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Conservative race dull, but new leader could capitalize—if they’re smart

By Warren Kinsella      

Maxime Bernier has been precisely the sort of candidate the Conservatives need to offset Justin Trudeau’s strengths, which means there is an excellent chance his party will reject him.

Conservative leadership candidate, from the left, Maxime Bernier, Andrew Scheer, Erin O'Toole, Lisa Raitt, and Michael Chong during a debate in November. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Drab, dull, flat, insipid, uninspiring, monotonous, prosaic, tedious, interminable.

The leadership race of the Conservative Party of Canada has been all these things, and so many more.  If you consult your nearest thesaurus for things that are synonymous with “boring,” like I did, you will find no shortage of words that fit. You might even see the shiny faces of the assembled 13 candidates smiling up at you.

Oh, sure, the U.S. resident Kevin O’Leary was an unmitigated clown show, and clown shows are usually pretty entertaining. And, yes, assorted nobodies and Kellie Leitch—She-wolf of the Clueless—raised the temperature, somewhat, with their braying and screeching about refugees and immigrants. But it isn’t ever hard to raise the temperature at, say, a cross-burning.

Apart from the O’Leary interregnum, and the unabashed channelling of Donald Trump, then, it’s been a pretty dreary affair. Joe Clark would have felt right at home.

And by this weekend, Joe Clark may be what they end up with.

Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer have been the Joe Whos of this race. Bland works, per the Muse of Bill Davis, and O’Toole and Scheer have been doing their utmost to be toast. As in, as exciting as. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t. Me, I feel a nap coming on.

Kellie Leitch, who ran the sort of winning campaign that would win bigly in rural Alabama—but not in urban, urbane Canada—has been, no joke, an utter disgrace. She has been the all-white face of a campaign that has brought out the very worst in Conservatives. And she has single-handedly undone all that Stephen Harper and Jason Kenney did for a decade, working to bring new Canadians into the conservative mainstream.

She should be ashamed of herself. Instead, she’ll likely keep making videos with the production values of a 14th-century woodcut. You make the zombies on The Walking Dead look like they’re doing the jitterbug, Kel.

Mad Max Bernier, meanwhile, has been precisely the sort of candidate the Conservatives need to offset Justin Trudeau’s strengths: he’s telegenic, he’s charismatic, he’s youthful, he’s unconventional, and he likes ideas. All of those things made him the frontrunner.

And, natch, all of which means there is an excellent chance his party will reject him. The Conservative multitudes, after all, rarely miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

Justin Trudeau, as he giddily photobombs high schoolers across the hinterland, must be therefore having a good laugh. Another victory lap in 2019, he must be thinking, is in the proverbial bag. “Gerry, notify the photographers! I’m going canoeing again, shirtless!”

But not so fast, Selfieman. You have vulnerabilities, too. And the Conservatives—led by a credible leader—could exploit same, if they’re smart. Which, on the available evidence, they aren’t.

Anyway. Trudeau’s vulnerabilities, in no particular order:

• Indigenous peoples: As the father of Trudeau’s minister of justice said—and, as a respected chief, he would certainly know—the much-trumpeted Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Inquiry has become “a bloody farce,” quote unquote. Worse than that: it has become an actual scandal, spending millions to achieve precisely nothing. If the Tories had any strategic sense, they’d be demanding ministerial resignations over this mess. But they haven’t, and they won’t.

• Economy: Finance Minister Bill Morneau, rookie he may be, has evolved into a very capable communicator, and a steady hand on the fiscal ship of state. Notwithstanding that, conservative political options—including even conservative bottom-feeders like Donald Trump—are always seen by voters as better on the economy. So, will the CPC get back to hammering away on ballooning deficits and fiscal uncertainty? Not on your life. They’ll keep yammering about the hijab, like they did during the 2015 campaign. And they’ll get the same result.

• Trump: Trudeau and his most senior staff rolled the dice on Agent Orange, hugely. By playing nice with the Unpresident—by refusing to utter a single word that was critical of the racist, sexist, addled Groper-in-Chief—Trudeau et al. reckoned they could avoid his Sauron-like gaze. They were wrong. Softwood lumber; NAFTA; repeatedly calling Canadians names (eg., “a disgrace” and “unfair,” and “a disaster”): all of those things weren’t supposed to happen, because the prime minister pretended to be interested in Ivanka Trump’s handbag designs. So, do you think the Conservatives could be bothered to chip away at any of this? Not on your life. They like Donald Trump.

• Promises, promises: I’m a Jean Chrétien guy. We did okay, and we lived our lives according to two immutable principles: one, don’t try and get in the papers all the time.  Voters don’t like it.  And, two, under-promise and over-deliver. The Trudeau guys have done neither, and it has left them vulnerable. A smart political opponent would exploit that. The Conservatives haven’t.

• Rookie mistakes: There are newbies aplenty in Trudeau’s caucus and cabinet, and many of them are pretty impressive (cf. Jane Philpott, Jody Wilson-Raybould, the aforementioned Morneau). But others were perhaps elevated to lofty heights too soon (cf. Maryam Monsef, Hunter Tootoo, Harjit Sajjan). At this point in Brian Mulroney’s first majority, we Liberals had hastened the resignations of André Bissonette, Jean Charest, Robert Coates, John Fraser, Roch LaSalle, Marcel Masse, and Sinclair Stevens. Have the 100-strong Conservative MPs taken out one (1) cabinet minister? Nope.

The Conservatives, however, will have a new leader by the time you’re back at work on Monday.

Feeling sleepy yet?


Warren Kinsella is a former Jean Chrétien-era Liberal cabinet staffer. 

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