by Chantal Hebert
For a measure of how bad Tuesday’s French-language Conservative leadership debate actually was, consider that Kevin O’Leary – the reality-show personality who has just joined the long list of contenders to succeed Stephen Harper – probably scored in absentia.
If O’Leary had produced an infomercial designed to make the Conservatives crave a more energetic contest, it would have looked like the Quebec City debate.
It was not just that the event showcased a majority of candidates whose French borders on unintelligible.
Most federal leadership campaigns have featured some contenders who were not fluently bilingual.
Think of Ken Dryden in the 2006 Liberal leadership race or Paul Dewar at the time of Jack Layton’s succession.
But the marquee candidates in those campaigns combined both the required language skills and the political gravitas one normally associates with serious aspirants to a national leadership position. And the format allowed for a debate of ideas.
By contrast, more than six months in, the Conservative campaign suffers from a deficit of tall poppies that is inversely proportional to a stifling surplus of candidates.
It will never be known how many of those who watched Tuesday’s debate from home managed to do so from start to finish. Some of the exchanges defeated the interpreters.
As for the live audience, suffice it to say that its mood grew more subdued with every segment of the tedious evening.
Some Quebec Conservatives left the debate shaking their heads at what they saw as the opposite of an embarrassment of riches.
Many worried that they could not see on the overcrowded stage a contender liable to stand up to Justin Trudeau in 2019.
More than a few were upset that so many long-shot candidates were getting in the way of any semblance of a serious discussion – to the detriment of the party.
Hopes for a stellar leadership lineup featuring some of Harper’s top cabinet lieutenants ran high at last spring’s national convention. The buzz in the corridors of the Vancouver Conservative gathering was all about who would run rather than about who was already in the running.
As it became clear that none of the party’s bilingual cabinet stars would enter the race, hope morphed into collective disappointment.
On the heels of a set of particularly lacklustre debates, that disappointment has been turning into outright alarm.
There are more Conservatives today – including in Quebec – who would trade a promise to become bilingual in time for the 2019 campaign for a bit of stardust in the leadership lineup than at any time since Harper resigned.
Beauce MP Maxime Bernier is credited with an early lead in his home province, but it is a fragile one. His promise to do away with supply management has spurred a backlash in many of the rural ridings where the system is considered a sacred cow.
It does not help that Bernier has, over the years, rubbed a fair number of his Quebec colleagues the wrong way.
Some of them are making it their mission to keep him out of the leader’s office.
And then, out of Quebec’s 78 seats, the Conservatives hold only 12. That leaves 66 orphan ridings – many of which have less than a hundred members.
On Tuesday, one of O’Leary’s organizers described his plan for a series of surgical strikes, focused on taking over many of those orphan ridings. In the Conservative leadership voting system, an association that has fewer than 10 members carries as much weight as one that boasts thousands of them.
To a man and a woman, Quebec’s Conservative MPs are adamant about the necessity for the next leader to connect with Quebecers in French, but their influence fades with every kilometre they travel in the direction of Montreal and its unattended pool of leadership votes.
O’Leary has a propensity to take liberties with the facts.
He is prone to outlandish statements – such as his notion that Senate seats should be sold for a profit – that reveal an abysmal ignorance of how Canada’s political institutions work.
His views on abortion, same-sex marriage and assisted suicide put him on a collision course with the social conservative wing of the party.
There are plenty of reasons why he may self-destruct between now and the May leadership vote.
But anyone who believes that language alone will doom his bid should probably think again.
Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services