

Charest though is going to take on a divisive issue with his opposition to Quebec’s whiskered Bill 21. It’s a fairly conservative stance to say the government shouldn’t be telling people what they can or cannot wear at work, aside from health and safety, but so far, there has been limited opposition inside the party.

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Poilievre will have to take a stand on that issue given that incoming candidate Patrick Brown will also make Bill 21 central to his campaign. The bill bans anyone who works for the Quebec civil service from wearing any religious clothing or headdress including yarmulkes and turbans. Standing in opposition to this bill won’t be popular in Quebec, but it will bring support to candidates in the suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver.

Brown, who is a formidable campaigner, will also focus his campaign on a classic conservative issue, criminal justice.

Brampton, sitting on the northwestern edge of Toronto, has seen its share of gun and gang violence over the past several years and Brown believes one way to tackle that is through bail reform.

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Charest and Brown will need to deal with the fact that they have both endorsed carbon taxes in the past, something the Conservative party has now clearly rejected. Convincing skeptical voters on that issue will be tough.

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown is expected to join the battle to lead the federal Conservative party.
Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown is expected to join the battle to lead the federal Conservative party. Photo by Jack Boland /Toronto Sun / Files

The Lower Tier

There are two other declared candidates, Leslyn Lewis and Roman Baber, but neither really has a chance of winning this time.

Lewis performed well in the last leadership race, winning all the western provinces on the second ballot. But she failed to break through east of the Ontario-Manitoba border. Many of the people excited by her campaign of her last time have been drawn to Poilievre’s campaign of her.

Baber, meanwhile, is a one-issue candidate focused on COVID mandates. He also has no federal experience nor an experienced team to rely upon.

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The Conservatives are now in their third leadership race in less than five years. Party members need to choose wisely so they don’t have a fourth leadership race in the near future.

The realistic choices are Poilievre and Charest while Brown can’t be counted out.

Peter MacKay said Saturday he won’t jump back in, and barring any unforeseen entries, the rest of the field and the minor candidates who will enter to boost their name recognition won’t be up to the task. None will be able or ready to beat the Liberals in the next election.

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Candidates must declare and register to run by April 19.

Anyone wanting to vote needs to have a valid membership or buy a membership by June 3.

Voting will take place by mail-in ballots over the summer with the winning candidate announced on Sept. 10.

Members will cast votes using a preferential ballot with the lowest scoring candidate being dropped after each round and their votes being redistributed based on the member’s preference. Each riding across Canada is worth 100 points or 1 point for each vote cast, whichever is less.

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