by Tim Harper

We are still 15 months from the introduction of a new Conservative leader in this country, but amidst many sober, sage calls for a party to open up new policy avenues and find a way to speak to voters who do not hear them, the lure of the bright shiny object beckons.

Kevin O’Leary is that bright shiny object. His appearance on the Friday afternoon of the Manning Centre conference of conservatives was a counterpoint to most of the strategizing by party activists grappling with their future.

For every call to engage on the environment, for every discussion that marked the need for Conservatives to reach urban women or young voters, for every call to rewrite the Conservative story for Canadians, there was someone in the hall talking about the TV star and businessman and his preening mix of showmanship and bombast.

Former Reform leader Preston Manning, the patriarch of the centre that bears his name, presided over the first of these conferences with the party in opposition in a decade. He reminded delegates Conservatives are now also opposition in eight of 10 provinces and are in a minority among big city mayors.

He told his flock they have to regain the trust of electors because without that trust voters will not believe anything Conservatives say on values, issues or policies. Manning gave the floor to five prospective leadership candidates, four former ministers and The Kevin, but it was the machinations of three who did not speak here which have become a party preoccupation.

Brad Wall is running for re-election as Saskatchewan premier. Peter MacKay is practicing law in Toronto.

Jason Kenney was here, but did not grab the podium. It is possible that all three will sit this one out (but keep an eye on MacKay) and if they do, this race becomes wide open.

Ontario MP Michael Chong told delegates the Conservatives must tell their story of perseverance and hard work, the story of his immigrant parents. He also called for a debate on carbon pricing and conservation of the environment.

Tony Clement said the conservative movement must protect its basic tenets but expand its sphere to include environmental policies, poverty reduction, security without endangering privacy and ending subsidies to the CBC. Conservatives have to first win the attention of city dwellers, millennials and new arrivals before they can try to gain their votes, he says.

Lisa Raitt reminded delegates that Trudeau’s father nearly frittered away a majority four years after his 1968 sweep and her party can win in 2019. “Justin is no Pierre,” she said.

Maxime Bernier said Conservatives should outlaw all government subsidies to business, including Bombardier, and he mocked O’Leary’s lack of French.

All bring strengths to the table. None are celebrities and O’Leary played his celebrity card to the hilt.

But he’s no Canadian Donald Trump, and he knows that. Like Trump’s ambivalent political leanings, it is not even certain O’Leary is a Conservative.

He is given to bombast, yes, but even when he called Alberta Premier Rachel Notley “an incompetent” he felt compelled to apologize in the next breath for being so harsh.

He says he told Bill Morneau he was going to be his worst nightmare, but there are no reports the federal finance minister has lost any sleep.

He has few views – at least that he is prepared to share – beyond economic issues, the waste of carbon pricing, the scourge of deficit financing, the plight of young Canadians who graduate from our universities and head south to work, turning their back on “dollar-ettes” and high taxes.

A few hours after Manning warned delegates that regional tensions are being needlessly inflamed by the Trudeau government – listening to Bombardier in Quebec but ignoring unemployed oil workers in Alberta – O’Leary strode on stage and said pipelines should be decided by referendums in this country, 50 per cent plus one will do just fine.

He didn’t say what he thought it might do to unity if western voters tried to push an unpopular pipeline through Quebec or why voters in Toronto should pronounce on a pipeline headed through Burnaby or how a referendum would override First Nations concerns.

He is playing to anger that is not there. There isn’t the bottled up hostility that Trump has uncorked south of the border. There wasn’t even any anger in the room here when he spoke.

And that’s a good thing for a Conservative party that appears set to make a leadership decision based not on anger or shiny objects, but as part of a fundamental rethink of where it is going.

tharper@thestar.ca

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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