National Column: Uninspiring field in Tory leadership race

by Chantal Hebert

With Peter MacKay and Jason Kenney on the sidelines of the Conservative leadership battle, a critical number of votes are up for grabs in the campaign to find a successor for Stephen Harper.

When the party gathered for a national convention last spring, most of the delegates were not ready to commit to then-declared candidates Maxime Bernier, Kellie Leitch or Michael Chong. Many were convinced more compelling aspirants were still to come.

The addition of Tony Clement, Deepak Obhrai and Brad Trost to the list of official candidates has fundamentally altered the wait-and-see dynamics in evidence at the convention.

If anything, with the two former ministers who were widely considered as de facto front-runners to succeed Harper last spring not on the ballot, the search for alternatives has resumed with a vengeance.

As the dust settles on MacKay’s announcement, here are some early observations as to its impact – and a note of caution.

Looking at the declared candidates and the inevitable numbers game a leadership campaign ultimately comes down to, MacKay’s decision probably most benefits Bernier.

The former Tory leader was Bernier’s main and possibly only serious competition in Quebec – a province that may not account for a lot of Conservative members but one that comes second only to Ontario in terms of its weight in the leadership ballot box.

None of the other declared candidates has anything approaching a profile in Quebec.

For all that, Bernier’s Quebec colleagues have not rushed to line up behind him. The Beauce MP is more popular outside his province’s caucus than inside it, as are his libertarian prescriptions.

And few federal parties would contemplate having two Quebec leaders in a row. On that basis, a caucus rising star such as former provincial leader GÈrard Deltell, who is not running this time but might want to do so in the future would not necessarily be inclined to support Bernier.

Still, it is one thing to not want to support a fellow Quebecer and another to come up with a viable alternative. In Quebec, as elsewhere, there is much searching outside the official stable for a horse to back.

That quest even has some Conservatives – in particular but not exclusively among fans of former transport minister Lisa Raitt – arguing the case for a leader who is not up to the task of campaigning efficiently in French.

Good luck with that.

Canada has not had a prime minister who was not fluently bilingual since 1968. Over that period, every attempt by an opposition party to sell Canadians on the superior merits of a unilingual leader has ended in defeat. Most of today’s voters have never lived under a federal government led by a prime minister who could not address them efficiently in French and English. There are no brownie points to be had for knowing the difference between bonjour and bonsoir.

The last party to try to turn back the clock to a non-bilingual prime minister was the Reform under Preston Manning. By the time Manning set out to rebrand the party as the Canadian Alliance in the late 1990s, his inability to address voters in both official languages was costing votes not only in Quebec but also in other parts of Canada.

At the time of Manning’s campaign for the Alliance leadership, I followed his tour in some bedrock Reform communities of southeastern Ontario.

The people who came out to his events genuinely liked the Reform party founder. Many had supported the nascent party since its inception. They were more than happy to welcome Manning in their homes.

I was the only francophone in sight. In more than a few places, party members would wait until Manning’s car had pulled out of the driveway to ask me if his French was up to debating Jean Chretien in an election debate.

For all his efforts, Manning never became fluent enough to pull off a debate. In the end, that was part of the reason why he lost the Canadian Alliance leadership to the more bilingual Stockwell Day.

If Manning could not convince some diehard Reform activists to overlook his language shortcomings 16 years ago, no 2016 Conservative hopeful should expect to attract support for a party led by a less than fluently bilingual leader from enough voters to bring it back to power.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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