By Scott Costen
THE Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) leadership race has entered the homestretch after back-to-back debates that seemed to benefit the perceived favourite.
According to most commentators, former cabinet minister Peter MacKay solidified his position during the June 17 French debate and June 18 English debate, both held at a Toronto hotel without a live audience.
“MacKay has re-discovered his mojo,” John Ivison wrote in the National Post. “The Nova Scotian has emerged from two potentially tricky debates in better shape than he went in.”
MacKay’s campaign was plagued early on by a series of social media gaffes and lingering questions about his command of French.
But the CPC co-founder earned praise for his performance in both official languages.
“It’s clear that, while MacKay might not ooze royal jelly, he’s the only decent shot the Conservatives have left to dethrone Justin Trudeau in the next election,” concluded Don Martin of CTV News.
“He seemed very confident and in control,” HuffPost Canada’s Althia Raj said during a panel appearance on CBC’s flagship news program.
CPC members will elect their next leader using ranked ballots that must be mailed in by August 21.
Each of Canada’s 338 electoral districts are worth a total of 100 points, meaning the party’s largest constituency associations have the same voting power as the smallest ones.
Conservative leadership hopefuls often move to the right to secure the party’s nod before nudging back towards the centre for a general election. Until last week’s debates, this was true of both MacKay and his principal rival Erin O’Toole.
But MacKay ditched hawkishness in favour of moderation during the debates, an approach that showed confidence.
As Ivison observed: “Over the course of two nights, MacKay appealed not just to Conservative partisans, but to the wider voting public – which suggests he believes his lead is large enough to risk upsetting social conservatives.”
MacKay’s debate strategy involved casting O’Toole, a suburban Ontario MP who finished third in the 2017 CPC leadership contest, as an unelectable social conservative like outgoing leader Andrew Scheer.
He criticized O’Toole for saying, in a recently leaked video, that he has reservations about banning so-called conversion therapy for LGBTQIA+ youth.
“In the last election, we had a problem with perception,” MacKay said during the French debate. “We have to present ourselves as an inclusive, modern party.”
A day later, in the English debate, MacKay spoke at length about systemic racism. He highlighted some of the country’s historical injustices and called on CPC members to be “intolerant of intolerance.”
For his part, O’Toole refused to answer whether systemic racism exists in Canada, a reality widely acknowledged by the other federal parties. He pivoted instead to advocate a “zero tolerance” approach to “any form of racism, anti-semitism (and) discrimination.”
A former corporate lawyer and 12-year member of the Canadian Armed Forces, O’Toole tried to cast his opponent as yesterday’s man.
“I am a leader for the future,” he said during the French debate. “Mr. MacKay is a leader for the past.”
MacKay was having none of it and seized on the perception O’Toole has lowered the level of discourse to near-Trumpian levels. “You’re an angry man, Mr. O’Toole,” he said. “Why are you always so angry?”
While the attacks came fast and furious during the French debate, they were largely absent from the English contest, which the Toronto Star described as “sleepy.”
The other two leadership candidates, rural Ontario MP Derek Sloan and Toronto-area lawyer Leslyn Lewis, were not a factor in the French debate owing to their poor second-language skills.
They were more active in the second debate, during which they shared their socially conservative, possibly even libertarian, visions for the country.
Sloan and Lewis have no realistic chance of winning the leadership. But either one could play the role of kingmaker if MacKay does not win outright after the first ballot.
O’Toole’s path to victory lies with the second-choice votes of Sloan and Lewis, which explains both his lurch to the right and his refusal to criticize their more extreme positions.
Whoever wins the CPC leadership, election readiness will be an immediate consideration.
Prime minister Justin Trudeau’s government was reduced to minority status last year. It could fall on any confidence motion not supported by at least one other major party in the House of Commons.
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