Conservatives make their leadership contest pay-to-play

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Andrew Scheer. Image: Andrew Scheer/Flickr

On January 13, the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) kicked off the internal fight to find a replacement for Andrew Scheer as leader. There is however a twist to the race that will culminate June 27 in Quebec City. Over the next months, aspirant leaders must be prepared to come up with a $200,000 entrance fee, plus a $100,000 deposit, making it a "pay-to-play" contest. 

The emphasis on fundraising will hinder caucus candidates anxious mainly to raise their profiles nationally, or draw attention to pet issues, including the worthy Michael Chong, along with almost all pretenders to the leadership mantle.

Pierre Poilievre is the favoured caucus leadership candidate. His political focus will be to demonize Justin Trudeau and sow doubts about his abilities, continuing the same CPC approach adopted by Stephen Harper when the new Liberal leader was selected in 2013. 

An Ottawa MP, with a Franco-Albertan background, Poilievre first came East as a parliamentary assistant with the Reform party. 

Poilievre is noted as being an obnoxious performer in the House of Commons. His campaign, managed by the equally obnoxious former cabinet minister John Baird, will reach out to the social conservative CPC base; the notorious 30,000 who respond to the shrill personal attacks on the Liberals by accessing PayPal, or more likely, opening their chequebooks.

Poilievre could corral the membership base built by Harper, those with no sympathy for environmental concerns, and who are ready to defend expansion of oil sands production. 

However, outside the oil patch, voters expect political parties to have a comprehensive  environmental protection plan focused on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. While Stephen Harper could dismiss climate change as a "socialist plot," the 2020 CPC leadership has to be believable on climate policy.

Rona Ambrose distinguished herself as interim leader during the last leadership race but has not moved to declare her candidacy. Her competence and TV-friendly manner -- coupled with a presumed ability to attract support outside the oil patch -- make her a serious candidate from oil country. However, unless she has spent the last few years working on her French, she would have little traction in Quebec.

The western Reform party base of the CPC is needed for victory, but cannot set the agenda for a leadership candidate without endangering support needed elsewhere.

The Conservative race weighs every one of the 338 electoral ridings equally. Win 50 votes out of 100 cast in Abitibi Témiscamingue, and your 50 percent of the total cast counts for 50 points nationally, the same as 10,000 votes out of 20,000 cast in Calgary Centre.

Winning the leadership comes down to who can build a regional alliance similar to the one needed to win the next election. In other words the CPC needs enough ridings in Ontario to go with its Western base, and sufficient Quebec strength to offset where it is weak elsewhere i.e. urban Canada. The West plus heavy wins in Ontario to offset Quebec weakness is the other route to government.

Former Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest will appeal to CPC voters that recognize the importance of Quebec, who may be less numerous than he thinks. 

Notably, Charest is an able representative of the Big Business faction within the CPC. Like his mentor Brian Mulroney, Charest has always been happiest taking leadership direction from the Business Council of Canada. 

Acting like a corporate lawyer advancing the agenda of Big Business clients is a role well played by Liberal party leaders as well. Charest looks like the favoured candidate of those who want nothing more than to see the CPC replace the Liberals without expecting any policy changes as a result. 

Though the CPC entered the 2019 election campaign with a chance of growing the party in Quebec, the inability of Andrew Scheer to hold his own in the key televised French debates spelled the end of his party's dreams of forming government, and ultimately of his leadership. As he faltered, it was the Bloc Québécois, morphed into a support group for the conservative CAQ Quebec provincial government, that re-emerged as a player.

For the CPC to replace the Liberals in government, playing out the traditional change from one to the other in power of the past 150 years plus, Charest looks like the best bet. Now there is the pesky question of his being under police investigation dating from his time as premier of Quebec. And his record as presiding over the Dark Ages light (with the Duplessis era as the never forgotten Great Darkness) may yield some juicy opposition research at some point.

As for Poilievre he is the candidate the Liberals would most like to see win, believing that his House of Commons persona will not fly in an election campaign, and that he will be unable to re-invent himself in any meaningful sense. 

Peter MacKay, former Progressive Conservative leader may enter the race, but if he expects nostalgia for the good old days of moderate Tory governments to carry him to victory, he is certain to be out of luck.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.
Image: Andrew Scheer/Flickr
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