The Conservatives will get a new national leader this coming weekend. Assuming the party’s computer system can handle the complicated preferential ballots with 14 names (Kevin O’Leary being on the ballot still), the Canadian electorate should know on Saturday who will be on offer if they choose to rid themselves of Justin Trudeau and don’t warm to whomever the NDP chooses.
It will be nice to know. The leading candidates are very different cats with divergent views on many issues. They agree on one thing: the need to defeat the Trudeau Liberals in the election scheduled for October 2019.
How they would position their party in opposition to achieve that objective 29 months from now is not at all clear. Will it be a highly partisan opposition that hews to the cynical injunction of George Tierney, an 18th century English Whig, who is credited (if that’s the word) for being the first one to declare that the duty of an opposition is to oppose everything and to propose nothing? Heaven knows we have had oppositions like that in Canada.
Or will it be a constructive opposition that, while holding the government firmly to account, will accept responsibility to work to improve – and not simply reject – measures that come before Parliament?
What sort alternative government will the Conservatives offer? It seems reasonable to expect that once the new leader is chosen, a process of closing ranks, or submerging differences, will take place. There’s a lot of submerging to do.
A government or opposition led by Maxime Bernier, who is generally believed to be the frontrunner, would be quite different from one led by Andrew Scheer, who is thought to be in second place. A Quebec MP and former cabinet minister, Bernier styles himself as a libertarian. He would get government out of the faces of Canadians. Among other things, he would scrap the equalization system that transfers revenue from wealthy provinces to poor ones, do away with supply management in agriculture, reduce corporate taxes, and back Ottawa out of the health care field.
Saskatchewan MP and former Commons speaker Andrew Scheer will appeal to Conservatives who wax nostalgic over the good old days when Stephen Harper was running a taut Tory ship on Parliament Hill. Scheer may lack Harper’s mean streak, but he would be just as tough on crime and terrorism as his mentor was. Serious Harperites, and there are plenty of them left, will flock to Scheer rather than Bernier, whom they regard as a lightweight flake.
If not the libertarian (Bernier) or Harper 2.0 (Scheer), who? With preferential ballots being cast in 338 separate constituency races, and with each constituency association (large or small) carrying the same weight in the ultimate tabulation, it is just about impossible to forecast who will place third.
But more likely than not, it is Ontario MP Erin O’Toole, who served briefly as minister of Veterans Affairs under Harper. O’Toole tries to sound like a progressive, but he doesn’t quite walk the talk. He is a traditional old-style Conservative, who supports mandatory minimum sentences in the criminal justice system; he’s all in favour of building pipelines and increasing mining in Northern Ontario.
Whoever wins on Saturday will face the daunting task of pulling the party together in opposition and presenting a united front in time for the election. Some breakage seems inevitable. Why, for example, would Lisa Raitt, who has already held three different cabinet portfolios, want to hang around if she does not become leader? Would there be a place for Kellie Leitch and her anti-immigration views in a party that will need to regain the support of ethnic voters in the GTA?
The next 29 months in opposition should reveal whether the Conservatives are capable of returning to government. Will they all sing from the same policy songbook? Will they enunciate a coherent set of values that the broad Canadian middle can embrace? Will they be more than a George Tierney opposition, opposing everything and proposing nothing?
We will see soon enough