What You Need to Know – Getting Ready for the House to Return

The newest episode of “What You Need to Know” is now up. In this episode Alyson Fair, Geoff Turner, Neil Brodie and I talk about the latest twists and turns from this week in the Conservative Leadership Race. We also go into the return of the House of Commons next week, what we could expect to see from the parties and how life will be in this minority Parliament. You can download and subscribe to “What You Need to Know” everywhere you can get your finest podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Spotify. You can also listen below. Enjoy!

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What in Hades is Going On Here?

Well it seems that this week you can’t go a few hours without some big news coming out of the Conservative Leadership race, and tonight seems to be no different. Tonight we got one big, blockbuster piece of news that has a lot of tongues in Ottawa wagging and asking questions, and another tidbit that raises a question or two of it’s own. First up though is the latest news of the next person to back out of the race, and it’s one that most didn’t see coming:

Folks, I can’t hide my shock and surprise that this turn of events. Poilievre has been making the rounds since he let it be known that he would be going after the leadership. To know him is to know that this is a moment that he has been building towards for his entire political career of over 15 years. This was going to be his shot, and having big names like Jenni Byrne and John Baird on his team, he clearly had a lot of clout and heft behind his team. He had what a lot of other campaigns would have killed for, which was the apparent blessing of Stephen Harper. And with Jean Charest and Rona Ambrose out, he had a chance to be the standard bearer for the West, while having enough French to pull off a win. He was in the cat birds seat, and that was in spite of his drawbacks.

Yet tonight he got out, walked away from this chance almost before it even started. He stated family reasons for his decision, and I like to try to take those words at face value when I see them from whoever puts them out there, and I’m not going to say he is lying tonight. But I would be lying myself if I didn’t admit a piece of me doesn’t suspect there is more to this than that. This had gone too far down the road and he had assembled too much for the importance of family to have been an afterthought. And maybe the first few weeks of this campaign showed him this would be different this time, that’s totally possible. But yeah, I can’t shake this feeling that something else happened here. It just doesn’t add up and while I have no information or scuttlebutt to point to, it just feels like something is amiss here. I suspect we’ll hear more as time goes along but regardless I wish Pierre and his family the best.

The other tidbit that came out tonight in the shadows of the bombshell Poilievre news was something caught by Alexandre Quon of Global News. He found something that gave us more background on another candidate who we thought would take the plunge, but backed out instead. And yeah, it raises questions of it’s own:

For a whole hour there was a video up on YouTube of Jean Charest, a video in which he announced that he was in fact going to run for the Conservative leadership. Then poof, it disappeared. Given the confusion in the media earlier in the week when Mr. Charest made his ultimate decision to stay out, it makes you wonder about the whole backstory here and what exactly drove Charest to say “no”. Sorry but you don’t go to all the trouble of shooting and producing a video to announce your candidacy if you’re not sure about doing it. So something happened here that kept Charest out, something is off here too.

When you put these two stories together, it raises a bunch of questions but I’ve got a big one that keeps coming to mind: What in Hades is going on here in this race? All the big name candidates keep dropping out, suddenly and swiftly, leaving lots of open questions. This is starting to look more like the plot of a bad B-movie murder mystery than a political campaign. It’s like you got all these people in a room and suddenly they start to drop, one by one… One killed with a lead pipe, the other with an axe, a third choking on the salmon mouse. Everyone wondering who’s guilty, and everyone who seems like the most likely suspect turns up dead next, only to find out it was some innocuous bell body named Dexter who all of them had wronged in someway all through out there lives. I know that’s a silly comparison but at this point it seems a lot like someone is lurking behind the scenes to push this in a certain direction, maybe even a former Prime Minister. Sure that would explain Charest but how does it explain Poilievre? Maybe the murder mystery comparison is more apt than we’d like to think.

Regardless of what is happening in the shadows of this race, one thing is becoming clear for those who were hoping that this race would bring about some renewal within the Conservative Party. In fact, it doesn’t look very good on that front at all. It might just be me, but something seems seriously wrong with a leadership race that manages to chase away potential strong candidates like Jean Charest, Rona Ambrose, Pierre Poilievre & Gerard Deltell within a week but makes someone like Richard Décarie apparently feel right at home and in it for the long haul. This can’t possibly be a good thing for their hopes of bringing the party into the 21st century, right?

Yet as this week winds down and the House gets ready to come back on Monday, that’s exactly where we sit. It’s looking more and more like a Peter MacKay coronation, which surely doesn’t fix the Conservatives issues and will make Liberal and NDP strategies grin from ear to ear for months to come. Plus, in the past 40 years, leadership races that have turned into coronations, guided by people in the backroom who decided they knew best, haven’t turned out for the best for their parties. If you want to find out how well those go, just ask John Turner and Michael Ignatieff how their coronations turned out. Unless the Conservatives make a drastic turn of course here in the next couple of weeks, this race that they hoped would bring them into the future risks turning into a gong show that will remind Canadians of everything they don’t like about this party has it stands today, and show them that they aren’t willing to change. That can’t be good for the Blue Team and will surely lead to lots of smiling faces in the PMO.

A Day in the Life Under the Big Blue Circus Tent

Well folks we’re getting further along in the beginning stages of the Conservative Leadership race and I think we can politely say that it’s not necessarily going to plan so far. Or at least that’s what yesterday seemed to drive home. Before yesterday we heard that maybe the biggest outside the box name to consider running, Jean Charest, was in fact out. Then early yesterday we heard that the social conservatives had their candidate in little known former Harper staffer Richard Décarie.

If that was all that happened yesterday, it probably wouldn’t have been so bad. But as the day went along, things got progressively worse for those who had hoped that this race would not only address the issues that the Conservatives face but also get them closer to government again sometime sooner than later. You may think that I’m exaggerating, but take a gander at these things that happened yesterday:

A-freaking-mazing folks! Where to begin with those four developments? First off, Rona Ambrose not running is a big punch to the gut for the Conservatives. After her stint as Interim Leader before Andrew Scheer became leader, she had become much more well regarded and some even lamented that she didn’t run to become leader last time. But she made it clear yesterday that she’s out and not coming back, meaning that not only did maybe the best possibly challenger to Justin Trudeau is taking a pass, it also means that there isn’t a big-name female candidate in the race. Other than Marilyn Gladu, who isn’t that well known yet outside of Ottawa, all the other candidates are men. That’s not a great look for the Conservatives, who do have women in their ranks who would make good leaders. But they’ve decided to pass on this, which says a fair bit about the current circumstance of the party.

Adding to that impression is the fact that two other people decided they would get in this race, or as Don Martin smartly put it yesterday, “nobodies”, which are now taking over this race. MP Derek Sloan has decided to take the plunge and if you have no idea who he is don’t worry, you’re far from being alone in that. He’s a rookie MP who can count the number of days he’s sat in the chamber of the House of Commons with his two hands and still have fingers left over. Yeah, he’s that green, and as you can see he’s running on a message of “stopping being afraid to be Conservative”. Funny, I didn’t think that fear of being a Conservative was a problem for this group but hey, he’s been around long enough to find at least one of the washrooms in West Block, so he obviously knows best, right?

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not opposed to people with very light Parliamentary experience running for leader; heck, I helped to run Romeo Saganash’s NDP leadership campaign when he ran and had a bit more than a month of time in the House of Commons. But in his case, his CV was long and impressive; he had been Deputy Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Cree in Quebec, he had been a negotiator for his people for 20 years, he spent 30 or so years representing his people at the United Nations and oh yeah, he helped to draft the bloody UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Romeo had a strong resume before he got elected, which was a sales point and more than enough to stand on. But what does Sloan point to in his pre-elected life that makes him eligible to be the next Leader of the Official Opposition? He points to the fact that he has been “actively involved in the Conservative Party both as a student at Queen’s University and in the local riding.” Yeah, sorry Derek, that’s extremely thin gruel for trying to make the case that you should be in this race. Add to that the fact that he doesn’t speak French, you can see that he’s just simply not a serious candidate.

And speaking of that, the other name that we heard is getting into this race again is Rick Peterson. If you remember him, he did this last time and finished 12th out of 14 candidates. To be clear, he got 0.7% of the vote last time. And what’s his case for jumping in? He’s from Alberta and there doesn’t seem to be anyone else from the region who will get in. Look, he may be right on that front but I still think that’s not enough. Add to the fact that he got so roundly rejected last time, you’d think that he’d be best to simply stay out of this race. But nope, he’s in and he’s going to do it. He has no shot of winning from what I see so you really have to wonder what he hopes to get out of becoming a second-time loser in a leadership race.

And finally if you wanted to pile more crap on top of a crap day for the Blue Team, you had Richard Décarie making comments to CTV’s Evan Solomon that were straight out of the bigoted past, but right in line with the social conservative lane he’s trying to fill. He said that he’d undo gay marriage, he said that being gay “is a choice” and he said he’d defund all abortion services because “it’s not healthcare”. Yep, in one short interview, Décarie trotted out every single social conservative attack that other parties have put at the feet of Conservatives, brought them back to vivid life and made them a part of this debate. He did that to the point that every other major declared candidate in this race came out and tried to put Décarie into his place, telling him that he’s just wrong and pointed out that being a bigot is a choice.

But here is the kicker folks that I couldn’t help but take away from that episode last night; yes all of those candidates went out of their way to go after Décarie’s comments but you know that eventually some of them will be courting either Décarie’s supporters to get them over the top or even Décarie himself. I say this because we saw this happen in 2017, which is how Brad Trost became the kingmaker in that race and you saw both Scheer and Bernier’s teams staking out ground to try to attract his supporters on later ballots. We also saw the same thing in 2018 in Ontario when Tanya Granic Allen was the kingmaker, putting Doug Ford over the top.

Right now this race is lining up to repeat that same dynamic for the third straight time and I found it interesting that none of the candidates who repudiated Décarie’s comments said that social conservatives who hold those views are not welcomed in their party. If anything, we saw it start to go in the other direction as Pierre Poilievre softened his language on stopping anti-abortion bills from his backbenchers, saying he would allow them to be brought forward even if he says he’d stop them. That is exactly what Stephen Harper and Andrew Scheer did, and I thought that Conservatives were saying it was exactly that kind of approach that was a problem here.

When you put all of that together from just yesterday, it was a very bad day for Conservatives who thought that maybe their party was ready to evolve and join the 21st century. All these events pointed to a doubling-down on the status quo for that party and despite the fact that the Blue Team has admitted to the problem they have with the Canadian electorate, it looks like they’ve decided to ignore it and go on as usual. Really the happiest people yesterday had to be the folks in the Prime Ministers Office because the Conservative Leadership race seems to be going exactly as Mr. Trudeau and team would have hoped. This race is off to a bad start for the Blue Team and it doesn’t seem to be likely to get better for them anytime soon.

The So-Con Kingmaker?

With yesterdays news about Jean Charest’s decision to take a pass on the Conservative Party leadership, we got an answer to a big, outstanding question in the race to replace Andrew Scheer. When Scheer was pushed out the door, many of those leading the push called for their party to take a more progressive turn on social matters, stating that Scheer’s approach (which was the Harper approach before) simply wasn’t acceptable anymore. So when you heard those rumblings, you would have naturally expected that a candidate would come forward in such a race to represent that concern.

Many pointed to Charest as that potential candidate and really to date, no one else has stepped forward to take that position. And it should be noted that taking that lane in this race was not going to be easy; in fact, it probably would have been easier to become Prime Minister that way than it would be to actually win the Conservative leadership race first. One big part of that approach would involve signing up lots of new members, something that Charest made pretty clear the contest rules made very hard to do. So he’s out, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone who will get in who will try to take that route to victory.

So if no one is left to take that more progressive, old school Red Tory lane to try to win, that means that the race will likely revert to a race about their existing base, not growing it. That also means that the dynamics of what it will take to win this race aren’t likely to be very different from the last Conservative leadership that ended up with Andrew Scheer squeaking out a tight win, put over the top by the influence of social conservative members that backed Brad Trost, who finished fourth. We saw the same thing in the Ontario Conservative leadership race that elected Doug Ford, with the help of social conservative activist Tanya Granic Allen, who finished stronger than most expected.

Under this dynamic, the social conservative vote may not elect their first choice as leader, but they surely play the role of kingmaker. They end up making a big difference in who wins and then exert an inordinate amount of power and clout within the party itself and the direction it takes. But so far there hasn’t been a hard, pure social conservative candidate to jump into this race. That seems to have changed and it’s a development to be noted for a few good reasons:

Everyone meet Richard Décarie, former deputy chief of staff to Stephen Harper from 2003 to 2005, Hill staffer and Quebec organizer for the Conservatives. His name had been rumoured about a bit for a while, but many (myself included) didn’t give it much thought because there didn’t seem to be enough there. But when you consider that no one in the current Conservative caucus who would fit that social conservative mold hasn’t taken the plunge or doesn’t seem to be ready to do what Trost did last time, it felt likely that someone would get into this and try to carry that banner.

Décarie seems to be the one to try to do that, and what’s notable is that he doesn’t seems to be heading down this road alone. Joining his team is Russ Kuykendall, who will manage his campaign. Kuykendall managed Tanya Granic Allen’s 2018 Ontario PC leadership campaign and was deputy campaign manager for Brad Trost’s campaign too. Also getting on board is Mike Patton, who ran communications for Trost’s team in in 2017 and will be doing the same this time as well. But many the most important addition of all to Décarie’s team is none other than Brad Trost himself; he will be campaign chair, meaning he’ll be likely to take the lead on their fundraising efforts.

For an outsider candidate like Décarie, having not only the blessing but involvement of the person whose efforts you’re trying to replicate is big. It also shows that maybe social conservatives will be coalescing around this campaign, like they did last time with Trost. Will it bring the same results? It’s hard to say but I would argue there is no reason to believe it won’t. With a smaller field in this race and the debate going on about the future direction of the Conservatives, I would say there is even more reason to see that level of activation by social conservatives than the did last time.

This group is saying that the Conservatives didn’t lose because the social conservative issues were a “stinking albatross” around their neck, as front runner Peter MacKay put it. Oh no, no, no. Their view is that Scheer lost because “he didn’t defend social conservative values”, that Scheer was too “middle of the road” and that someone faithfully fighting against LGBT rights and a woman’s right to choose would have won. When you look at that on it’s face, that seriously flies in the face of reality and Canadian political history of the past 30 years at least. If that was the case, Décarie would have spent time as deputy chief of staff to a Prime Minister in 2003, not an opposition leader, but of course it wasn’t.

But folks, that’s the battle for the soul and future of the Conservative Party that was going to come anyway, the only question was who was going to represent the so-cons in that fight. It looks like the answer will be Décarie and he will come in with two advantages; a solid base of support that may not grow much but won’t go away and the fact that he is a francophone and fluently bilingual. While his social conservative views will hold him back and stop him from winning, the fact that he will speak the best French in the whole group will ensure that it’s harder to push him to the margins like the Trost’s and Granic Allen’s of the world. That likely won’t be enough to make him the next Conservative leader, but he could very easily repeat the feats accomplished by both of those other past candidates. If recent history has taught us anything, Richard Décarie could very easily become the kingmaker in this race and if that history does in fact repeat itself, it will be one of the worst outcomes possible for the Conservative Party and their future if they are truly serious about tackling the problems that ail them.

Charest Out

With the return of the House of Commons from the holiday break coming next week and MPs ready to flood back into Ottawa, life around here will return to a more normal pace. Overlaid onto the normal events in Ottawa will be the Conservative Leadership Race, the scuttlebutt around it and what it will all mean for the future of this Parliament and of course, the next election.

We’ve been waiting for certain shoes to drop to see what the field might look like and who would stand a good chance at not only becoming the next leader, but maybe even someday the next Prime Minister. Given the field so far, the odds of becoming PM have been much longer, but one name floating around out there had the potential to be in a very different position: Jean Charest. Well this afternoon that shoe dropped and well, it was quite a drop indeed:

After the false start from La Presse, who had reported minutes before that Charest would get into the race, Charest himself burst that bubble in an interview with Patrice Roy of Radio-Canada. In the interview Charest lays out a few reasons for his decision to stay out, with a couple of them being very revelatory. The first reason was a more practical one for sure; according to Charest, the rules of the race “were not written for a candidate coming from the outside”. He pointed out that under those rules, it would be nearly impossible for a candidate like him to mount a proper campaign and be competitive in this race. That reason should be very sobering for Conservatives who were hoping that this leadership race would be a chance at renewal and growth for the future. If someone like Jean Charest, who’s as connected and able a politician that Canada has had for the past thirty or so years, if he can’t make it work, no one can. If the rules are written so that a well-known candidate couldn’t sign up the new members, bring in the new blood to the party, to make it work, that’s a bad sign not just for this race but for what comes out of this race for the Conservatives and that’s something they may come to regret down the road.

The second big reason that Charest laid out though is one that should be equally concerning to Conservatives looking to bring their party into the present, but not one that’s shocking to most observers. Charest bluntly pointed out that since he left the party, it had changed a lot and that when it came to certain key issues and principles of importance to him, his views had not. He went onto say that’s not to say that the Conservatives couldn’t change their views and that this leadership race could offer that opportunity, but it was said in such a way that you could tell he wasn’t very hopeful of that. When you read between the lines you can tell what those “issues” are. They’re the same social conservative views that sunk Andrew Scheer and will threaten to sink the next Conservative leader if don’t change the paradigm.

This is big news and really changes the course of this race, but not for the better of the Conservatives if you ask me. Charest was the only potential candidate who had the potential to change the Conservative paradigm and make it more palatable to progressive centrist voters. Charest was the only potential candidate with the heft to give Justin Trudeau a run for his money as well, and there’s no one from the current crop or other rumoured potential candidates who can bring that. What worse is that, as Charest pointed to, the rules of this race will make it near impossible for such a candidate to come into this race and be competitive by bringing in new members.

Simply put, whoever wins this race will still be heavily dependent on the current Conservative coalition of members and supporters, which has a very strong and good sized social conservative contingent. The only chance to break free of that group and their influence would be to bring in lots of new members to swamp their influence, which Charest probably could have done with better rules. I would argue it’s what Charest would have to do in order to win, or at least would be his best chance. By making the comments he made about the rules, it’s pretty clear that Charest believes that isn’t a viable path to victory.

In the end what I find so striking about this is that the Conservatives pushed Andrew Scheer overboard because there was a recognition that the party had a serious problem with the voting public when it came to LGBT rights and a woman’s right to choose. We saw all the commentary from conservative voices talking about how the Scheer approach (which was basically the Harper approach) wasn’t good enough for 2019 and that the party needed to evolve. And what we see so far are candidates who are basically the equivalent of doubling down on the exact same approach as Harper, with a few better-chosen words. Call me crazy if you like but that doesn’t seem it would be good enough or even close to it.

While Jean Charest brought a lot of potential baggage with him that could have caused a lot of problems down the road, he was still the best chance the Conservatives had to break out of the box they find themselves in. Instead they’ve decided to reinforce the walls of that box, making sure that they’re safe and sound in it. They may feel good about that state today, but something tells me that after the next election and another loss, they won’t have the same warm, fuzzy feelings towards that box they call home.