National Column: Ex-Harper minister first to run for Tory leadership

by Tim Harper

Former cabinet minister Kellie Leitch has become the first official candidate to replace Stephen Harper as Conservative leader, sounding the starting gun on a race that will stretch over 13 months.

Leitch will present her papers, with the required 300-plus signatures over 30 ridings in seven provinces, to the party this week and another former Conservative minister, Maxime Bernier, is also poised to make his run official, sources say.

Leitch and Bernier may be running from the back of the pack, but both have decided to get in the race early so they are in a position to raise the funds needed to mount credible campaigns.

Other candidates who could officially jump into the race before next month’s national convention in Vancouver include two former ministers from Ontario, Tony Clement and Michael Chong.

Lisa Raitt, another former minister from Ontario, is said to be mulling a run, but the race will not take shape until decisions are made by Alberta’s Jason Kenney and Nova Scotia’s Peter MacKay – and neither has the need to make an early plunge into a marathon race.

Leitch, 45, was born in Manitoba and spent part of her childhood in Alberta. She is an orthopedic surgeon with deep roots in the party at the provincial level, dating back to her university days.

She may have a long climb into the first tier of the Conservative race, but she can draw on a well of support from networks established by her late friend and mentor, Jim Flaherty, and all the way back to the days of former Ontario premier Mike Harris.

It was Leitch who tried to save Flaherty’s life as he succumbed to a heart attack in his ByWard Market condo two years ago this weekend, and it was Leitch who led the tributes to the former finance minister in the House of Commons.

She laid the groundwork for her leadership bid during the last campaign when she stumped for 70 Conservative candidates, and Saturday she drew a crowd estimated at 150-200 at a downtown Toronto pub where she signalled her intention to run.

This move allows Leitch to formally establish an exploratory committee, to be co-chaired by Toronto lawyer Sander Grieve and Montreal party activist Dany Renauld. Her chief fundraiser will be Andy Pringle, chair of the Toronto Police Services Board and long-time friend to Mayor John Tory.

She won election in Simcoe-Grey in 2011, easily dispatching Helena Guergis, the former MP who ran afoul of Harper and was forced to run as an independent after being booted from caucus.

Leitch served as minister of labour and status of women for Harper, but she hauls baggage from her cabinet days into this race.

As status of women minister, she had to defend Harper’s refusal to convene an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women, a position that has been repudiated by Rona Ambrose, the interim leader of the Conservatives.

Then during the 2015 campaign, Leitch stood alongside the ultimately defeated immigration minister, Chris Alexander, and unveiled what became known as the Conservative “snitch line,” seen as perhaps the low point of a failed Harper campaign. The duo pledged a tip line to report “barbaric cultural practices” to the RCMP and said it would establish an integrated RCMP task force to step up enforcement of the “Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act” passed by the Harper government shortly before the 2015 election.

The RCMP, it was later revealed, had not been informed of either initiative. She also said the Liberal decision to withdraw CF-18s from the anti-Daesh coalition made Canada look like “cowards” in the international community.

Leitch is also said by associates to be working hard to improve her French, which is right now not at the level one would need to lead a national party.

The party has put a $5-million limit on leadership spending, but no money can be raised or spent until one is registered as a candidate.

The party will limit voting to those who have been members in good standing for six months before the May, 2017, leadership vote. It also raised the membership fee to $25.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column usually appears Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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