Canada’s next Conservative leader

The Conservative Party of Canada will choose a new leader to replace Stephen Harper on May 27, 2017. No candidates have formally announced they are running yet, but several have signalled their interest in the job, and others are presumed to be quietly mulling their prospects. Across the country, party members are considering the possibilities and wondering what kind of leader would best serve their cause. Man or woman, easterner or westerner, younger or older, party insider or outsider: all these factors and more will influence the choice an estimated 100,000 Conservatives will make 15 months hence.

Many of them will be watching the Republican primaries in the United States for clues about the future of conservative leadership. That field includes moderate centrist brokers, right wing ideologues, and at least one populist demagogue. Although the GOP is a very different party, operating in a very different political environment, and using a very different leader selection process, already parallels are being drawn between the characteristics and positioning of actual and potential candidates south and north of the border. In the Canadian conservative context though, the main considerations boil down to three strictly homegrown questions:

– Which of the candidates will have the widest appeal to party members on policy and personality?

– Who will be best able to hold together the national conservative coalition of the western Reform-Alliance and eastern Progressive Conservative factions?

– Who will be best able to compete with Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and whoever leads the NDP in the next federal election?

Some prominent conservatives are starting to offer some answers to these questions. Jenni Byrne was CPC campaign manager in the 2015 election. Though widely blamed within the party for the defeat, she was also deputy national campaign director on the three previous winning Conservative campaigns and a major contributor to the party’s successes and the government’s achievements during the Harper era. “The Conservative party remains strong despite being in a transition period,” says Byrne. “Fundraising remains strong, [there is] a large and active membership and a talented caucus. The party and the new leadership need to focus on core conservative principles that appeal to voters – lower taxes, a strong military and efficient, smaller government. Based on the first three months of what we have seen with the Liberal government, Canadians will be looking for a common sense alternative.”

Shortly after last October’s election, former Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made a public plea for conservative unity but also offered some advice that seemed to suggest the need for a new, moderate leader who would build a bigger blue tent. “This is a time to heal old wounds, not to settle old scores,” he said in a speech to Toronto’s Albany Club. “There should be no ideological impediments to our welcome, no narrowness of view or vindictiveness of spirit as we review, renew and rebuild.” Quoting Sir John A. Macdonald, Mulroney added: “Our aim should be to enlarge the bounds of our party so as to embrace every person desirous of being counted as a progressive Conservative.”

So far, there is no shortage of possible contenders seeking to become the next Macdonald, Mulroney or Harper. Those openly testing the waters include former Harper ministers and October survivors Maxime Bernier, Lisa Raitt, Tony Clement, and Kellie Leitch. MP Michael Chong, another survivor and independent-minded democratic reformer, has also struck a probable pose. Celebrity entrepreneur Kevin O’Leary has indicated strong interest, and excited some enthusiasm among party members with blunt criticisms of both the Trudeau Liberal and Alberta NDP governments. Two of the most likely suspects, Jason Kenney and Peter MacKay, are still firmly on the sidelines, while Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall is stoutly resisting attempts to draft him into the race. Rounding out the possibilities are a couple of dark horses, young Calgary MP Michelle Rempel, and another outsider, Dr. Daniel Lindsay of Winnipeg.

Any preview of the Conservative leadership contest would be incomplete without contemplating interim party leader Rona Ambrose, for she is setting a performance standard and tone candidates will have to match or surpass. Chosen for interim leader by the combined Conservative parliamentary caucus, she has not disappointed her colleagues. If anything, her generally solid performances in Question Period, positive media relations and reviews, and energetic work rallying the Tory troops from coast to coast have exceeded expectations.

Conservative Interim Leader Rona Ambrose talks with media in Ottawa on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2015. iPolitics/Matthew Usherwod
Interim Leader Rona Ambrose: Technically ineligible to run. iPolitics/Matthew Usherwod

While accepting the role of interim leader nominally ruled her out as a contender for the permanent position, one can imagine her succumbing to a “draft Rona” movement and quitting the interim leadership some months before the leadership vote, especially if no one else has emerged as an unbeatable frontrunner. If there’s a knock on Ambrose, it’s that she’s another Albertan, which might not sit well with eastern Conservatives who think it’s their turn. But if anyone from the west can overcome that, it might be a 46-year-old bilingual woman from Edmonton (not Calgary) who is a reliable fiscal conservative and social moderate with even better hair than Justin Trudeau.

Maxime Bernier, affectionately dubbed Mad Max by his legions of libertarian fans who recall his ministerial indiscretions with a pulchritudinous biker moll with amusement rather than opprobrium, will likely carry Quebec’s fleur de lis in the leadership race. Still just 53 and as fit, handsome and charming as ever, he will get a long look not just from libertarians but also from conservatives in English Canada who think the party needs to maintain a strong foothold in Quebec to be competitive nationally. The “king of the Beauce”, who routinely racks up pluralities in his riding comparable to rural Alberta Conservative MPs, has been courting party members from coast to coast for years, quickening their pulses with advocacy for free markets, less red tape, more oil pipelines, an end to supply management, and criticism of equalization – all things they never expected to hear from a Quebec politician.

Conservative MP Maxime Bernier rises during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Thursday June 7, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Adrian Wyld
Maxime Bernier: The Quebec libertarian. THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Adrian Wyld

To some, the emphasis on “progressive” in Mulroney’s Albany Club speech sounded like a tacit endorsement of Peter MacKay, whose conservative tent would be bigger than most, if not entirely blue. The 50-year-old former senior Harper minister bailed from the government to “spend more time with his family” before last year’s election, and is thus untainted by its result. A hypothetical leadership poll in January put him at the front the pack with 25 percent support. Intra-party snickering about MacKay launching a leadership campaign from his “Atlantic base” (where the Conservatives hold no seats) may have been put to rest by his recent move to Toronto where he joined the giant American multinational law firm Baker & McKenzie as a partner. MacKay has some baggage from his tenure as Harper’s defence minister, but if the party decides the path to victory is in the middle of the road, he would be a strong contender.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay arrives at a Commons Justice committee meeting Monday July 7, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Peter MacKay: Now based in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

On the other hand, if the party wants to stay in the far right lane, it might give the keys to Jason Kenney, 47. Much admired by social conservatives and just about anybody who has heard his lengthy, thoughtful, entertaining and almost entirely ad-libbed speeches, Kenney’s devotees think he would make an outstanding prime minister and will go to the wall for him if he decides to run. As the party and government’s primary instrument for ethnic outreach for a decade, he has a turnkey national support base. But it’s a tough call for him: another Calgarian and right-hand man to Harper, he wears more of last year’s loss than others. And although he is a relentlessly cheerful “happy warrior” in politics, Kenney would face unusually harsh personal scrutiny about his strong Catholic faith and (lack of) marital status. Recognizing that his upward mobility in Ottawa may be limited, some people involved in efforts to unite Alberta’s divided provincial conservatives in a new party see him as potential Conservative premier.

Jason Kenney in 2014. Photo by Blair Gable
Jason Kenney: Another Calgarian a tough sell. Photo by Blair Gable

If there’s an equivalent in the Conservative field to the Marco Rubio-Jeb Bush-Chris Christie trio of middle-of-the-road-with-upside-potential candidates in the Republican race, it is the Ontarians Lisa Raitt, Tony Clement and Kelly Leitch. Fiscal conservatives and social moderates all, their performance as ministers in the Harper government were all safe, competent, and mostly unadventurous.

Clement, 55, has the deepest roots of the three in the Canadian conservative movement, going back to his time as a minister in the Ontario PC government of Mike Harris, and his involvement in the national unite-the-right movement that formed the modern Conservative party. He ran in its first and only leadership race, finishing third with 9.4 percent of the vote. Clement endeared himself to many conservatives as President of the Treasury Board, where he launched a sustained effort to roll back some of the employment perks in the federal civil service.

Raitt, 47, is a former labour, transport and natural resources minister under Harper. If she runs, she will likely position as a less partisan if not post-partisan candidate. She has been prominent and effective in opposition without appearing harsh or vengeful. Graciousness is a rare commodity in politicians and she may own the franchise in the Conservative race.

Lisa Raitt, Minister of Transport of Canada at the Closed Ministerial Session at the Annual Summit of the International Transport Forum on 22 May 2014 in Leipzig, Germany
Lisa Raitt: Gracious conservatism.

Leitch, 45, has been an off-the-charts smart super-achiever her whole life. A pediatric surgeon and professor with an MBA, she contrasts very well with Justin Trudeau’s thin resume. Born and raised in Fort McMurray and a protégé of the late Jim Flaherty, Leitch is tough and ambitious and has been laying the groundwork for a leadership bid for years. Though unmarried and childless, as a woman she may not face the same degree of personal scrutiny as Kenney.

Also from Ontario is Michael Chong, 44. Think of him as an insider candidate who is also an outsider. He got punted from Harper’s cabinet early on for refusing to support the motion recognizing Quebec as a nation within Canada. As a back bencher, he doggedly pushed his Reform Act uphill against the PMO for 19 months before it finally became law. His aim was to provide slightly more democratic freedom for MPs at the expense of the leader. Given how badly the leader-focused strategy did in last year’s election campaign, and how frustrated some local Conservative campaigns were over the tight control of the war room, Chong may appeal to party members who think the leader has too much power, and who appreciate an independent-minded MP who has the courage of his convictions, however quixotic they may be.

Conservative MP Michael Chong addresses a press conference in Ottawa on Tuesday December 3, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Michael Chong: Democratic reformer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

A true outsider is Kevin O’Leary, 61. He has no history in the Conservative party but his well-honed free market, less government television schtick triggers the flow of right wing endorphins in many members. Instantly compared to Donald Trump when he first mused about running for the leadership, O’Leary must be watching Trump’s enduring strength in the primaries and beginning to think that there is something to all the speculation that voters are so fed up with the political status quo they’ll give any and all political outliers a hard look. It has worked for former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, U.K. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and maybe even for Democratic presidential nomination seeker Bernie Sanders.

Conservative party officials are likely praying for O’Leary to run, not necessarily because they want him as leader, but because he’ll sell a lot of memberships, attract a lot of media attention to the party, and, best of all, take up all the Toronto populist outsider space that might have been otherwise occupied by Ford’s menacing brother Doug.

Dragons’ Den star Kevin O’Leary. Photo by Greg Paupst
Kevin O’Leary: The populist outsider. Photo by Greg Paupst

More outsiders may enter the race. Among them is Winnipeg radiologist and president of the Manitoba College of Physicians and Surgeons Dan Lindsay. A civilian veteran of the Afghanistan war who served five tours in Kandahar hospital, he has been mulling a leadership bid for several months. A bright, articulate 60-year-old bachelor with a pony tail and a penchant for competitive sharpshooting, Lindsay would add colour to the race. He has a short history in the party but has been testing the waters by meeting with Conservatives across the country.

There are persistent rumours in Calgary that MP Michelle Rempel might give the campaign a whirl. She’s a blonde bundle of unbridled ambition with a fearless and effective social media presence. Alas for her, the stock of potential Conservative leaders from Calgary is trading lower than stink bids for devalued Alberta oil assets.

That just leaves Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, whose adamant denials of interest must be taken at face value, at least until he safely wins another majority in this spring’s provincial election. Or until he learns to speak French. Or both.

No doubt there other insiders and outsiders who are wondering if they should spend the next 15 months going to Conservative gatherings, giving speeches and interviews, raising money and begging for support. The challenge is not only to beat the other leadership contenders, but then try to take out Trudeau. It’s a tall order, and it says something positive about the future of the Conservative party that there are so many people apparently willing to take on the challenge.

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Lead Image:

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

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