5 things we learned about the Conservative leadership race in Halifax

This week's Conservative caucus meeting in Halifax kicked off a fall that will escalate, slowly but surely, to the contest's first debate in November. After a sleepy summer, the race is springing to life.

Like a race without a clear front-runner? You're in luck

Andrew Scheer resigned as House leader this week so he could give his full attention to a leadership bid this fall. He said in Halifax that he wants to have more than enough signatures and plenty of endorsers when he officially declares later this month. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The Conservative leadership race is a long one — Stephen Harper's election night resignation was 11 months ago, and yet there's another eight months before party members pick their new permanent leader.

Perhaps a sleepy summer was to be expected.

Fundraising limits being what they are in Canada, holding back for a bit makes some sense. After a long slog going back to before the 2015 election, partisans were tired as the House rose last June and needed time to regroup.

But this week's caucus meeting in Halifax kicked off a fall that will build, slowly but surely, to the contest's first debate in November. Here's what emerged:

Peter MacKay confirms he's out

Once Jason Kenney decided to try to become Alberta's premier, some thought the federal race was Peter MacKay's for the taking, if he wanted it.

Others were pretty sure the fire in his belly had gone out, based on both the tone he set when he announced he wouldn't run in the 2015 election and his tentative appearance at the party's Vancouver convention last May.

They were right. Family really did win out.

Some candidates, present and potentially future, reacted to his news release on Monday night with near giddiness. A poll that came out the next morning suggesting he was ahead in Conservatives' minds became stale-dated on arrival. 

The contenders

Those who have declared and registered: Maxime Bernier; Michael Chong; Tony Clement; Kellie Leitch; Deepak Obhrai.

Those who have declared only: Dan Lindsay; Pierre Lemieux; Adrienne SnowBrad Trost.

Expected to declare soon: Andrew Scheer.

Others who have mused about running but not declared: Candice Bergen; Steven Blaney; Kevin O'Leary; Erin O'Toole; Rick Peterson; Lisa Raitt.

For those who like races without front-runners, you've got one.

Scheer's popular in caucus

After several MPs voiced enthusiasm for former Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer's candidacy, it wasn't a surprise when he left the caucus room Tuesday morning and told reporters he was stepping down as House leader to focus on a bid.

He'll likely enter the race before the end of the month. He's collecting his final signatures, nailing down key organizers and funding and trying to assemble an impressive list of endorsers ready for his launch.

Because he wasn't involved in partisan politics in the last Parliament (nor the two Parliaments before that, as one of the deputy speakers going back to 2006) he doesn't carry heavy policy baggage from the Harper government years. On the flip side, he lacks the cabinet experience and exposure other candidates bring.

Unlike some, he speaks French. But more important may be his reputation as a moderate who can bring his team together. It's in line with the tone set by interim leader Rona Ambrose, and the thought of that spirit carrying on to the next permanent leader may appeal.

Ambrose doesn't want drama

One of the biggest applause lines in Ambrose's kickoff speech to caucus Tuesday felt a bit like a warning to leadership contenders:

"We're all realists here. We know that drama drives ratings, that those outside of our party will do everything they can to separate us into separate camps," she said.

"Our party has been there before, a long, long time ago, and we have no intention of going back." 

Interim leader Rona Ambrose fielded several questions at her closing news conference about the party's ability to stay united during what could be a very competitive, wide-open race. Differences of opinion make races exciting and interesting, she said. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Her message of unity is pitched at a caucus that may otherwise be tempted to split into factions, lining up behind contenders who may have divergent policy views — not just between each other, but in contrast to the official party policy Conservatives considered and amended as recently as last spring, following months of debate.

Democracy is fuelled by debate. But if things get too intense, it undermines the bigger goal of returning to government.

Drama works

That warning aside, few Conservatives want a boring race.

New members don't join parties for boring races. New donors don't give to boring races. The media don't pay as much attention to a boring race.

And so far, the bit of conflict that has emerged — thanks to Kellie Leitch — has worked. For her, anyway.

Reporters were a bit surprised at how eager Kellie Leitch was to come out and be interviewed, especially while her key policy idea so far was under attack. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Some read her popularity as rising, perhaps along with her fundraising, since her name hit the media over a "Canadian values" question on a survey she circulated to members.

Immigration Minister John McCallum suggested that it was only that controversy that put her on the map. Potential competitor Kevin O'Leary agreed, although he added her proposal was un-Canadian and made her unelectable.

Her problem in the longer run is that dull may work better when it comes time for members to complete their ranked ballots. 

A polarizing candidate may attract new like-minded first-choice supporters, but repel second- or third-choice votes.

A compromise candidate with moderate positions that are generally satisfactory to all may have a better shot at the race if the large field hangs in all the way to balloting and first-choice votes alone can't win.

It's still early

Those hospitality suites for early entrants Maxime Bernier and Michael Chong back at the Vancouver convention seem like a long time ago, don't they?

In fact, this week was probably only the end of the beginning, to borrow Churchill's phrase.

Former cabinet minister Erin O'Toole told CBC News that many of his caucus colleagues were encouraging him to run for the leadership. He's now reconsidering his earlier decision to stay out. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Plenty of MPs in Halifax said they were still in wait-and-see mode. 

"I'm keeping my powder dry until all the ponies are in the race and then I'll place my bet. And then I'll ride that pony very hard," Manitoba MP James Bezan promised.

In the meantime, the long months of opposition parties debating among themselves could make the government's job a little easier — New Democrats won't replace Tom Mulcair for over a year. (We think.)

"Nobody's placing any bets yet and everybody's holding back as to where they place their vote," Bezan said. "By default the Liberals get an easy ride in the polls."

About the Author

Janyce McGregor

Parliamentary Bureau

Janyce McGregor has covered Canadian politics for CBC News since 2001. Send news tips to: Janyce.McGregor@cbc.ca


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