For the second time in just 3 years, members of the Conservative party of Canada will choose a new leader. Andrew Scheer won the last leadership race by a narrow margin over Maxine Beriner, when the view was that defeating Justin Trudeau would be a two-term project. Mr. Scheer took away Trudeau’s Majority in the 2019 election, which would have been fine – however, many senior Conservatives felt that Scheer could have done better if it had not been for not answering “no” on Gay Pride prides as well as a disastrous French leaders debate. A failure in the critical 905 and 316 in Ontario and Quebec added more fuel to the fire, and this along with a scandal regarding Scheer’s children’s private school education being paid for by the party was the final line; Scheer announced his resignation in December. For the first time in the party’s history, it appears that its leaders will come from the east. To understand the contest, we need to take a step back in time.
For most of the 90s and early 2000s, the Canadian right was divided due to the fallout of the Mulroney government. There was a split between the Canadian Alliance, which were more right-wing and western, and the Progressive Conservative, who were moderates and from eastern. This split allowed Jean Chretien’s Liberal Party to win three majority governments due to the right splitting votes in seats across Canada. By the 2000s, many in Canadian Conservative circles felt that a merger was the only way to stop the Liberals and after months of negotiations and concessions, the right finally united on December 7, 2003 then leaders Peter Mackay (PC) and Stephen Harper (CA) agreed to a merger into the new Conservative Party of Canada (CPC).
The party was now a coalition of blue Tories, who were more right-wing, and red Tories, who were more moderate. The parties agreed not to touch hot-topic social issues and to avoid the regional and high-spend fiscal policy that lead to splits in the 90s. The leadership consisted of Stephen Harper and deputy Peter Mackay. In 2004, the party’s first election, it would reduce Paul Martin’s Liberals to a minority government as well as increase its share from 77 seats at the merger to 99 seats. It did very well in Ontario, though it struggled in Quebec where it won no seats. Two years later in 2006, corruption scandals with Quebec funding and a general feeling of change brought the first non-Liberal government since 1993.
The Tories proceeded to win the 2008 and 2011 elections, with the 2011 one being the first majority government for the Tories since the PC’s in 1988. That election saw the Liberals fall into third place.
Stephen Harper helped guided Canada through the global recession and also lead a solid domestic policy record. He also maintained good relations with most of Canada’s key partners. However, in 2015 the Tories were beaten by a resurgent Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau; this was in large part due to a Tory campaign that ran on the issue of the burqa and criticism to multiculturalism. The same night of the defeat, Mr. Harper resigned as party leader and was replaced by acting leader Rona Ambrose. Since then, the party has faced a challenge on which direction to go. Many felt that the party needs to move away from social issues if it wants to win at the federal level, but the very vocal social conservatives have made clear they do not want gay marriage and abortion pushed aside. Now we enter the 2020 CPC leader race.
Politics has always been something in Mackay’s blood – his father Elmer was a Minister in the Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney’s governments. Mackay served as a crown attorney before winning the seat of Pictou-Antigonish-Guysborough in Nova Scotia in 1997. He rose quickly in PC circles and became the party’s last leader in 2003. That same year, he joined forces with Stephen Harper to create the Conservatives, which broke a pledge made during the PC leadership race. He served as deputy leader of the CPC from 2004-15 and was Foreign, Defence, and Attorney General under Harper. He retired in 2015, citing family, but he’s always been rumored for the job and became critical of Scheer during the 2019 election, which he called a “‘breakaway on an open net”. Mackay is seen as the pragmatic candidate who could win over voters in Ontario, British Columbia, and the Atlantic. He is fiscally conservative and socially moderate.
The Blue Tory Bulldog
Pierre Poilievre may have the most interesting background of any candidate in the race. Born to Quebec parents in Alberta, he is fully bilingual. He served as a policy expert for Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day as well as Jason Kenny. He was elected in 2004 for the riding of Nepean-Carleton in Ottawa and served as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in multiple departments, where he gained a reputation for being brutal at question time. He held the democratic reform, employment and social development portfolios in Mr. Harper’s cabinet. Since 2017, he’s served as Finance critic. He’s seen as the base candidate who is not afraid to attack the government as well as a policy wonk who wants the party to be a hub of ideas. Seen as Harper type, he surprised many by announcing he supported gay marriage and would not reopen the abortion debate if he became leader.
The Quebec Option
Jean Charest has seen it all in his 40 years of front line politics. Born to Irish and French parents in Sherbooke, he became a barrister and did a few years of legal work until winning Sherbooke in 1984. He quickly rose through the ranks and became the youngest Cabinet Minister in Canadian history in 1986 as he became Minister of state for Youth under Brian Mulroney. In 1988, he was promoted Minister for Fitness and Amateur Sport. In 1990, he was forced to resign due to improperly speaking to a judge about a case regarding the Canadian Track and Field Association. He returned as Minister of the Environment in 1991. He also played a role in creating the failed Meech Lake Accords. In 1993, he ran at the PC Leadership Convention against Kim Campbell and nearly won the contest. Campbell named him Deputy PM and Minister of Industry, Science and Technology. At the 1993 election, he was only one of two PC candidates to win their seats and became leader that same year. He also was also the Vice-President of the successful “No” campaign in the 1995 Quebec independence referendum. In 1997, he lead the PC’s back to official party status.
In 1998, he give in to pressure from Quebec federalists and became the leader of Quebec’s provincial Liberal Party (which is not affiliated with the federal party) to stop Lucien Bouchard from being able to carry a second referendum, which he did stop. In 2003, he became Premier of Quebec and served in that office until 2012 when he was defeated. Charest faces an uphill climb to get the leadership. His government has been investigated for allegations of corruption and he also faces the issue of not being seen as a Tory. To make matters worse, former PM Stephen Harper has made it quite known that he will stop Charest at all costs and it also been revealed that Charest is doing lobbying for Huawei, who are currently in court with the Canadian government. Fiscally conservative and socially moderate, Charest would appeal to voters in Quebec and Ontario who may not be natural Tory voters.
The Middle Ground
Erin O’Toole may not not have the political CV or flair of the others running, but he carries his own strong background. Born in Montreal, he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force for 12 years and did legal work such as the Canadian in-house counsel for Procter & Gamble. He was elected to Parliament in a 2012 by-election in the riding of Durham in Ontario. He rose rather quickly, becoming a Parliamentary Secretary in 2013 and joined the Harper Cabinet in 2015 as Veterans Minister. He ran in the 2017 leadership race and finished a reasonable third-place. Since 2017, O’Toole has been the Foreign Affairs critic. His calling card is that he’s won in GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and can keep all the wings of the party together; he’s seen as someone who can revive the Harper style unity among the different wings.
Marilyn Gladu is the only woman so far running in the contest. She worked as an engineer at Dow Chemicals and Suncor before entering politics. Gladu was the chair for the Canadian Society of Chemical Engineers locally and the national director of science and industrial policy for the same organization. She has been on the dean’s advisory council for the Faculty of Engineering at Queen’s University and was elected to Parliament in 2015 for the Ontario riding of Sarnia-Lambton. Gladu served as Chair of the Standing Committee on the Status of Women from 2016-17 and was named Critic for Health and Science in 2017 by Andrew Scheer. Considered to be on the blue Tory wing of the party, Gladu has made climate change and science a main part of her platform, and she’ll likely have a big impact on where he climate issue goes in this contest.
The Dream Candidate
If there’s any candidate who would have the total respect of all wings of the party, it would be Rona Ambrose. She was elected in 2004 for the riding of Edmonton-Spruce Grove in Alberta and served in a wide range of roles throughout the Harper Cabinet from 2006-2015: Health, Public Works and Government Services, Labour, Intergovernmental Affairs, and Environment. After the defeat and resignation of Mr. Harper in 2015, she was named interim leader, a role she carried from 2015-17. Seen as tough questioner, she also kept the party together and avoided the mistakes of previous Tory infighting from the past. Ambrose lies more on the libertarian side of the party and is seen as a more friendly conservative. She also polls the best with the Canadian public. Although she supports gay marriage, her French is poor and she voted to reopen the abortion debate, both of which carry landmines. However, Mrs. Ambrose reportedly doesn’t want to re-enter public life and give up her consulting. If she where to run, however, she’d be the front runner.
Others who could run:
Whoever is the next leader of the Conservative Party will only be defined by one clear adjective: beating the Liberal Government. This is no doubt the Tory party is changing and whatever changes it makes will have a lasting impact on what the party is. It looks likely for the first time in the party’s history that the leader will not come from the west, but from the east of the country. The Tory membership now has the choice of whither it wants Government or ideological purity.