Robert Libman: a critical moment for the Conservative Party of Canada

It has been a tumultuous leadership race, but the Tories will have to heal their wounds and unite if they hope to unseat Trudeau.


The Conservative Party of Canada is going through a critical phase in its history, until September 10, when it will elect its next leader. The leadership race has highlighted divisions within the party, raising ghosts from the past. The party came to power under Stephen Harper after uniting the right nearly 20 years ago when the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance (formerly the Reform Party) merged. The talks emerged this week fueling more speculation about a major split along those same fault lines once a new leader is chosen.

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The favorite to win is Ontario MP Pierre Poilievre, who takes the most hard-line conservative outlook and is adept at social media and populist rhetoric. Jean Charest represents a more centrist and pragmatic perspective. As a former Progressive Conservative MP and premier of Quebec, Charest has the experience and resume that many believe can give the party greater credibility among moderate Canadians and be a less controversial figure. However, he has not generated much momentum or enthusiasm, and many doubt he has enough support from party members to win. This week, Yves Boisvert of La Presse reported about the possibility that if Charest loses, he could create a new party, a center-right or liberal-conservative coalition.

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Splitting conservative-minded voters between two parties would be a huge mistake on the part of Charest’s supporters. Liberals are vulnerable right now. The Trudeau administration has shown incompetence in areas that are central to the responsibilities of a federal government and for which we pay federal taxes, such as air travel, passports and visas, among other things. Canadians, whether on the right or the left, seem fed up with many fundamental issues, and the messages of discontent resonate. However, for an opposition party to harness anger and turn it into victory, voters must be comfortable with the messenger. Charest has yet to prove that he is more than yesterday’s political prototype. And he has limited currency outside of Quebec.

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Poilievre’s potential appeal is questionable within Quebec, although he is not really the villain that many leftist media pundits paint him to be. He is intelligent and communicates well, but often comes across as an antagonistic schoolyard fighter rather than a prime minister. If Poilievre wins the leadership, many disgruntled Liberal voters may find it too polarizing and turn back to Trudeau’s party, especially if Charest leaves.

If Charest wins, voters to his right, including Poiliev supporters, would have no choice but to vote Conservative, although they could stay at home or even support Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party. This would also play in Trudeau’s favour.

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The last two party leaders, Andrew Scheer, who is more to the right (like Poilievre) and Erin O’Toole, who is more socially conservative (like Charest), could not defeat Trudeau. Maybe a combination of the two has a chance.

The Conservative leadership campaign has shown tremendous animosity within the store. Whoever wins, it would be wise to move in quickly to repair the damage within the group and bring in their opponent as a key ally, almost like a running mate or deputy leader. It will be extremely difficult to reconcile and heal the wounds after this bitter campaign, but the loser must also recover if he really cares about the common goal of providing a viable alternative to Trudeau’s liberals. Party politics is about winning.

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Without an individual who can bridge the gap between social conservatism and right-wing populism, it will be difficult to displace the liberals, despite all their problems. Only a united Conservative Party, however difficult after 9/10, could win and perhaps set a greater example of unity in our divided world.

Robert Libman is an architect and building planning consultant who has served as leader of the Equality Party and MNA, as mayor of Côte-St-Luc, and as a member of the executive committee of Montreal. He was a conservative candidate in the 2015 federal elections.

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