Opinion | The front-runners have changed since the last Tory leadership race — and so has the job

MONTREAL — Every leadership campaign has its own dynamics. The nascent Conservative battle to succeed Erin O’Toole is lining up to be significantly different from any the party has held since it reunited almost two decades ago.

Here are some notable early differences.

It has been less than two years, but the context has greatly changed since the Conservatives last picked a leader.

With each election victory, the odds that Justin Trudeau can lead the Liberals to another win become longer. The pattern in Canadian politics has been that three consecutive victories is as good as it gets for any leader. At this juncture, it is not just die hard Conservatives who believe the party may be about to choose the next prime minister.

And then, none of the parties had a war with Russia on its dance card during last fall’s federal election campaign. Russia’s attack on its neighbor has already impacted the national conversation on fossil fuel development. This week, the prime minister committed to looking into ways of helping Canada’s European allies reduce their dependency on Russian oil and natural gas.

The ongoing recast of the debate over energy development versus climate change mitigation is giving the Conservative contenders a free hand to argue that it is possible to both address climate change and defend a pro-pipeline position.

Who knows, the evolving terms of engagement of the debate over the energy/environment paradigm might make it easier for the party to come up with a balanced approach that a critical mass of both its members and voters can agree on. This is an opportunity those who fought the previous two leadership campaigns did not have.

In tandem with the evolving political context, the credentials the Conservatives — and, eventually, voters — are looking for in their next leader have evolved.

That’s bad news for Ontario MP Leslyn Lewis, who set out this week to again bid for the leadership.

A party that has caused to believe it is about to have its best shot at government in almost a decade would logically give a wide berth to a rookie politician who is unable to take its message to French-language voters.

The best Lewis could do upon announcing her repeat leadership bid was to run French subtitles on a video. That’s not good enough for someone who aspires to unite the country behind her party de ella at a crucial juncture in history. This is also not a good time for a government leader on political training wheels.

This leadership battle will mark the first time Quebec is really fully invested in a Conservative leadership campaign since Brian Mulroney left office in 1993.

Jean Charest does not walk on water in his home province. No federalist champion can expect to develop a fan club in sovereigntist quarters. But the former premier has more traction in Quebec than any of those who have seen for the Conservative leadership since the party reunited.

That includes Maxime Bernier, who ended up losing the 2017 contest to a dairy farmers’ cabal engineered by his Quebec caucus colleagues.

By comparison, Charest can count on the active support not only of most of the party’s past and present Quebec MPs, but also of many of the Liberals who served under him at the provincial level.

Between now and the closing of the membership sales in June, the Conservative party rolls could grow in areas of Quebec where the party has never managed to strike a chord. Those often happen to be home to the province’s staunchest federal electorate.

Indeed, these days, it is not hard to find provincial Liberals who are more enthusiastic about Charest’s Conservative leadership prospects than they are about their own party’s upcoming campaign.

That’s good news of sorts for Premier François Legault. He may not wish his former Liberal nemesis well in his federal leadership bid, but on the eve of his own fall reelection campaign, Legault can’t be unhappy about the distraction it is causing within the ranks of provincial Liberals.

Finally, Charest is not the first former premier to set his sights on the leadership of a major federal party, or to do so after having governed a province under a different flag.

In 2007, Bob Rae went down the same road in an attempt to succeed Paul Martin. That Liberal leadership battle was — like the current Conservative one — widely cast as a two-way fight between the former Ontario NDP premier and Michael Ignatieff.

In the end, Rae did not make it to the final ballot and Ignatieff lost to Stéphane Dion. That result should inspire caution to anyone tempted to conclude either that former finance critic Pierre Poilievre has a safe lead on the competition, or that the best-case scenario for former Ontario Tory leader Patrick Brown as he joins the fight over the weekend is that he gets to play kingmaker to Charest on Sept. 10.

Chantal Hébert is an Ottawa-based freelance contributing columnist covering politics for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert


Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.

Leave a Comment