“’Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice” – Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Today’s Conservative Party of Canada is a curious movement. Even curiouser are its leadership race and its upcoming pair of television debates – French on Wednesday, English on Thursday.
The debates, to be broadcast from Toronto, may be the only opportunities for national audiences to take the measure of the four candidates who are vying to take on Justin Trudeau in the next federal election. Voting by ranked preferential ballot is to take place in August.
COVID-19 forced plans for additional debates to be scrapped, and social distancing means the contenders will be debating via video from four separate rooms without a live audience.
The absence of audience response and the lack of candidate eye contact are bound to rob the debates of some spontaneity. And the French debate may be an ordeal for candidates and TV viewers alike as the three men and one women duke it out in a language in which none is close to being fluent.
The field is a curious one – two former cabinet ministers (Peter MacKay from Nova Scotia and Erin O’Toole from Ontario), one rookie MP (Derek Sloan from rural Eastern Ontario) and one unsuccessful candidate from the 2015 election (Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis).
The party’s strength is in Alberta and Saskatchewan, yet it was unable to attract a candidate from the west. Or from Quebec, where it is desperate to re-establish a beachhead. It knows it needs to broaden its base, to attract more young, urban voters in the moderate middle of the political spectrum, yet its four candidates are all shying away from the mainstream.
Lewis and Sloan are both social conservatives. Front-runners MacKay and O’Toole know that, if the preferential balloting goes beyond one round, they will need the second- and perhaps the third-choice votes of Lewis and Sloan supporters.
So O’Toole, who campaigned as a middle-of-the-roader when he placed third in his leadership attempt in 2017, has carefully repositioned himself to the right of centre and MacKay, who was a progressive in earlier days, has shuffled in that direction, too.
To the extent that this week’s debates generate some buzz, it will likely surround Lewis, who doesn’t come close to the profile of a stereotypical Conservative candidate.
A Black lawyer with a master’s degree in environmental science and a PhD in international law, she is articulately pro-life. And, unlike MacKay and O’Toole, she will be not be marching in any gay pride parades.
She is not afraid to ignite debate on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, issues that the departing leader, Andrew Scheer, chose not to confront and that moderate Conservatives wish would go away.
Conservatives who are disappointed or distressed at not having a larger, more exciting field of potential leaders can blame the party brass.
Determined not to repeat a free-for-all like the one in 2017 when 14 candidates were crowded onto a single stage (no social distancing then), organizers this time set a high financial hurdle – a $300.000 deposit – to discourage publicity seekers and other riffraff. They assiduously culled the ranks of hopefuls, rejecting eight and discouraging others. At least a dozen prospective candidates – including prominent such as ones as former leader (and Quebec premier) Jean Charest, recent interim leader Rona Ambrose and Harper-era foreign minister John Baird – decided they had better things to do with their lives.
What a difference three years has made! Do you remember the 2017 leadership and those 14 candidates? Do you remember the fellow who was widely touted to win? His name was Kevin O’Leary. The reality show celebrity. That’s right – Dragons’ Den and Shark Tank.
Two days before party members started casting ballots, O’Leary abruptly withdrew. It seems he belatedly realized that if he wanted to be prime minister, he really ought to be able to speak French. He may also have discovered that Parliament is not a game show and that leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition can be the most unforgiving job in the capital.
O’Leary threw his support to Maxime Bernier, who promptly fled the Conservative fold to start his own right-wing party, after he lost on the 13th ballot to Andrew Scheer, the least unacceptable surviving candidate. We know how that turned out.
I suspect Alice would have found 2017 curious, too.