National Column: Leitch screening plan stands out

by Paul Wells

In fairness to Kellie Leitch – no wait, come back – it would have been surprising if no candidate for the Conservative Party of Canada leadership had run on identity politics.

Leitch, of course, is the physician and Conservative MP who has been vaulted from obscurity into a sort of pallid, sickly limelight for suggesting it would be a swell idea to “screen” potential immigrants “for anti-Canadian views that include intolerance towards other religions, cultures and sexual orientations, violent and/or misogynist behaviour and/or a lack of acceptance of our Canadian tradition of personal and
economic freedoms.”

There are enough examples around the world of politicians who have sought to profit from fear of outsiders that I was actually wondering, before Leitch made her move, why that particular tactical position seemed destined to lay unoccupied in the Conservative race.

From Marine Le Pen in France to the anti-immigrant UKIP party in Britain, to Donald Trump in the U.S., there are plenty of examples. Trump, in particular, will have plenty of imitators in years to come. Surely, demagogues and race-baiters around the world are telling themselves, I could push the same buttons Trump pushes and come across as less of a bellowing orange-faced country-club mutant. Win-win!

Candidates who stake out such positions usually find there is a low ceiling to their support. Even running as a far less ulcerous and stale-dated candidate than her father, French National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen seems unlikely to beat any serious opponent in the second round of the French presidential election. But, crucially, such candidates can often rely on a high floor for their support, too.

There are a lot of scared people out there who are pretty sure newcomers are the problem. They have shown they will vote for the candidate who tells them they’re right.

And in the Conservative leadership race, a high floor will soon come in handy.

It’s getting crowded. Five candidates have paid their deposit, including Maxime Bernier and Tony Clement.

Others are likely to get in – Andrew Scheer, the former Speaker of the Commons, is said to be the latest to commit. Lisa Raitt and Peter MacKay could well run. Running isn’t cheap – a total of $100,000 in entry deposits and a $5-million campaign spending limit – but despite that, there could be eight or more candidates.

How do you distinguish yourself in that mob?

Until last month, Leitch was running on “economic freedom,” defined essentially as low taxes. But that position will be fiercely defended by Mad Max Bernier, who wants to shut down all subsidies, shrink the federal state to the size of a dinner muffin and privatize the sidewalks. You can’t get to his right on economic issues.

What’s left? Urbane super-moderate? That’s Mike Chong. Regional power base? MacKay. Sympathy vote? Clement. Even Calgary MP Deepak Obhrai – who has entered the race essentially to warn against the snitch-line policies Leitch championed in last year’s election, before recanting and then coming back around for a second try – will reduce the room for anyone else who might want to run as the candidate of a post-Jason-Kenney openness to immigrants.

All those candidates leave suspicion about newcomers as one of the few bits of undefended territory on the Conservative leadership board. It is hard to believe Leitch went there out of anything resembling conviction, but there she is.

But enough about Leitch’s calculations. Conservatives must make their own. They will do well to avoid two traps.

The first is what is emerging as the chronic 21st-century reflex of U.S. Republicans: Pick a party standard-bearer who is desperately exciting to party activists and unacceptable to the broader electorate. Sarah Palin, Donald Trump.

The second is Ernie Eves-ism: The urge to so thoroughly moderate your message that you end up saying nothing. In the federal Liberals, that impulse led to Michael Ignatieff. In the NDP, to Tom Mulcair.

Party members feel best when they follow leaders who they know, for sure, share their convictions. And Conservatives may need to follow their next leader for quite a while, perhaps through more than one election before victory. So, they need somebody recognizably conservative, relatively young and patiently optimistic. In the current field of certain or probable candidates, the two who most closely fit those requirements are Andrew Scheer, the former Speaker, and Erin O’Toole, the former minister of veterans’ affairs.

Paul Wells is a national affairs writer. His column appears Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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