A handful of Conservative MPs are challenging Maclean’s columnist Scott Gilmore’s cross-country discussion tour on the state of the Conservative Party, questioning Mr. Gilmore’s motives and experience with the party.
However, several well-known conservatives say Mr. Gilmore is right to warn that the rhetoric coming out of the party’s leadership race misses the mark for centrist or moderate Tories.
“I think he’s being mischievous,” said Conservative MP David Tilson (Dufferin-Caledon, Ont.) of the columnist and Conservative Party member proposing a national debate on the party’s future.
Mr. Gilmore is planning to host gatherings in restaurants in eight Canadian cities—Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver—to discuss a new direction for the Conservative Party with whoever signs up to attend. He will be accompanied by what he says will be non-partisan guest speakers at the events, some of whom will travel along with him from city to city. The tour is planned to run between April 24 and May 8. The Conservative Party members will select their next leader on May 27.
“The goal will be simple: Let’s talk about whether Canada needs a new conservative party, and if so, how would we build it?” wrote Mr. Gilmore in a March 29 Maclean’s column, in which he identified as a “self-loathing Tory” frustrated with what he saw as a race to the far-right on social issues by the Conservative leadership candidates, to the detriment of the party. Mr. Gilmore is married to Liberal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna (Ottawa Centre, Ont.), who was elected as an MP for the first time in 2015.
As of the end of last week, more than 1,500 people had signed up to attend the dinner events, said Mr. Gilmore. His proposal also provoked a substantial response on Twitter, split between supportive and critical messages.
Mr. Tilson and a few other Conservative MPs, however, dismissed Mr. Gilmore’s tour as an underhanded attempt to divide the Conservative Party, which was formed in 2003 when the centre-right Progressive Conservative Party merged with the further-right Canadian Alliance.
Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.), Michael Cooper (St. Albert-Edmonton, Alta.), Gérard Deltell (Louis-Saint-Laurent, Que.), Pierre Poilievre (Carleton, Ont.), and Mark Strahl (Chilliwack-Hope, B.C.) all questioned the value or legitimacy of Mr. Gilmore’s new campaign, either publicly or when asked by The Hill Times.
“He’s suggesting that the Conservative Party split into two parties. That was tried once and it didn’t work,” said Mr. Tilson, who said doing so would put those parties “in opposition indefinitely.”
Mr. Poilievre and Mr. O’Toole questioned via Twitter whether Mr. Gilmore had ever been active in the party before, while Mr. Tilson and Mr. Deltell suggested his efforts had something to do with his marriage to Ms. McKenna.
“Maybe he’s taking direction from his wife. She’d love to have the Conservative Party split and be in two parties, so the Liberal Party would be in power forever,” said Mr. Tilson.
“Everybody can say what he wants, especially the spouse of a Liberal cabinet minister,” said Mr. Deltell.
For Mr. Gilmore, those criticisms miss the point.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m married to Fidel Castro or to Bill O’Reilly. What matters are the ideas and the reaction to those ideas,” he said in an interview with The Hill Times.
Mr. Gilmore declined to speak on behalf of Ms. McKenna when he was asked what she thought of his dinner tour, and how it could affect her.
“I’m not going to answer any questions that have to do with my private life. But obviously, I support the Conservative Party, and I’d like to see them in power again,” he said.
Ms. McKenna declined to comment through a spokesperson when her office was contacted by The Hill Times.
While Mr. Tilson and others see Mr. Gilmore’s public campaign as an effort to divide the party and keep it out of power, Mr. Gilmore said he was attempting to prevent the party from marginalizing itself.
Mr. Gilmore said he wrote his column in part because he felt frustrated by what he saw as anti-gay, anti-immigrant, and anti-climate change rhetoric from some of the Conservative leadership candidates, which he felt was alienating moderate conservatives from the party. The response to his column from like-minded conservatives pushed him to plan the dinner events, he said.
“Why the timing? I wrote a column, people reacted. I didn’t choose the timing.”
Conservative candidate Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.) has proposed screening all immigrants for “Canadian values,” while the recent surge of asylum seekers crossing into Canada illegally from the United States has prompted a number of Conservative leadership candidates to call for a crackdown at the border to keep them or turf them out. Conservative leadership candidate Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.) has come out against gay pride parades, while Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.) is the only Conservative leadership candidate to come out loudly in support of a carbon tax.
Mr. Gilmore said he was “agnostic” about whether there should be one or two conservative parties.
“What I want is more moderate conservatives in this country to feel that they have a voice,” he said.
Mr. Gilmore also dismissed those who questioned whether he had ever been active in the party before. He said he had, but wouldn’t say when or how, since “the idea that what I’m proposing is somehow invalidated by my level of participation in one direction or the other is specious.”
“These people should be worried less about me, and worried more about the idea that I’m talking about, which is that a lot of moderate conservatives are unhappy,” he said.
Mr. Gilmore, a former Canadian diplomat, was appointed by the then-Conservative government to serve on an advisory panel for the merger of the CIDA federal foreign aid agency with the foreign ministry in 2013, and to the board of governors of the International Development Research Centre in 2015.
He has donated to the Green Party, Conservative Party, and Ottawa Centre Federal Liberal Association at different times over the last dozen years, with the Conservative and Liberal donations being the most recent.
Mr. Cooper challenged the notion that the Conservative Party wasn’t accommodating moderate points of view.
“We’re a big-tent party. We have people with all kinds of different viewpoints…and they’re all welcome in the Conservative Party,” he said, adding that the party was having a “healthy debate” through the leadership race.
There are some well-known figures in Ottawa who have supported Mr. Gilmore.
Ottawa-based political strategist Rick Anderson tweeted that he would be attending one of the dinners, and congratulated Mr. Gilmore for creating a “useful discussion.”
Mr. Anderson, a Conservative Party member who describes his politics as centre-right, pragmatic, and socially libertarian, told The Hill Times he didn’t favour creating a new party, but thought the discussion Mr. Gilmore had launched was “healthy” for the party.
He said he believed that some of the concerns raised by Mr. Gilmore in his Maclean’s column only applied to“fringe candidates” in the leadership race, but that he also wanted the party to move on from rehashing social issues that had been settled decades ago, such as abortion, to deal with modern problems, such as the best way to deal with environmental issues, or political correctness encroaching on public debate.
Former Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber, who left the party to sit as an independent and was defeated in the last election by Mr. Cooper, wrote in an opinion piece in iPolitics that Mr. Gilmore’s column “was something I could have written myself.”
Mr. Chong also endorsed some of the concerns raised in Mr. Gilmore’s column. Chisholm Pothier, Mr. Chong’s director of communications, told The Hill Times that “Michael shares many of the concerns that Scott expressed in that column.”
“But he does not agree that the answer to those concerns is to start a new party,” said Mr. Pothier. “We saw in the 1990s what happens when the conservative movement splits, and the result of that was three consecutive Liberal majority governments. So that’s not the solution, but the risk to the party is not splitting, the risk to the party is continuing to shrink.”
Guests at the dinner events will be asked to cover the cost of a fixed-price menu arranged with the venue. Maclean’s will be covering some of Mr. Gilmore’s costs for the tour, while he will be footing the bill for the first round of drinks for each guest, as promised in his column. With 1,500-plus guests at $6 a head, that would run close to $10,000.