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Conservatives say leadership ‘wide open’ and ‘excited’ about party renewal, first leadership convention in 13 years

By Abbas Rana      

About 2,000 Conservatives are expected to attend the party's leadership convention this weekend.

Conservative leadership candidates Maxime Bernier, Andrew Scheer, Erin O'Toole, Lisa Raitt, and Andrew Saxton. About 2,000 Conservatives are expected to attend this week's leadership convention in Toronto. The winner of the leadership contest will be announced on Saturday, May 27. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Conservative Party stalwarts say the 14-month leadership race—the party’s first in 13 years, which comes to an end in Toronto this weekend—has “renewed” the party and the new leader will have no difficulty keeping it united.

“It’s exciting,” said John Reynolds, former Conservative MP and co-chairman of Maxime Bernier’s (Beauce, Que.) leadership campaign. “It’s good for party renewal. It gave candidates a chance to spell out their policies to the membership, which is now about quarter of a million—a tremendous amount of people. It’s very good for the renewal of the party.”

Mr. Reynolds, now an adviser in Toronto with the law firm McMillan LLP, denied that party unity would be an issue for the new leader. He said for any party leadership campaign, candidates and party members disagree on policy and political issues, but once the leader is elected, members get behind them.

Former Conservative MP John Reynolds is co-chair of Maxime Bernier’s leadership campaign. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

“There’s always issues that members disagree on,” said Mr. Reynolds. “But once it’s all over, they all get behind the leader.”

Former Conservative Senator Marjory LeBreton agreed: “Everybody that wins the leadership of any party, their first challenge and their first goal is to secure the unity of the party and reach out to all the key people who ran for the leadership and go from there.”

Ms. LeBreton, who is attending this week’s convention, added: “There’s nothing earth-shattering about that. That’s what every new leader has to do.”

She said the new party leader will have no issue bringing the party together. Ms. LeBreton, who retired from the Senate last year, was supporting businessman and reality-TV star Kevin O’Leary, who dropped out of the race last week. She told The Hill Times last week that she had not decided who she would support now.

Former Conservative Senator Marjory LeBreton retired from the Senate last year. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright“It underscores the incredible leadership that Stephen Harper provided to the Conservative Party of Canada and to the country,” Ms. LeBreton said of the fact that it’s been 13 years since the last Conservative Party leadership race. “To me, it’s a tribute to Stephen Harper. He left the country and the party in extremely good shape.”

That race won by Mr. Harper was also the first ever for the party in its present form. The Conservative Party that came out of the merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties in 2003. It elected Mr. Harper, who was the Alliance leader before the merger, as its first leader in 2004.

Mr. Harper, who served as prime minister from 2006 to 2015, led the party in five consecutive federal elections and won three. The Conservatives lost the 2004 election to Paul Martin Liberals, but won minority governments in the 2006 and 2008 elections. The Harper Conservatives won a majority government in 2011.

The former prime minister stepped down as party leader after the Oct. 19, 2015 election, which resulted in a majority government for Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) Liberals.

In the last federal election, the Conservatives won 99 of the 338 seats and 31.9 per cent of the vote nationally, compared to 39.5 per cent for the Liberals, who won 184 seats. The NDP won 44 seats with 19.7 per cent of the vote, the Bloc Québécois won 10 seats with 4.6 per cent, and the Green Party won one seat with 3.4 per cent of the votes.

For this week’s leadership contest, about 260,000 paid Conservative Party members are eligible to vote for the 13 leadership candidates seeking the party’s top job. The party is using the preferential-ballot system to elect their new leader. Each party member can vote for up to 10 leadership candidates in order of preference. The person with the least number of first-choice votes will be dropped after the first ballot. The lower-ranked choices on the eliminated candidates’ ballots will be distributed among the other candidates and counted again. The process will be repeated until someone receives more than 50 per cent support.

To vote for the leader, party members have the option to mail in their ballot, go to one of the 13 polling stations set up by the Conservative Party around the country, or vote on site in Toronto at the leadership convention.

All 338 ridings across the country are weighted equally and have 100 points each, with a total of 33,800 points up for grabs. The winner will need at least 16,901 points, or 50 per cent plus one of the available points.

The Conservative Party is expecting about 2,000 party members to attend this week’s party convention at the Toronto Congress Centre from May 26-27. At the convention, members can cast their vote; mingle with parliamentarians, leadership candidates and political insiders. The winner of the leadership contest that started in March of last year will be announced on Saturday, March 27. The Conservative Party is charging $199 for regular party members to attend, and $99 for students.

Conservative Party spokesman Cory Hann told The Hill Times last week that by Friday, May 19, the party had received about 100,000 mail-in ballots from party members. The party will accept mail-in ballots until May 26.

The 13 candidates seeking the party’s top job include nine current MPs, three former MPs, and one businessman.

The sitting MPs are Mr. Bernier, Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.), Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.), Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.), Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.), Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.), Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.), Steven Blaney (Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-Lévis, Que.), and Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.).

The three former MPs seeking the party’s top job include Pierre Lemieux, Chris Alexander, and Andrew Saxton. The one businessman in the contest is Rick Peterson.

Mr. O’Leary dropped out of the leadership race last month and has endorsed Mr. Bernier. He said last week that the key reason to pull out of the race was that he didn’t have enough support in Quebec. Mr. O’Leary, who is not fluent in French, said he could have won the leadership contest but would not have been able to defeat the Trudeau Liberals in 2019.

Since Mr. O’Leary’s exit from the race, supporters of Mr. Bernier and pundits say the leadership campaign is his to lose. Other campaigns dispute this claim and say the race is “wide open.”

“I would not bet money on the outcome of this leadership campaign at this point; it’s wide open,” said Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.) who is supporting Mr. Chong.

Mr. Kent added that claims from different leadership candidates that say otherwise are a last minute attempt to win votes from party members.

“That’s the leadership campaign. All of the leadership candidates are messaging strongly to influence the last few votes that they want to get. It’s all chatter. Don’t bet money on individual leader’s claims of imminent victory. A preferential ballot is the most unpredictable of all.”

As for the pundits who believe that Mr. Bernier is the most likely winner of the contest, he said: “With respect to my former colleagues who practise the craft, it’s all hypothetical. Some of it is driven by wishful thinking. Some of it is driven by mischievous reporting. Some of it is been driven by unrealistic claims by a political candidate or the other.”

According to first-quarter fundraising numbers of all leadership candidates released by Elections Canada recently, Mr. Bernier raised the most of all Conservative leadership candidates. He raised $1,031,312; Mr. O’Leary who is not in the race, now raised $1,029,568; Ms. Leitch $536,419; Mr. O’Toole $424,347; Mr. Scheer $403,014; Mr. Chong $283,978; Mr. Lemieux $237,694; Ms. Raitt 208,368; Mr. Trost $120,893; Mr. Saxton $94,114; Mr. Alexander $88,053; Mr. Peterson $61,743; Mr. Blaney $47,031; and Mr. Obhrai $13,372.

arana@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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