Conservative leadership race is a crucial opportunity for the party to define itself

Article originally published in The Star

After three straight election losses to the Trudeau Liberals, the Conservative Party of Canada is choosing their third leader in five years. It’s hard for any party to properly regroup after an election and grow its voter base with this amount of churn, but it’s especially hard for a party that can’t even seem to agree what they stand for — or even agree on — beyond a deep, visceral hatred of all things Justin Trudeau.

This is arguably the most important leadership contest in the history of the party. With the price of food and other commodities sharply increasing, the entire international rules-based order under attack, and the threat of nuclear war a very real possibility, the stakes are about as high as they come.

Pierre Poilievre is the current favourite to win the leadership race. He’s bilingual, has the backing of the most caucus members, and is beloved by the Conservative base. He also embodies some of the worst elements modern conservatism has to offer: he seems perpetually angry, and has a penchant for playing fast and loose with facts.

Poilievre openly peddles conspiracy theories and regularly makes demonstrably false claims. In an era where people are increasingly finding it difficult to discern what is and isn’t true, having political leaders who willingly add to the mis- and disinformation ecosystem is suboptimal to say the least.

It’s not entirely clear how a Poilievre-led Conservative party will be able to appeal to more of the moderate voters needed to form government in this country. The more worrying prospect, however, is that a Conservative party with Poilievre at the helm doesn’t feel the need to reach out to voters in the centre, and effectively becomes a better funded, more organized, and mainstream version of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada.

It’s easy and even tempting to scoff at that notion, but that is being wilfully blind to what has happened to conservatism in a lot of places, including here. Trump was the next logical evolution of the modern-day Republicans, and Bernier was very much the product of a federal Conservative party that didn’t become aggrieved peddlers of conspiracy theories overnight.

Jean Charest is the current second favourite in the race. A man who has been a politician for longer than I have been alive, Charest comes with lots of his own baggage, including questions about his moral compass. Given his role in advising Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou, it is not unreasonable to question what other oligarchs he would be willing to provide services for — democratic principles be damned — so long as the cheque cleared.

It’s clear that Charest intends to position himself as the uniter in chief, the only person able to unite both factions of the CPC while also being able to appeal to suburban and urban voters in a general election. He’ll have to appeal to the Conservative membership first, which means he has the daunting task of signing up as many members as he can. Polling analyst Philippe J. Fournier pegs the number at roughly 1,000 members per day from now until the June 3 deadline.

Up against a digitally savvy Poilievre with deep connections to the current iteration of the party, it’s hard to imagine the recently Twitterless Charest — who left federal conservative politics in 1998 for the Quebec Liberals — being able to make the inroads needed. This rings especially true, once one considers the “true blue” caricature Erin O’Toole had to make himself into in order to secure the leadership.

You don’t have to be a Conservative voter or supporter to recognize that Canada is need of a strong, robust Conservative party, rather than the increasingly angry, reactionary and populist party it now has.

Let’s hope whoever leads the Conservatives next understands that.

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