Opinion

Look beyond the jesters, and you'll find real, live progressive conservatives in the CPC race: Neil Macdonald

Rick Peterson is, for example, someone who wants to govern, not entertain, and whose focus is on the economy. Which is why you've probably never heard of him.

There are people vying for the Conservative leadership who want to govern, not simply entertain

Nowadays, if you want ink and face time, you need to denounce niqabs and issue jeremiads about terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. (Rick Peterson/Twitter)

Well, Mr. Wonderful certainly deserves credit for self-awareness.  

In the end, Kevin O'Leary was sensible enough to realize Quebecers would probably not embrace any leader whose French is lousy to nonexistent, especially someone who was born in Montreal and educated in Quebec, making him one of those remarkably arrogant anglo Quebecers from the last century who couldn't be bothered to learn their own province's official language.

Even if Conservatives had been foolish enough to make O'Leary leader, the prospect of O'Leary debating Justin Trudeau, possessor of one of the most famous names in Quebec history, in French, is absurd.

O'Leary seemed to recognize that. Quebec matters. As he put it, he just didn't have a path to beat Trudeau.

Leader of the Opposition

One suspects it had also begun to dawn on him that if he did win the leadership, he'd have to spend the next two years attending every rubber chicken dinner held by every Conservative riding association in the country, shaking tens of thousands of hands – and if you've ever seen what a right hand looks like after working a room, you'd understand why some politicians carry a bottle of Purell with them.

He'd have had to spend thousands of hours off camera, listening to the ordinary complaints of ordinary people, which must have been a dreadful prospect for someone with O'Leary's love of the American TV celebrity scene.

It would have meant spending most if not all of his time in, um,  Canada, and the wine they serve at those local fundraisers would probably offend the palate of a Chevalier de Tastevin. It might even blemish his tastevin. It must be hard for a Chevalier to relate to ordinary guzzlers. As he puts it: "The famous Tastevin secret society of wine-drinkers does not allow blemish."

On his way out, O'Leary endorsed Maxime Bernier. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Anyway, on his way out, the biggest shark in the tank endorsed Maxime Bernier, a charismatic MP from Beauce who has already consumed a lifetime's worth of rubber chicken, and whose French is not just better, but more easily colloquial than Justin Trudeau's.

Bernier, however, holds some pungently un-Canadian views. He's a libertarian, meaning he believes in much less, not ever more, government.

He has actually agreed, for example, with President Donald Trump's view that Canada's dairy and poultry marketing boards are unfair and nakedly protectionist.

Bernier wants to carve off whole sections of the federal government, and abolish interprovincial protectionism. He thinks our health care system is abysmal, and says so, bless him.

He's an independent thinker, but how Bernier will convince sufficient numbers of Canadians — addicted as they are to protectionism and entitlements— to elect him prime minister is a bit of a mystery.

Scheer has promised he will not reopen debates on gay marriage or abortion. (Codie McLachlan/Canadian Press)

The other breakout from the Conservative leadership pack is Andrew Scheer, a career politician with a big aw-golly grin who presents himself as a "uniter," and a "full spectrum Conservative," presumably meaning there is room for everyone in his tent.

But happy Andrew is a social conservative: anti-abortion, does not believe in gay marriage, is anti-assisted suicide, and one of two Conservative leadership candidates who voted against the Liberals' transgender rights bill last fall.

Scheer has promised he will not reopen debates on gay marriage or abortion, but he describes himself as a man of principle, and, you know, principled people tend to want to act on their principles.

His French? Barely passable; halting and heavily accented.  

So, if you believe polls, the two leaders in the Tory race are now a libertarian who believes in keeping government out of people's lives, and a social conservative who, like all so-cons, presumably believes in legislating morality.

Surely, though, a fair chunk of the near-260,000 party members who will cast votes are what used to be described as progressive conservatives – people who lean to the right on fiscal matters but are centrists socially.

Surely that is where a fair number of Conservative voters, and certainly large numbers of Canadians, still live.

Trailing candidates

If those Conservatives want a leader whose positions more closely match theirs, they'll have to peer further into the pack and look at the relative unknowns.

There are moderates like Lisa Raitt, a highly competent professional manager who has spent all her years in government as a Stephen Harper minister, and who's working on her French, and Michael Chong, who resigned from Harper's cabinet over a government motion declaring Quebec a nation. He is also working on his French.

Or there's Rick Peterson, who, objectively, has all the outsider qualifications that thrill the base nowadays.

Like O'Leary, Peterson has never held elected office. Like O'Leary, he's spent his life getting rich in the financial sector.  

Like O'Leary, he wants to slash corporate taxes (something Canada will have to consider if Donald Trump does the same), restructure personal income tax, eliminate regulatory obstacles to business and introduce two-tier health care, which all other developed countries already have.

Peterson is a real, live progressive conservative. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

But Peterson is also pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights, pro gay marriage, and supports the concept of assisted suicide.

And one other thing: his French is excellent. Far better than any other anglophone in the leadership race. He holds an advanced degree from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in France, where he once played professional hockey.

The prospect of Peterson holding his own against Justin Trudeau in Quebec is not absurd. It's actually something I'd love to see.

Peterson is a real, live progressive conservative. Someone who wants to govern, not entertain, and whose focus is on the economy.

Which is why you've probably never heard of him; why in some polls he trails the whole field.

Nowadays, if you want ink and face time, you need to denounce niqabs, issue jeremiads about terrorism, terrorism, terrorism, stand on the American border and demagogue about nonexistent immigrant threats, call people "nutbars" and "nothingburgers" or promise to imprison trade unionists.

Sober engagement on serious issues, in these Trumpian times, practically guarantees obscurity.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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