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Conservative leadership convention projects ‘united’ front, but some attendees admit to nervousness, uncertainty in the ranks

By Abbas Rana, Laura Ryckewaert, Chelsea Nash      

'What’s really going to be interesting is whoever wins is not going to be the overwhelming first choice of the party, because no one is going to win 50 plus one [per cent support] on the first ballot,' predicts Conservative strategist and vice-chairman of Summa Strategies, Tim Powers.

Conservative MP Maxime Bernier is considered by many to be the frontrunner in the Conservative Party leadership race, which will come to an end on Saturday evening in Toronto. This is the first leadership contest since former prime minister Stephen Harper took the helm in 2004. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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TORONTO CONGRESS CENTRE—Members of the Conservative Party attending the leadership convention in Toronto say they are feeling “upbeat,” “excited,” and “nervous” as the outcome of this two-day gathering will set the future direction of the party, and play a large role in determining if the party will be able to unseat Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the next general election.

“It’s always nervous before a leadership race,” said Doug Ford, former Toronto city councillor and brother of the late Rob Ford, former mayor of Toronto.

“I love the excitement. I love the action and look toward seeing what each candidate presents,” he said. “It’s going to be great.”

Mr. Ford said he had “no horse in the race” and was still undecided as to who he would vote for. He added that Conservatives would have to focus on the message of fiscal responsibility if they want to win the next election.

“You can’t have a strong country without a strong fiscal balance sheet,” said Mr. Ford, who lives in the riding of Etobicoke North, where the leadership convention is taking place. As for his own future political plans, Mr. Ford said he would either run in the 2018 Ontario provincial election as a Progressive Conservative candidate, or for the mayor of Toronto.

Thomas Dixon, a Canadian Forces veteran who now is supporting Conservative MP Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.) in the leadership race, said that until last month, he supported businessman Kevin O’Leary. But, after Mr. O’Leary dropped out of the contest, he has decided to throw his support behind Mr. O’Toole.

With his April 26 announcement to exit the leadership race, Mr. O’Leary aligned with his previous competitor, Conservative MP Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.), and urged thousands of his supporters to do the same. But, Mr. Dixon said that he decided to support Mr. O’Toole because “I have my own mind.”

Mr. Dixon said that he has already cast his vote and Mr. O’Toole, former Ontario MP Pierre Lemieux, and Conservative MP Andrew Scheer (Regina — Qu’Appelle, Sask.) are his top three choices in the ranked ballot system. He said he voted for 10 candidates in total.

A crowded race

Roughly 2,000 Conservative Party members packed into the north hall of the Toronto Congress Centre on May 26 for the first day of the party’s leadership event. This weekend, the party will elect its permanent leader to replace former prime minister Stephen Harper—and the race is guaranteed to be exciting, with 13 candidates jostling for a win.

But while Mr. Harper enjoyed a majority endorsement on the first ballot back in 2004, that’s unlikely to happen this time around.

The 13 candidates running for 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, Erin O’Toole, Steven Blaney (Bellechasse-Les Etchemins-Lévis, Que.), and Brad Trost (Saskatoon-University, Sask.).

The three former MPs include Pierre Lemieux, Chris Alexander, and Andrew Saxton. The one businessman in the contest is Rick Peterson.

To elect the next party leader, about 260,000 paid Conservative Party members are eligible to vote for the 13 leadership candidates. 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 winner of the contest will be announced on the evening of Saturday, May 27. This is the party’s first leadership convention since 2004 when Stephen Harper won. He stepped down as leader after the Oct. 2015 election, in which the Liberals defeated the Conservatives with a landslide majority government.

While it’s hard to compete with the distinctly festive atmosphere exuded by the hundreds of anime enthusiasts gathered for the Anime North convention in a neighbouring hall at the Centre, the party has put on a good show—literally, with candidates’ final speeches preceded by a violinist and saxophone player, and a dance troupe performing to a Katy Perry tune.

By 5 p.m. on the first day, registration was well underway, and arriving delegates were greeted by the smell of a fully-stocked dinner buffet. Ahead of the candidate speeches, delegates mingled in the entrance hall, nibbling off small plates, many with drinks in-hand. As delegates were fed and watered, the candidates themselves, along with their campaign staff and volunteers, mingled and shook hands.

It’s being styled as a leadership ‘event,’ rather than a convention. The majority of delegates have already cast their ballots, and those who haven’t will get their chance on Saturday. Many candidates entered the hall flanked by cheering supporters pumping signs.

Most of the delegates are just at the event to “see the end of this journey,” said Conservative strategist Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies. “Maybe people can influence things with a  good speech and a few more votes, but … it’s kind of like Christmas Eve for your candidate; is your present going to arrive or not?”

Mr. Powers said he gets the sense that most delegates in the hall are feeling “uncertain,” with the outcome still unclear and very little left for the candidates to do to influence the results.

“What’s really going to be interesting is whoever wins is not going to be the overwhelming first choice of the party, because no one is going to win 50 plus one [per cent support] on the first ballot,” he predicted.

While former leader Mr. Harper won in 2004 on the first ballot in a small race, whoever becomes the next party leader “is going to have to demonstrate a different skill set in bringing people together,” said Mr. Powers.

“What’s going to be key is the new leader’s first words. Do they address how they came about victory, and do they put olive branches out through their language to say, ‘look I want to work with all of you.’?” Mr. Powers mused during an interview with The Hill Times.

Though he said he didn’t think there was an “overwhelming voice” that can be pointed to as someone who “is going to be fantastic,” he said he doesn’t think it would be good for the party were a “one-issue candidate” to win.

“I don’t think Kellie Leitch’s agenda is one that the party should run … I don’t think Conservatives win by limiting peoples views, as opposed to expanding on them,” he said.

Many current and former parliamentarians were also spotted amongst the crowd, including Conservative Senator David Tkachuk; former MP Wladyslaw Lizon; Conservative MP Dean Allison (Niagara West, Ont.); Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski (Moose Jaw — Lake Centre — Lanigan, Ont.); former Conservative MP Robert Goguen; former MP Leona Aglukkaq; Conservative MP Denis Lebel (Lac-Saint-Jean, Que.); former MP Ted Opitz; Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.), and more.

While Mr. Harper wasn’t in attendance, his son Ben Harper was spotted. As were plenty of Ontario Progressive Conservatives.

The main event of the evening of May 26 were candidate speeches from all 13 remaining contenders, followed later in the night by hospitality suite parties hosted by most of the candidates, many out of their designated campaign rooms in the convention hall.

A moment of silence to honour the victims of the recent attack in Manchester, England was held before the 13 candidates took the stage to make their final pitches to attendees. Dan Nowlan, chair of the leadership election organizing committee, welcomed delegates and emphasized that the leadership race was all about “renewal and re-energization” of the party.

Conservative House Leader and Manitoba MP Candice Bergen and Caroline Mulroney Lapham, daughter of former Progressive Conservative MP Brian Mulroney, then took the stage to welcome delegates—with Ms. Mulroney Lapham getting a cheer from a number of delegates after Ms. Bergen’s ‘joking’ suggestion that she enter politics.

Plenty of jibes were directed at Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—a rough cardboard cutout of whom was posted near the main entrance, which was also packed with various swag tables for candidates and organizations.

Speaking of the Liberals, a few senior party officials are attending the convention. In the media room, they were handing out tongue-in-cheek swag bags, and focused their attacks mostly on Mr. Bernier.

Kevin Bosch and Braeden Caley, manager of caucus research and director of communications, respectively, told The Hill Times that today marked the ninth anniversary of Mr. Bernier being forced to leave cabinet.

Mr. Bernier, who was Foreign Affairs minister at the time, stirred-up a controversy in 2008 when he left confidential documents at his then-girlfriend’s house.

On Friday evening, Maxime Hupé, Mr. Bernier’s director of communications, was handing out a full-page sheet of background information about Mr. Bernier’s current girlfriend, Catherine Letarte, to media. It was accompanied by a photo. When asked why, he said it was because the media wanted to know about her.

Party unity an important theme among MPs

Conservative MP Tony Clement (Parry Sound-Muskoka, Ont.), who said he is supporting Maxime Bernier, told The Hill Times that in recent days, he’s been keeping a close eye on emails and messaging that other campaigns are sending out to the party membership.

Already, he said he’s noticed a shift in tone.

“Psychologically, we have turned a corner already, even before the results are being announced,” he said, adding that his perception after “examining” emails and other communications is that candidates are pivoting from divisive messages to a tone of unity.

“The membership knows, if they want to know, they know where each candidate stands,” he said. Exchanging attacks between candidates would not “be held in high regard” by the membership “at this late juncture.”

He added, “it would be perceived as trying to keep the party disunited when the mindset is, okay, we’ve cast our ballots, we’re going to have a new leader, let’s be unified and ready for the larger task, which is of course taking on Justin Trudeau.”

Mr. Clement said to expect a shift from messaging targeting the party membership to the broader Canadian electorate starting with the new leader’s first speech on Saturday night. Many of the speeches by candidates on Friday night already had themes of party unity. Ms. Raitt, for instance, said she would commit her support to whoever the next party leader might be.

Conservative MP Pat Kelly (Calgary Rocky Ridge, Alta.), who has endorsed Erin O’Toole, said after the new leader is picked, and the convention is over, bringing the party together will happen “really, really quickly.”

He added: “We’re not driven apart as it is …That’s a story that I think a lot of people are just waiting to be able to write – that the [party] is fractured or has come apart after a divisive leadership contest and that just hasn’t happened.”

Conservative MP Ben Lobb (Huron-Bruce, Ont.) said the “most uniting factor” for the party is Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.). On Monday morning, when caucus is reunited in Ottawa under a new leader, “that’s where everybody comes together, [and] gets working,” he said

Both Mr. Lobb and Mr. Kelly said they didn’t think there would be any candidate that would be divisive for the party if they were to win.

Mr. Clement admitted he did “have some thoughts about that,” although he said he’s keeping them to himself “in the interest of party unity.”

He added he is “quite confident” that his chosen candidate, Mr. Bernier, will win.

While MPs might be confident in party unity after this weekend, it’s obvious that within the convention centre, there’s tension between members.

One woman, a supporter of former Immigration minister Chris Alexander, voiced her displeasure when Mr. Bernier cut the registration line. She was so irritated, she went and confronted Mr. Bernier and his girlfriend Catherine Letarte. The pair, who were surrounded by media cameras, quickly apologized and moved on.

news@hilltimes.com

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