It’s amazing what can happen in the span of a week. This time last week, the occupation of Ottawa by anti-social and anti-public health individuals ended after three weeks. That was only to be followed a much more dangerous invasion, this time of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Over the past days we’ve seen the Ukrainian people come together to fight and try to repel the Russian invaders.
Along with that, we’ve seen dramatic moves made to support Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his people in their moment of dyer need, the kinds of moves we thought we’d never see in response to Russia’s aggression. We’ve seen German break a decade’s policy of not supplying arms to other nations. We’ve seen Sweden do the same, breaking with their longer-standing tradition of neutrality. Switzerland is also taking sides, joining in on massive economic sanctions against the Russian government, their leaders and their oligarchs. And the European Union will be providing the Ukrainians with jets, another first.
It’s been a clarifying moment for most of the democratic world, where the growing divisions of the past years have been put aside to deal with the greater evil before us all. Here at home that’s also been true, and is all the more striking when you consider what we just went through over the past month. Not only were we facing what we saw in Ottawa and elsewhere, the political response was just as split. While the Liberals, BQ and NDP were pushing for actions to end the occupation of Ottawa, the Conservatives mostly went the other way. Too many Conservative MPs decided to back the lawless group that was calling for the overthrow of our democracy. We saw people like Andrew Scheer calling Justin Trudeau the “biggest threat to democracy”, an absurd claim that echoed the same kind of crap we’ve heard from the far-right that has been taking over the Republicans in the United States.
All of it ended up being the last nail in the coffin of Erin O’Toole’s leadership, as he tried to be on both side of that situation (like he had with others). It was a period that made a terrible mark on the Conservatives and one that isn’t going away anytime soon. If you want to get a feel of that, look at what happened yesterday when Interim Conservative Leader Candice Bergen (who had dinner with and supported the occupiers of Ottawa), spoke at a protest in front of the Russian Embassy in Ottawa in support of Ukraine:
That moment speaks a lot to where the Conservatives find themselves right now and puts it in a nice nutshell. Honestly, there was nothing wrong with what Bergen and the Conservatives are suggesting in response to Russia. While I may not agree with all of it, you can easily argue that it is an adult contribution to the conversation and very productive. It’s the opposite of what we saw from the Conservatives over the last month and it’s something I think that many people would like to be able to credit them for. But many people just can’t bring themselves to do that (and rightfully so), because of how the Conservatives acted over the last month. In their pursuit of support from some on the far-right, they gave comfort and support to the mob calling for our democracy to be dismantled. That’s not something inconsequential, that’s very serious.
That’s the Conservative Party that the next leader of the party will inherit on Day 1 after they win. And what that party will look like in the days, weeks and months after that win will depend on what the winner wants to do with the party and what direction they want to take it in. So far, we only have one declared candidate, Pierre Poilievre, who also backed the occupiers. He did it in his shameless manner, and gave the clear impression that he wanted to embrace the direction they were pushing in, which is further right.
That’s leading many Conservatives of the more progressive persuasion to convince a big name from that side of the tent to run for leader. That big name is former Quebec Premier (and former federal PC Leader) Jean Charest. Charest has been circumspect with his plans, but the rumours persist. Last week we saw a group of Conservative MPs, former MPs and Senators from Ontario, Quebec and the East Coast publicly call for Charest to get in this race. Another big voice was added to that list yesterday, with a statement that set off a flurry of events that shows why this race is so important for the Conservatives and #cdnpoli as a whole:
Gérard Deltell is a big name to get behind Charest. He’s someone who I personally thought would have been a very interesting candidate in his own right if he had run. But his getting behind Charest, to try to get him off the fence, is quite important. You have to remember their own political history in Quebec, which wasn’t exactly friendly. When Charest was the Liberal Premier of the province, Deltell was the leader of the right wing third-party in the National Assembly, the ADQ. Deltell had a lot of “bon mots” for Charest in their time facing each other, so you’d think that might mean he’d never back Charest in a million years. Yet here he is, coming out trying to get Charest to run and openly backing him, despite their many years of heated rhetoric. That says a lot, but in response to this the Poilievre campaign had a fair bit of its own to say, which set off this fiery exchange:
Folks, that exchange right there tells you what you need to know about what this leadership campaign is all about. On one hand, you have someone whose been a stateman, actually lead government and has the track record (good and bad) that comes with actually having led a government. On the other, you have someone who is trying to turn the rhetorical knob to 20, less interested in the damage they do to win, just as long as they win. On one side, it’s about reaching out to more voters and on the other, it’s a clear case of “the ends justifying the means”, no matter what those means might entail.
Also, you can see the clear animosity between the sides here, which knowing some people of either side of this doesn’t shock me. Heck Poilievre’s supporters are reportedly trying to push for a quick end date of the race, a classic front-runner move to try to cut any potential opponent down at the knees. Not exactly a confident, “fair play” kind of move on their part, but again, “ends and means”. Some might say that it’s little wonder they’ve all been able to stay under the same political tent until now. But maybe the more important question is after seeing this kind of tension, right out in the open in the first weeks of this campaign, “how does the winner possibly keep this together?”. If you’re on the progressive side of the ledger, how do you stay around in a party that’s doubling down on an approach that leads to your interim leader getting strongly booed while doing the right thing for the first time in a month? If you’re on the other side, why would you stay in a party that’s lead by someone who you clearly feel isn’t a true Conservative? None other than Stephen Harper apparently feels that way, so why would you stay? Didn’t that same faction just shive Erin O’Toole for that apparent sin?
All this is to say that this series of exchanges grabbed a lot of attention and confirmed a fair bit of what a lot of us either knew or suspected deep down. There is no love lost amongst many members of these two factions that appear to be coming to the surface. We know how the post-Mulroney PCs came apart at the seams, under similar pressures along these very same fault lines. Many thought those cracks had been healed with concrete when the Mackay-Harper merger brought them all back under the same banner. But watching this play out, it’s looking more like it was paper mache painted grey that was holding it all together. We’ll see where this all leads but let’s not misunderstand what we’re seeing play out here; this is a battle for the very soul of the Conservative Party and what it will be in the future. That will matter, not just to Conservatives, but to the choices Canadians will have before them the next time they go to vote. And Canadians will judge the result through that lens.