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Conservatives choose a new leader; NDP hears from all six leadership candidates

Screenshot from 2017 Conservative leadership debate in Toronto/CPAC

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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Canada's Conservatives will choose a new leader this weekend. When not preoccupied with Trump's peregrinations and the terror attack in Manchester, the Canadian media have been paying considerable attention to the Conservatives' choice. They have been much less interested in the next big event on the New Democrats' leadership calendar: a debate, on Sunday, in Sudbury, that will involve all six candidates, including two new ones: Jagmeet Singh and Pat Stogran.

As for the party that now forms the Official Opposition in Ottawa, those who might have taken comfort from the departure of one narcissistic, bullying leadership candidate should take a good look at the remaining 13 and what they stand for. When the narcissist -- Kevin O'Leary, by name -- dropped out, he threw his support behind former Harper cabinet minister and MP for Quebec's Beauce region, Maxime Bernier. Bernier is now considered the front-runner, and while he has a more agreeable personality than the nausea-inducing O'Leary, his proposals are, arguably, more extreme.

There may be some solid economic motives for abolishing Canada's supply management system for agriculture, one of Bernier's signature pledges. Reasonable analysts have pointed out that the net effect of supply management has been that all Canadians, including the poor, pay relatively high prices for eggs and dairy products. What, however, would be the economic, or any other, justification for getting the federal government out of the health-care funding business? Or for abolishing the CBC? That is the sort of free market fundamentalism Bernier expounds. It is born of dogma and ideology, not evidence or analysis.

If the Conservatives choose this front-runner, they will not be getting their own version of Donald Trump. But they will be getting something almost as disquieting: their very own Ted Cruz, minus the over-the-top-religiosity. Bernier is a classic government-is-best-which-governs-least neo-conservative. If he ever got into power, watch out. The scorching conflagration Maxime Bernier ignites will make Stephen Harper's slashing and burning seem like a Boy Scout campfire.

Other Conservative leadership options include: Kellie Leitch, a medical doctor who shares many of Donald Trump's ideas on diversity, and who also adamantly wants to get rid of the CBC (a bit of a Conservative hobby horse); a couple of hard-line social conservatives; and a former diplomat, who, as Jason Kenney's successor at the immigration ministry, fully imbibed the Harper Kool-Aid on immigrants and refugees.

There is the sole Red Tory candidate, Michael Chong, who has had the guts to propose a carbon tax to a Conservative Party that walked away from the Kyoto Accord. Chong is also a thoughtful democratic reformer, embraces Canadian diversity, and is fluently bilingual. A number of prominent Conservatives, including a onetime press secretary to Stephen Harper, support Chong. Some environmental activists have even taken out Conservative memberships in order to support him. Still, few political handicappers give Michael Chong a chance.

Lisa Raitt, who was one of the least partisan of Harper's cabinet ministers, sounds like a pragmatic centrist; but, like Chong, does not seem to have much of a chance.

Hard-line neo-cons versus vacuous pragmatists

Experts believe two candidates who represent the notionally pragmatic wing of the party are very much in the running. They are former House Speaker Andrew Scheer, and Erin O'Toole, an amiable and bilingual veteran who rescued the Veterans' Affairs ministry after the crotchety ex-police chief, Julian Fantino, bombed badly.

Scheer's suite of policy proposals steers clear of anything overtly preposterous. On refugees, for instance, he would return to the Harper-era approach of shunning refugees now in United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) camps and, in the Middle East, handpick Christians and members of other minority groups. It is a mean-spirited idea that ignores the fact that the vast majority of those seeking refuge in that region are Muslims, but, at least, it would not mean totally slamming the door on refugees.

Scheer would balance the budget in two years, which seems fanciful right now -- but, after all, even the NDP proposed balancing the budget during the last election campaign. Scheer wants freer trade, an open door for foreign ownership of Canadian airlines, and an end to "corporate welfare," i.e. industrial subsidies. On the other hand, without irony, he proposes government subsidies for parents who send their kids to independent schools or who home school them.

Like most other Conservatives, Scheer would scrap the Liberal carbon tax, while returning to the Harper strategy of a sector-by-sector approach, in lock step with the Americans. It is a hypocritical, fig leaf of a strategy, quite deliberately designed to achieve nothing. The Trump regime is more honest on its climate change policy. It says, simply, there is no such thing as human-caused global warming. 

Unlike most other Conservative leadership candidates, Scheer has something to say about First Nations. He would restore the Harper government practice of publicly publishing the financial statements of First Nations bands. That's it. Not a word on health, education, natural resources, mega-projects, missing and murdered women and girls, or any of the other issues important to Indigenous Canadians.

Erin O'Toole has a very similar list of proposals to Scheer's, except his tend to be far more vague and platitudinous. To take just example, O'Toole suggests an idea he calls "True North Strong." "From Diefenbaker to Mulroney to Harper," he says. "It has only been Conservative governments that have built, supported and protected our North and its people." That's it. Words to live by. 

Elsewhere, O'Toole evokes "igniting the Indigenous economy" (with no further detail); bringing in something he calls the Great Country Initiative (without saying what he means by that); dragging Canadian health care into the 21st century (again, without a single detail); developing our natural resources; and implementing an entirely undefined prosperity agenda. His whole platform is, indeed, a packet of generalities and rhetorical clichés. His single concrete engagement is to negotiate a free trade agreement with Australia, the U.K. and New Zealand. 

There you have it.  

Conservatives can choose between hard-line neo-conservative ideologues, some of whom indulge in a bit of currently fashionable anti-diversity populism, or apostles of vague and vacuous nostrums, who promise nothing more than to pick up where Harper left off. Good luck with all that.

NDP has an identity challenge with Trudeau at the helm of Liberals

After the Official Opposition chooses its new leader on Saturday, the NDP will showcase its complete roster of candidates on Sunday. The danger for New Democrats is that, to many Canadians who consider themselves progressive, almost any new Conservative leader will likely make Justin Trudeau look good in comparison.

The NDP has been drifting upward in the polls of late, both nationally and in some provinces such as Saskatchewan, and might yet get to form a government in British Columbia. That should be good news for the party.

There is a big challenge for all of the NDP's leadership aspirants, however, and that is to provide a compelling reason for Canadians to choose one of them over a still-popular, young Liberal prime minister. One option for New Democrats would be to offer a number of hard-edged and specific policy proposals on such matters as taxes, child care, pharmacare, and the environment. If you want voters to choose you and your party you should be as clear as possible about what you would do once in power. 

The unavoidable fact is that the task of establishing a distinct identity and role for the NDP will not be as easy today, with Justin Trudeau's Liberals in power, as it was when the Conservatives -- or even the budget-slashing Chrétien and Martin Liberals -- ran the show.

Screenshot from 2017 Conservative leadership debate in Toronto/CPAC

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Keep Karl on Parl

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