Those are the choices facing the Conservative Party of Canada as it heads into the dress rehearsal later this month for its 2017 convention to choose a new leader.
Make no mistake about it, the party’s conclave in Vancouver later this month is much more than a policy convention. It is a reality check for a party that suffered a crushing defeat last October. The ‘ostrich faction’ still has its head buried in the sand, led by defeated cabinet ministers like Joe Oliver and delusional MPs like Candice Bergen.
Oliver’s take is that he was a wonderful finance minister, Harper was a dynamic prime minister, and the Tory decade was ten years of solid governance. What a strange way to describe a near decade in office that included seven budget deficits, 150 billion added to the national debt, ruinous wars, domestic wedge politics, zero pipeline development, backward motion on the Indigenous Peoples’ file, and scandal after scandal.
By extolling the Harper record, Oliver seems to be knotting the CPC’s own noose: suggesting to the Canadian people that they voted for the wrong party last fall — never a very advisable position in the wake of a world-class drubbing. Oliver simply drank his own bath-water and then sucked dry the face cloth.
Hopefully Oliver saw the tweet commenting on the party’s choice of Vancouver as its convention venue: “What happened? Was Alcatraz all booked up?”
Opposing the ostrich Conservatives are the green-shoot Tories, unofficially led by the man who will be meeting the press on Monday in Ottawa to announce his leadership candidacy — Michael Chong. Chong is the only member of the former Harper government who not only doesn’t have disqualifying baggage from his time in office, but who actually stepped out of cabinet with his honour and integrity in tact.
Chong resigned from cabinet rather than submit to the arbitrary will of the Harper regime in the matter of granting nation status to Quebec. It was heroic stuff.
Chong had to ask himself that weekend, could he rationalize support for nation status for Quebec. He concluded it was so fundamentally wrong he had to quit. His wife supported him, noting that if he didn’t resign a piece of him would die.
Harper, you see, never even bothered to put the measure up for discussion in cabinet. Chong knew a dictator when he saw one – even if he didn’t come out and say it and even if he believed that all parties are too leader-centric. What he did do was walk away from perks on a matter of principle, which is more than any other any Harper cabinet minister had the anatomical equipment to do.
While others were capitulating to Harper’s one-man assault on parliament’s democratic traditions with the help of bobble-heads like Pierre Poilievre, Chong was pushing his Reform Act through the House of Commons and Senate to renew parliamentary democracy. His claim that his measures were not aimed at Stephen Harper was a mere formality of party diplomacy.
The whole thrust of the Reform Act was to make the executive more accountable to caucus and no one was less accountable to anyone than Harper. Harper was the one who flicked people out of caucus at will, interfered in the selection of local candidates, orchestrated vendettas against his enemies using the ever-expanding powers of the PMO, silenced his own MPs, and passed anti-democratic omnibus legislation one bill after another. In a word, he treated his own caucus and Parliament like the household staff at Downton Abbey.
Even though Chong, like Justin Trudeau, voted for Harper’s infamous national security legislation, he didn’t write his boss a blank check for Bill C-51. Echoing Trudeau, Chong made clear that amendments to the legislation were required, including parliamentary oversight of CSIS. Chong believed that the Security Intelligence Review Committee (SIRC) wasn’t up to the job because its chair and all its members were appointed by the prime minister.
Harper, of course, appointed Arthur Porter as the watchdog of the spy service. Porter died a fugitive from Canadian justice in Panama. Other than to blame others for vetting Porter, namely, the PCO, Harper has never explained why he personally chose such a man to head up SIRC and have access to the country’s biggest secrets.
The CPC, like the Republican Party on which it patterned itself during Harper’s tenure, is in need of a new message, a new messenger, and a new tone. The green shoot Tories know that the Harper CPC got zero of the seven per cent of new voters who went to the ballot box in 2015 compared to 2011. Almost all of those new voters supported Justin Trudeau and the Liberals. The green shoots also know that the only thing the ostriches can accomplish is to more or less hold the base that gave the party 99 seats in the last election — a recipe for perpetual opposition.
That is precisely why old Harper hands are flat-lining in recent polls like the one done by Mainstreet Technologies for Postmedia Network. As reported by Anthony Furey, the star of the poll was someone who is not even running for the job – Interim CPC leader Rona Ambrose, who finished ahead of that tin-plated Donald Trump, Kevin O’Leary, and the honorary F-35 pilot/salesman Peter MacKay.
Remember when Mr. Curry-in-a Hurry, Jason Kenney, was widely seen as Harper’s heir apparent? Kenney, like Tony Clement, and Lisa Raitt, barely makes the radar screen of the Conservatives who were polled. As for Kellie Leitch, she is proving as inspirational as Chris Alexander on a particularly sycophantic day.
While it is true that Michael Chong, at three percent in that same poll, isn’t exactly burning up the track, what he has on offer is exactly what the CPC needs to make a comeback — a political resurrection, I might add, not likely to happen for the next decade.
Chong is young enough at 44 to see the job through. He remains dedicated to making more room in the Conservative tent, continuing to champion democratic reform, and making the environment what Preston Manning calls a “sword” rather than “shield” issue for his party. He has both a relevant platform and the personal integrity to build his support. And he is also from Ontario, which withdrew much of its support from the CPC in the last election, and needs wooing.
Vancouver will tell the country whether the CPC will pat itself on the back for a decade of power that ended in electoral disaster, or point its nose to the future and a more relevant form of conservatism than the sullied brand Harper tried to work off on Canadians last October.
Wisely or unwisely, the party plans to pay tribute to the defeated PM at their policy convention and give him one last platform to address the party. It will be interesting to see how much, if any responsibility, Harper takes for his government’s demise. It will also be interesting to see what kind of send off Harper will be given by the party he controlled with an iron fist almost long enough to destroy it.
No doubt some will be sending knee-mail heavenward in the hope Steve will not break into song.
Author: Michael Harris