Of Right and Left; Outsiders and Insiders; Elites and Populists; Progressives and Conservatives

Michael Ras, Senior Vice President at Counsel and 2021 Federal Conservative candidate (Mississauga-Lakeshore), shares his early insights on the Conservative leadership race.

The Conservative Party in Canada has always been a study in contrasts and contradictions. The party is a broad coalition of Canadians with strongly held convictions on a range of issues – made up of individuals who are not always willing to compromise to accommodate other views.

The leadership race that will carry on over the next six months will bring all those fractures and fissures into sharp focus, defining what is shaping up to be a bruising race.

What’s at stake

Before I comment on the characters (and caricatures) in the race, let’s consider what’s at stake. The prize at the end of the race is nothing short of the Prime Minister’s chair – or at least an even shot at it. Every government has a life cycle that ends when the populace gets tired of the face leading it. After six years of Liberal government, polls are trending such that many – especially in the Conservative Party – believe that by the time of the next election, sometime within the next one to three years, Canadians will be tired of Justin Trudeau and ready for change.

So, this race could have real consequences for the country – what happens over the next seven months could define the next decade of Canadian politics and governance. The choice is setting up to be one where contrasting styles and approaches are on full display. According to one school of thought, Canadians will be looking for an outsider and someone who stands in stark contrast to Mr. Trudeau in both style and substance. The other school of thought is that most Canadians just want steady leadership where government and politics is not in their face every day. They want silence and competence; not drama and stridency.

John Ivison, columnist in the National Post, tweeted recently: “It feels like Canada is splintering into two tribes – the intolerant, authoritarian woke lunatics on the left and the spittle-flecked, hateful lunatics on the far-right. Where are the voices of compassion and common-sense? The silent majority needs to speak up.”

In response, James Moore, a former Cabinet Minister in Stephen Harper’s government wrote: “The vast silent majority are busy being moms and dads, building businesses, shovelling their driveways, paying taxes, volunteering as coaches, working etc. They will roar against these two other groups in the next election. This is not the Canada they love or want.”

I tend to agree with Mr. Moore, but that question is going to be decided in the general election – not the leadership race. To get to the point where a Conservative leader and their party gets the right to campaign in front of the 38 million Canadians (or, more precisely, the 27 million eligible voters) in a general election, they have to win the hearts, minds, and votes of the 250,000+ members who put down their $15 for the right to cast a ballot in the leadership. And those 250,000+ members are motivated by a wide range of issues – only one of which is whether their choice can win an election.

Pierre Poilievre – the frontrunner

The leading contender in the race so far is Pierre Poilievre. Mr. Poilievre is the perceived front-runner as the first out of the gate, having a strong organization behind him. He has long been considered the most effective MP in the Conservative caucus because of his mastery of media, especially social media video, and an ability to distill complex policy into digestible one-liners. His rhetoric, especially when he’s in attack-mode, is almost rhyming poetry – featuring phrases like: “carbon tax cover-up,” “JustinFlation” and “trust fund twins.”

If the medium is the message, then Pierre Poilievre is a master of both. His message resonates both with Conservative activists and those who may not otherwise be motivated to join a party. He is counting on many of the latter to sign up for the party, probably for the first time in their lives, and cast a ballot in this leadership. His coalition will be different than any in Canadian conservative history: younger, blue collar, more urban, and definitely right-of-centre.

Poilievre is confident his unabashed, hard-edged, contrasting conservative messaging will (a) motivate more conservatives who may have stayed home in the last few elections to vote and (b) still find resonance with enough voters in the middle who are, for whatever reason, dissatisfied with Trudeau.

Poilievre’s core message and platform will be centred on the theme of “freedom.”  Expect to hear more about economic freedom and the removal of “gatekeepers” from the economy; bodily and medical autonomy, and specifically opposition to vaccine mandates and public health measures; and religious freedoms. If elected leader, he promises a comprehensive policy platform built around the simple-to-understand theme of freedom, and a retooling and modernization of the entire party.

Jean Charest – the challenger

Poilievre’s main challenger is Jean Charest, a former Quebec Premier, former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and former Minister in the Brian Mulroney government. Notwithstanding his own record of achievement and 25-year history in elected office, he is running as somewhat of an outsider to the race. In the early days, he will be battling the perception that the Conservative Party of Canada has left him behind.

To counter this, I expect Mr. Charest will run to the right of his own record – at least on economic issues. He will make the case that Canada needs a steady hand and experienced leadership because Canada is divided – just as it was in the 1990s at the peak of Quebec separatist sentiment – and that he can be a unifying leader to heal Canada’s divisions. He will make the case that appeasing the “spittle-flecked, hateful lunatics of the far-right” (as Ivison puts it) will simply give pause to the swing voters in the middle, the “silent majority” who are “busy being moms and dads, building businesses, shovelling their driveways, paying taxes” (as Moore describes). In other words, he’ll make the case that he’s enough of a conservative for Conservative voters to feel comfortable, but also has enough appeal to swing voters in the middle – enough for a victory. Whether there is a large enough constituency in the Conservative Party for this message remains to be seen.

Just a few weeks ago, I would have despaired that this positioning couldn’t win the leadership – after all, it was the position Erin O’Toole was trying to take and he was unceremoniously dumped from the job. However, the war in Ukraine may have changed the field. With more people now worrying about global events, “steady experience” in contrast to combative conservativism may find more traction in the party. We have six months to find out.

Patrick Brown – the organizer

Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown will run as an “outsider,” which is ironic given he has served over half his life in elected office. He was elected for the first time to Barrie City Council at the age of 22 and has been in elected office almost continuously since then (he is now 43), including three terms as an MP in Harper’s government. His “outsider” cred comes from his ousting as leader of the Ontario PC party by the party elites; a leadership he won by running as an anti-establishment candidate and out-organizing the field with hard work. Mr. Brown’s campaign will feature a strategy to bring marginalized groups – particularly visible minority communities – into the party mainstream. He will make the case that the path to victory is to break the Liberal stranglehold on these voter blocs. His campaign will emphasize opposition to Quebec’s Bill 21 on religious symbolism and will lean into his ability to sign up new members to the party. To win, Brown needs to basically double the party membership – a tall task, but don’t discount his ability to do this. He has proven that he is a formidable organizer.

Leslyn Lewis – the social conservative spoiler

Leslyn Lewis is really the only candidate in this race who can legitimately claim the outsider mantle. She came from obscurity to a strong finish in the 2020 leadership race, and was elected to the House of Commons for the first time in 2021. Being a visible-minority woman in a contest of white men is also a contrast she will benefit from – providing diversity that the Conservative Party of Canada desperately needs to feature. Her path to victory is limited, however, by her positioning as an unabashed social conservative. This will give her a sizable constituency in the party, but will also limit her growth given that a large swath of the party believes these views to be a barrier to the CPC’s ability to win the general election.

I’ll be watching for three things out of the Lewis campaign. First, her ability to speak to and get traction on issues outside the social conservative sphere. Can she get into the conversation on international affairs or minority rights in Quebec, for example? Second, I’ll be watching how the other campaigns approach her. In a ranked ballot contest, everyone will want to be the second choice of Lewis’ supporters. Will other campaigns come out with policies that speak to those social conservative voters?  Third, I’ll be watching Lewis’ ground game. In the 2020 leadership, her campaign surprised many with its strength. She won a majority of Saskatchewan votes on the first ballot and nearly swept the west on second choice ballots, despite no obvious ties to western Canada. She also did very well in the GTA and Southwestern Ontario, particularly among highly motivated religious communities. If her ground-game can expand that reach, she stands a chance of surprising or at the very least swinging the balance of votes to the eventual winner. Regardless of the outcome, Ms. Lewis will be a force in this race and in the Conservative Party for years to come.

Leona Alleslev – hoping to catch lightning in a bottle

Leona Alleslev is a former miliary officer, then a Liberal MP who became disappointed with Mr. Trudeau and crossed the floor to the Conservatives in 2018. She will bring some interest to the race as a female from the GTA with an interesting backstory, but her lack of history and organization-base in the party will be limiting.

Scott Aitchison – the nice guy dark horse

Scott Aitchison is a two-term MP and former mayor of Huntsville, Ontario. He spent his first term as MP taking intensive French lessons and building solid relationships in the Conservative caucus (everyone really likes him!). However, he lacks the profile, at this point in the race at least, to be considered in the top tier. Mr. Aitchison’s likeability and demeanour could make him the second choice for a lot of conservatives, though. Don’t ignore this candidacy. He’ll surprise some people.

Roman Baber – the single-issue COVID candidate

Roman Baber is a one-term MPP from Ontario who was booted out of Doug Ford’s caucus for being stridently against COVID restrictions. Though he claims to be fully vaxxed himself, his campaign is playing exclusively to the anti-mandate crowd and will be limited to this constituency. To his benefit, that constituency is fairly evenly distributed across the country, giving him potential votes and points everywhere. His second-choice votes could become very important in determining the outcome of the race. Poilievre, Brown and Lewis have all made statements on mandatory vaccines and masking policy that will get them support from the Baber constituency down the ballot.

The one-member-one-vote (sort of) ranked ballot system:

Finally, don’t discount the importance of the weighted ranked ballot in determining the outcome. Under the Conservative party rules, each riding is given 100 points or one point per vote, whichever is less. If a riding has 1,000 members, each vote only counts for 0.1 points. If a riding has just 100 members, each vote counts for 1 point. This means campaigns should focus on ridings with fewer members. Selling 50 memberships in a riding where 5,000 are already signed up has minimal impact, whereas selling 50 in a weak riding with only 75 members means you can dominate on election day. There are a lot of low-membership ridings in Quebec and parts of Ontario that will be getting considerable attention in the coming months – a potential advantage for Charest because of his strength in Quebec.

To vote in this race, new members must be signed up by June 3rd and there will be no “bulk sales” of memberships, meaning that candidates cannot capture names and membership money in bulk and submit it to the CPC on the deadline. This is a significant disadvantage to Patrick Brown, who would have counted on his ability to sign up hundreds of members at a time at events, especially in the GTA. Instead, the candidates and their teams will likely be using armies of volunteers equipped with smart phones and tablets to sign up people at events on the spot – which is efficient for the party, but still more cumbersome than paper forms on clip-boards. Candidates, such as Poilievre, who have a strong showing on social media will have an advantage if they can turn social media views into clicks for memberships.

The date for membership cut-off is also significant for two reasons:  It is early, shortening the time available to candidates to motivate new members, and it is just one day after the Ontario provincial election on June 2nd. Presumably, many Ontario political activists will be otherwise pre-occupied with the provincial election until just a day before membership sales cut-off. How this might impact membership sales in Ontario remains to be seen, but it will surely have some kind of repercussion.

The long period of time between membership cut-off and the final vote also sets up a dynamic where candidates have enough time to persuade members to consider switching their vote, or at least to consider them on down-ballot rankings. The dog days of summer will be busy for the leadership candidates as they make their best pitches to the 250,000+ Canadians who are expected to sign a CPC membership card.

That brings me to September 10th and voting day. In all 338 electoral districts, members will be given a ballot and asked to rank their choices and mail it back before September 10th. This ranked ballot gives a great deal of importance to second, third and even fourth choices. Unlike in delegated conventions of the past, where horse-trading and campaigning between ballots could take place, the rankings happen at the beginning when all the ballots are cast. This changes the dynamic of the campaign, as organizers behind the scenes will be trying to convince supporters of other candidates to rank their candidates down the ballot. This can produce some strange and unpredictable results. Andrew Scheer was elected in the 13th round in 2017, though he was in second place from the beginning before pulling ahead on the final ballot. Andrew Wilkinson came from 3rd place on the first ballot to winning on the 5th ballot in the BC Liberal Leadership in 2017. Strange things can happen.

On September 10th – six months from now – all of the ballots will be counted and a new leader will be elected. Then the real fun begins as preparations for a general election get underway. Buckle in for an interesting and bumpy ride.

In future blog posts, I’ll comment on policy platforms, ground-game organization and how the race is shaping up.

Headshot of MIchael Ras against a white brick background
Michael Ras
Senior Vice President, Counsel Public Affairs
Michael Ras is a veteran of many leadership campaigns. He was a Conservative candidate in the 2021 Federal election in Mississauga-Lakeshore and is leaning toward an endorsement for one of the candidates in this leadership race, but won’t say which one just yet.