National Column: O’Leary kingmaker gambit a gamble

by Chantal Hebert

With the Conservative crown slipping from his grasp, Kevin O’Leary settled on becoming kingmaker earlier this week. But will the decision to throw his support to Maxime Bernier do the trick? On that, the evidence is mixed.

There is not a Canadian political junkie who does not remember the high drama that attended StÈphane Dion’s upset Liberal leadership victory in 2006. Over the course of four ballots he climbed from fourth to first place. Had former Ontario minister Gerard Kennedy not dropped out after the second ballot and thrown his support to Dion, that would not have happened.

As Liberals lined up to vote for the third time that afternoon, the two former rivals stood shoulder to shoulder to shake hands with the delegates. Kennedy’s supporters overwhelmingly followed his lead and that sealed the outcome of the convention.

Under a similar scenario, Bernier would win early and easily next month.

But the Kennedy/Dion alliance was struck on the floor of a convention, a venue where peer pressure is exacerbated by political passions. The delegates who took part in that Liberal vote were for the most part party activists who had history with the leadership contenders. Many Kennedy supporters were looking for a winning alternative to Bob Rae and Michael Ignatieff, the two front-runners.

The context of a mail-in ballot could not be more different. Casting a vote to determine Stephen Harper’s successor is an isolated act, more often than not performed in the privacy of one’s home.

One needs a horde for the herding instinct to kick in. Or at least that is what the experience of the Canadian Alliance’s 2000 leadership contest suggests.

That year, Reform party founder Preston Manning faced two challengers: then-Alberta treasurer Stockwell Day and Ontario backroom strategist Tom Long. There was no convention floor action as the winner was elected under a one-member-one-vote formula.

Long came third on the first ballot and immediately threw his support to Manning.

The two of them spent the week between the two ballots working hard to reverse the pro-Day tide. But when the votes were counted, Long turned out to have mostly been speaking for himself. Almost to a man and a woman, those of his followers who voted on the second ballot switched their allegiance to Day.

That is not to say that Bernier should not be thankful for O’Leary’s move. The latter’s support was often strongest in areas where the Beauce MP is weakest. On that score, urban Ontario comes to mind.

But most of O’Leary’s supporters expected him to be one of the last two candidates left standing next month.

Many did not give their second or third choices a lot of thought. They still have the potential to throw this race wide open.

On his way to embrace Bernier, O’Leary flirted with the notion of supporting Andrew Scheer. The former House of Commons speaker has been trying hard to cast himself as the candidate most likely to beat Bernier. O’Leary’s flirt shored up that message.

If an anybody-but-Bernier movement is to coalesce behind any of his rivals, it is more likely to happen from the ground up than as the result of an orchestrated strategy.

For all of the talk of deal making in the final weeks of this campaign, it is far from certain that any of the candidates has the capacity to steer supporters scattered across the country to a given rival.

For instance, while most Quebec MPs do not support Bernier and indeed often oppose him strenuously, internal polls suggest that he – as a native son candidate – still has the best chances of picking up more support from his province as other contenders are dropped from the vote count.

It is on the basis of Bernier’s edge in Quebec that O’Leary is contending that he is best placed to beat Justin Trudeau in 2019. That is not necessarily borne out by polls. Both O’Leary’s contention and the contrary polling data should be taken with a big grain of salt or, preferably, dismissed altogether.

There were no polls that showed Harper beating Paul Martin, let alone winning seats in Quebec at the time of his 2004 Conservative leadership campaign. Two years later, he had won one in four votes in Quebec and was prime minister.

Less than a decade before Trudeau became the first Liberal leader to win a majority of Quebec seats since his father retired, he was considered such a liability in his home-province that Dion would not have him run as a byelection candidate in Outremont.

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

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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