By Scott Costen
THE spectre of Donald Trump is influencing the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) leadership race and could ultimately hurt the party’s prospects in the next federal election.
“I don’t think it’s an unfair observation to say the Conservatives are being infested with the Trump disease,” said Dan Leger, a Nova Scotia-based journalist, author and political commentator.
“It’s really pernicious what’s going on. I hope the Conservatives will get past that and cooler heads will prevail.”
CPC members will choose their new leader in August by mail-in preferential ballot. Each of Canada’s 338 electoral districts will be worth 100 points, with points assigned to candidates based on their percentage of the vote in each district.
Critics of the system say it promotes national representation at the expense of vote dilution in party strongholds.
“If you’re the (CPC) in Nunavut, you might have only 65 members in the whole riding association,” Leger said. “But in Calgary Nose Hill, you might have 10,000. It’s weirdly undemocratic.”
Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, the leading candidates in the four-person race, were widely viewed as moderates before the leadership campaign began. Both have since moved to the right in a bid to secure the party’s top job.
“They’re taking positions that are uncharacteristic of their past points of view,” Leger said. “They’re taking much more extreme or strident positions because they want to appeal to the base of the base type of thing.”
O’Toole, for example, has become increasingly hawkish on China. “It’s time for Canada to practice social distancing with the Chinese Community Party instead of bowing to their every command,” he says on his campaign website.
MacKay is denouncing gun control measures recently brought in by the Liberal government and promising to increase Canadian defence spending from 1.3 per cent of GDP to the NATO benchmark of 2 per cent.
While the CPC won the popular vote and increased its seat total in the 2019 general election, the knives were quickly out for leader Andrew Scheer. He was roundly criticized for running a lacklustre campaign and holding outdated – if not offensive – views on same-sex marriage and abortion.
Shortly after the election, MacKay called Scheer’s social conservatism “a stinking albatross” that cost Conservatives the election against a Liberal party weakened by revelations about prime minister Justin Trudeau’s past wearing of blackface and his firing of an Indigenous female cabinet minister.
A former crown attorney and son of a well-known Conservative cabinet minister, MacKay held numerous cabinet portfolios under former prime minister Stephen Harper, including foreign affairs, justice and defence. MacKay chose not to seek re-election in 2015 after 18 years as a Nova Scotia MP.
O’Toole has been an Ontario MP since 2012 and served as veterans affairs minister under Harper. He previously worked as a corporate lawyer and served in the Canadian air force. Like MacKay, his father is a former Conservative politician.
Laura Macdonald, a political science professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University, is unimpressed with the state of the CPC leadership campaign.
“It’s a very uninspiring race,” she told Redaction Politics. “There are no big ideas, especially in the realm of foreign policy.”
She took issue with O’Toole’s “CANZUK” proposal, which calls for a “Canada-Australia-New Zealand-United Kingdom” economic, defence and intelligence alliance.
“It’s an extremely antiquated kind of idea that the white dominions, former colonies in the empire […] will band together along with the U.K., the former imperial power, and somehow this will address Canada’s issues around trade competitiveness,” Macdonald said.
“To me, it’s not about economics,” she said. “It’s about sending some kind of message about who we belong to and what our heritage is, which is xenophobic and retrograde.”
Leger shares Macdonald’s cynicism about CANZUK.
“That’s really a sideshow,” he said. “If there were good reasons to be having booming trade with the U.K., we’d already be doing it.”
For his part, MacKay has said “virtually nothing on foreign policy” beyond vague statements about national security and projecting international strength, Macdonald said.
Rookie Ontario MP Derek Sloan and Toronto-area lawyer Leslyn Lewis round out the CPC leadership field. Both are considered social conservatives with little chance of winning. However, they appear well-positioned to play kingmaker in the event of a close first ballot.
“I think MacKay will win out with the party establishment on his side,” Leger said. “But if (Sloan and Lewis) are able to move their supporters, they might be able to swing it for O’Toole if he’s close on the first ballot.”
Macdonald agrees MacKay is the favourite, thanks in part to name recognition at a time when public health orders have restricted campaign activities. Still, she sees a possible opening for O’Toole if MacKay falters on the first ballot.
Redaction Politics contacted all four leadership campaigns for comment.
Whoever wins the leadership, CPC fortunes won’t necessarily improve next election, Macdonald said.
“They’re reverting in desperation to Trump-influenced discourses around protecting the border and somehow supporting national sovereignty by attacking China,” she said.
“Some aspects of those might have some appeal, but they’re overlooking major issues such as families, child care and pharmacare. They don’t even seem to be addressing the urgent problems that so many Canadians are facing.”
Further complicating the situation for Conservatives is Justin Trudeau’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, which is perceived as strong, especially when compared to Donald Trump’s. Public opinion polls show the prime minister’s approval ratings have grown significantly during the pandemic.
“While not perfect by any means, [Trudeau has] come off well,” Macdonald said. “He’s got a COVID boost. He’s now a formidable adversary, whereas if this pandemic hadn’t happened, he might have been easier to attack.”
The CPC’s prospects will depend partly on what happens south of the border this November, she said.
“If there’s a new president in the U.S., that might reduce the pressure on the Conservatives.”
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