Is a pandemic a bad time for leadership politics?

Provincial leadership races in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador are being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some federal Conservative candidates are calling for the schedule in their race to be changed, too.

Provincial leadership races have been delayed — but the Conservative race is going ahead as planned

Front runner Peter MacKay (left) has not yet called for a postponement of the Conservative leadership vote, while his nearest rival Erin O'Toole (right) has. Across the country, challengers seem more interested than front runners in delaying leadership votes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Canadian Press)

Leadership is at a premium these days, as countries around the world take action to fight the spread of COVID-19. But a number of parties in Canada have come to the conclusion that a pandemic is no time for leadership politics.

In the last few days, three provincial leadership races have been postponed or delayed until further notice — including one that will select a premier.

On Friday, the Quebec Liberal Party suspended its leadership race indefinitely. The party has been without a permanent leader since former premier Philippe Couillard was defeated in the 2018 provincial election. The race to choose the next leader of Quebec's Official Opposition was supposed to come to a close at the end of May.

The Parti Québécois, another opposition party in the National Assembly, pushed its leadership race back from June 19 to Aug. 28.

In both cases, ballots are to be cast remotely — so there's no public health risk related to the voting process. But there are serious challenges involved in signing up new members and soliciting donations in the midst of a pandemic.

A more consequential delay was announced Monday when the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberals delayed their leadership race until further notice and ordered the two candidates in the running to suspend all campaign activities. The party will revisit its options on May 1 and the vote can be held no sooner than July.

That means Premier Dwight Ball will remain in his job for some time yet. He had announced in February that he would step down as Liberal leader and premier as soon as his replacement is chosen.

The British Columbia Greens have not yet re-scheduled their leadership race, which is supposed to come to a close at the end of June. Earlier this month, the party announced that all public events related to the campaign had been cancelled.

On Monday, the Green Party of Canada announced it would change some of the rules for its leadership race, allowing members' signatures to be gathered electronically and lowering the fundraising thresholds for entry. The party says it could make another change if the pandemic prevents members from travelling, but for now it's keeping its leadership convention set for early October as planned.

O'Toole calls for postponement

The Conservative Party of Canada has been under some pressure to push back the schedule of its race to replace outgoing leader Andrew Scheer.

The deadline to gather enough signatures and donations to be an official candidate is currently set for Wednesday, with Apr. 17 being the cut-off for new members to become eligible to vote. The results are scheduled to be announced at an event in Toronto on June 27.

The party has announced some changes in response to the COVID-19 outbreak; it will be holding two leadership debates without a public audience and making it easier for candidates to hold virtual town halls and gather member signatures online. But it has not budged on the calendar.

That timeline has been cited by two candidates as their reason for pulling out of the race. Rick Peterson, who finished 12th in the 2017 leadership contest, announced last week he would no longer be a candidate after the party refused to adjust the schedule. Rudy Husny, a Quebec Conservative who has twice run for the party, suspended his campaign activities for the same stated reason.

Ontario MP Marilyn Gladu also has called for the deadlines to be pushed back.

Five Conservative Party leadership hopefuls spoke at the Progressive Conservative Party of Nova Scotia's annual general meeting in February. From right to left: Erin O'Toole, Peter MacKay, Rudy Husny, Rick Peterson and Marilyn Gladu. (Stéphanie Blanchet / Radio-Canada)

But these candidates have not met the thresholds for gathering signatures or raising funds that would put them on the ballot. Derek Sloan and Erin O'Toole, both Ontario MPs, have met those thresholds — both are calling on the party to postpone the leadership decision.

O'Toole is considered to be one of two front runners, along with former cabinet minister Peter MacKay. On Sunday, O'Toole put out a video asking the Conservative Party to delay the race so that volunteers, members and donors can concentrate their efforts on fighting COVID-19.

MacKay, however, sent an email to supporters on Monday making the case for the leadership vote to be accelerated in order to select a "new permanent leader as quickly as possible so our Parliamentary democracy can function as constitutionally intended."

Leslyn Lewis, a lawyer who has run for the party in the past, said she did not support changing the leadership date and that the next leader must be "battle-tested."

Challengers lead calls for delay

One common thread running between these calls for the postponement of leadership races is that the front runners largely haven't been leading them.

Alexandre Cusson, a former mayor of Drummondville, was alone in calling for the postponement of the Quebec Liberal leadership race; his only opponent in that race is high-profile former cabinet minister Dominique Anglade, widely seen as the front runner.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, favourite Andrew Furey — orthopedic surgeon and son of George Furey, the Speaker in the Senate — only joined the calls for a suspension of the Liberal leadership on Friday, after his lower-profile opponent, John Abbott, criticized both Furey and the party for the initial plans to go ahead.

Andrew Furey is one of two candidates, along with John Abbott, running for the leadership of the Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal Party. The winner will become the next premier of the province, but the race has been postponed until further notice because of COVID-19. (Douglas Gaulton / Canadian Press)

In the federal Conservative leadership race, Sloan is a first-term MP with no caucus endorsements, while O'Toole trails MacKay on that front by a margin of 31 to 11.

Opposition parties across the country have been carefully finding their way forward in these unprecedented times — striving for less partisanship and more constructive opposition. They're calculating that this is what the public expects from opposition politicians in the midst of a national crisis.

Leadership races, however, are inherently partisan. The target audience is not the general population but its most politicized segments. If criticizing a government struggling with a global pandemic is seen as an act of bad taste, internecine squabbling between fellow-travellers must seem doubly so at a time like this.

There are both self-interested and sincere explanations for why front runners might want to get a leadership race over with as soon as possible, and why challengers would call for politics to be put aside while there are bigger problems to be confronted.

But right about now, everyone is looking for leadership. For political parties, that makes it a tough time to be looking for a leader — or to be leaderless.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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