The Conservative Party needs a new face, fresh ideas, and to stop rehashing old feuds, according to some of the lesser-known leadership candidates who say the frontrunners, former cabinet ministers Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, are operating by the old playbook.
Beyond Mr. MacKay, Mr. O’Toole (Durham, Ont.), and two-term Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu (Sarnia—Lambton, Ont.), five other declared candidates have struggled to get much air time in a race that was ramping up even before the federal election was officially over, with rumours of Mr. MacKay’s interest.
First-term Ontario MP Derek Sloan (Hastings—Lennox and Addington, Ont.), Alberta businessman and 2017 leadership candidate Rick Peterson, veteran staffer and Quebecer Rudy Husny, Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis, and Ontario’s Jim Karahalios round out the field of eight—for now.
All candidates face a looming March 25 deadline that lesser-known candidates say will be hard for them to hurdle. While they’ve all come up with the (refundable) $25,000 and 1,000 signatures required to enter by Feb. 27, in a few short days they’ll have to have 2,000 more signatures and another $275,000 to appear on the June 27 ballot.
Former senior Conservative adviser Garry Keller said he wouldn’t be surprised to see only three or four make it through, and that’s an “important lens” to apply to the current field of candidates. Some of the “also-rans” are likely in it to make a point or have an impact on the discussion, added veteran Conservative strategist Geoff Norquay, or in some cases cause a disturbance.
With difficult targets that not all are likely to meet, Mr. Peterson said it’s understandable media coverage would be so focused on the two front-runners. The contest has at times been described as a coronation-in-making for Mr. MacKay, a former leader of the old federal Progress Conservative party who has racked up the most MP endorsements to date. But Mr. O’Toole (Durham, Ont.), who like his opponent, held positions in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, has a strong campaign team and recently won the support of longtime organizer and CPC star Alberta Premier Jason Kenney.
The West’s only candidate, Mr. Peterson, who says he’s fluently bilingual, is running on a business-first platform, suggesting a “bold plan” to lower taxes, including zero per cent for corporations and a 15 per cent flat income tax rate. His brief policy page online has six bullet points, divided equally to focus on the economy and people, but he said that’s more than the other candidates are offering.
Like Mr. O’Toole, Mr. Peterson ran in the 2017 race, coming 12th out of 14 candidates with less than one per cent of the vote. He’s running again, he said, because feedback on his pro-business 2017 policy platform was “exceptionally strong.”
Many people who picked Maxime Bernier last time around had him as their second choice, he said, and now the field is no longer crowded with 14 candidates fighting for visibility. He’s bullish about his chances, despite the odds, and disagrees that he’s a long shot.
Party membership “has spoken” about his candidacy in “fairly recent history,” said Mr. Keller, who said that didn’t bode well for his chances and said it’s more likely Mr. Bernier’s supporters are headed for Mr. MacKay’s camp. Mr. Norquay, meanwhile, questioned why Mr. Peterson didn’t get a nomination for a riding in Alberta during the federal election.
When people say to him he’s a dark horse candidate, Mr. Peterson said he replies “I’m a workhorse,” and said the field this time around has changed with such a high threshold that favours “establishment candidates,” but he assured The Hill Times he would “absolutely” meet them with the help of about 50 cross-country volunteers.
Describing himself as an “outsider” without a “natural base of organizational support” of former politicians, nor of interest groups like the anti-abortion Campaign Life Coalition, which has been active in past leadership races, he said his appeal is among grass-root members and those in urban ridings who felt ignored by the party in the 2019 campaign.
The front runners are “talking about old issues: who’s a blue Tory, who’s a red Tory, who’s a social conservative? We’re not. We’re focusing on a future of what Canada’s going to be,” said Mr. Peterson in a phone call from Edmonton on March 6.
He said the next Conservative leader needs to be bilingual and resonate in Quebec and has to be” openly accepting of diversity” and all definitions of families. While Mr. Peterson said it shouldn’t be the “No. 1” issue in this race, supporting LGBTQ communities is one of his six policy points.
Longtime political staffer Mr. Husny is a “happy warrior,” according to both Conservative strategists, and Mr. Husny, the slate’s only Quebec candidate, said supporters appreciate his enthusiasm.
Running explicitly on a “positive vision,” Mr. Husny declined to comment on other candidates’ platforms and said others can judge during the party’s two planned debates in April.
He’s no stranger to uphill battles, having run—and lost—against then-NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair in Outremont, Que., in 2011 and 2015. Along with eight years working in the private sector, Mr. Husny has 12 years of work in politics under his belt—including as communications director to then-trade minister Ed Fast (Abbotsford, B.C.) and as issues management and stakeholder relations head in outgoing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s OLO—all of which he said make him a good fit for leader. His low-profile won’t stop him from meeting the threshold, which, in a March 6 interview, he said he was sure he would meet.
“You are not known until you become known. This is why we’re having a race. This is why I’m criss-crossing the country,” said Mr. Husny.
Calling for “generational change,” Mr. Husny said the party needs to throw out the “old playbook.”
“We need a positive conservative vision. I don’t believe the traditional playbooks of smaller government, lower taxes, tough on crime, is going to make us grow our base and win government. We need to give them [electors] more,” he said. “We need to break the ceiling and win the support of more Canadians.”
Mr. Keller said he sees Mr. Husny as the prime example of someone running for profile and for the next race. He also clearly wants to be “a voice challenging the status quo,” who is pushing for a suite of ideas to push the party forward, said Mr. Keller.
“He’s bright, he’s young, he will be an ideal candidate,” added Mr. Norquay. “He’s a happy warrior [and] he’ll bring policy content to the race.”
Cyber security and digital identity, including accessing government services, are some of the first policy areas Mr. Husny speaks about. While some of his opponents have suggested Canada’s commitment to the Paris climate targets should be revisited, Mr. Husny said the international agreement is important.
“We need to have that objective,” said Mr. Husny, and Canada needs to transition its economy while still championing energy.
Mr. MacKay has called the Paris targets “aspirational,” while Mr. Karahalios advocated pulling out completely, and Mr. Peterson said he wouldn’t commit to them, but that his plan would push down greenhouse gas emissions “as quickly as we can.”
Mr. Husny said he supports Quebec’s cap-and-trade system and a price on pollution, but not a carbon tax “directed by Ottawa,” preferring the provinces take the lead.
Though it’s early in the race, and all three social conservative candidates—Ms. Lewis, Mr. Sloan, and Mr. Karahalios—have support from the Campaign Life Coalition, both Mr. Keller and Mr. Norquay said it appears Ms. Lewis has a strong organization supporting her bid and there’s a good possibility that support might coalesce around her.
In her campaign website’s pitch, Ms. Lewis says Conservatives must be free to “speak clearly” about their beliefs, despite pervasive identity politics, which she said create division.
“Even our party is not immune, where people capitalize from potentially divisive labels,” wrote Ms. Lewis, who ran unsuccessfully as a late-entry Conservative candidate in Scarborough-Rouge Park, Ont., in 2015. “It’s time we had the courage to call this out and take steps to heal our divisions. And I believe it starts by knowing that it takes courage not only to hold your own opinion, but also to respect someone else’s right to hold theirs.
Ms. Lewis has also won the support of prominent Christian activist Charles McVety, president of the Institute for Canadian Values, who called her a “breath of fresh air.” She has the third-highest profile online of all the candidates, with 10,600 followers on Twitter, behind only Mr. MacKay (44,600) and Mr. O’Toole (39,200). After creating a Facebook account in January 2020, her 4,000-plus page likes puts her near Ms. Gladu’s 5,500.
An Ontario lawyer, Ms. Lewis holds a number of degrees, including a masters in environmental studies, an MBA with a concentration in business and environment, and a PhD in law. Contacted March 5 for comment, Ms. Lewis’ campaign did not respond until after the deadline and has granted few interviews since declaring her candidacy.
The party needs “fresh blood and fresh ideas,” said Mr. Sloan by email, adding the “tired, single-issue tax cut platforms” he sees coming from Mr. O’Toole’s and Mr. MacKay’s camps won’t win elections, especially in Ontario.
Invoking former Mr. Harper’s legacy, he said he’s the “only candidate” committed to the “big-tent vision” that brought three election wins.
“It is clear that the establishment candidates want to remove social conservatives,” said Mr. Sloan, who was not available for an interview by phone but answered questions by email. “I will run fair and open nominations, a real grassroots policy process, and campaign in all 338 ridings to build a new coalition for the new Canada of the 21st century.”
Mr. Sloan said his full platform, to be released over the next eight weeks, will offer a “holistic alternative” covering the economy, environment, housing, and social issues.
To start, he’s promised to repeal 2016’s Bill C-16, which amended the Canadian Human Rights Act and Criminal Code to protect “gender identity” and “gender expression.” To Mr. Sloan, it amounts to “compelled speech,” which he said “tramples on freedom of speech, parental rights and women’s sex-based rights.
He also promised to stop foreign abortion funding, calling it “an ideological colonization of Africa and other developing nations.”
Mr. Keller said it’s surprising and makes “zero sense” that entering a national race is one of the first moves a newly-elected MP chooses to make, given the workload and constituency responsibilities that come with the job, while Mr. Norquay said it appears Mr. Sloan is in it “to make a point.”
Early in the campaign, Mr. Sloan said he doesn’t know whether being LGBTQ is a choice, in response to then-leadership hopeful Richard Décarie’s remarks that it was. When Mr. Décarie was denied entry into the race, he threw his support behind Mr. Sloan.
First-term Conservative MP Eric Duncan (Stormont—Dundas—South Glengarry, Ont.), who is gay, tweeted that Mr. Sloan should be “embarrassed” rather than “honoured” by that support. Asked how he responds to his colleague, Mr. Sloan said the key to Conservative success is that both men are “equally” welcome in the party.
“Mr. Decarie advocates for all people including those in the gay community to be treated with the respect and dignity,” and the party must “permit free inquiry, freedom of speech and freedom to form opinions—even ones deemed ‘controversial.’ It’s a simple concept that seems to elude many in the media, pundit talking-heads, and the entirety of the other parties in the House of Commons.”
He and Mr. Karahalios both emailed supporters on March 9 to say they had met the second-stage race requirements—$150,000 and more than 2,000 signatures—which would give them access to the party list. They had not been approved by the party as of deadline on March 10. As of filing deadline, Mr. MacKay and Mr. O’Toole were the only verified candidates to have met all thresholds.
Branding both Mr. MacKay and Mr. O’Toole as “establishment red Tories,” Mr. Karahalios said by email that the party needs a “fighter” and a blue Tory like himself, who can “unite the conservative movement and lead a party of democratic integrity for grassroots members not for insiders and their lobbyists friends.”
Invoking past comments to reporters, he said his environmental plan is “to drill, drill, build pipelines across the country, and adapt.” He also said he’d make blockades of critical infrastructure designed to shut down the economy a crime under the Criminal Code, say no to Huawei’s entry into Canada’s 5G network, and “clean up politics and government by keeping the conservative and liberal establishment that are being run by lobbyists at bay.”
That last motivation is what Mr. Keller and Mr. Norquay hinted at in their doubts he would make it far. He’s well known in Ontario provincial political circles, less-so federally, noted Mr. Keller, and in most cases for disputes. Mr. Karahalios, whose wife is a sitting Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP, is currently suing the provincial party for allegations tied to the 2018 race for party president.
Mr. Norquay was less diplomatic, calling the anti-carbon tax activist “a gadfly”and a perennial critic of the Ontario PC Party establishment, whose involvement is more likely to create a disturbance and promote his “particular take on party democracy” than win him support.
Such characterizations are “fake news” and “slanderous,” said Mr. Karahalios, adding many who attack him are “hypocrites” who were eager to take Mr. Scheer down.
“They did not care whether this divided the party. Now they are continuing their attacks against me,” said Mr. Karahalios, to “distract” from the fact that they are threatened by his candidacy. “They are hypocrites in calling for unity when it suits them in an attempt to silence anyone who questions their policy positions or their track records.”
The Hill Times
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