The Current

'Maybe we don't know who we are anymore': Strategists weigh in on Conservatives' leadership contest

So far, the race to be the next leader of the federal Conservative Party seems to be defined by who doesn’t want the job. Our national affairs panel of conservative strategists discuss who, and what, the party needs.

'I don't think our party looks or sounds like the country': Alise Mills

The next leader of the Conservative Party of Canada will need to look to the future, says party strategist Alise Mills. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

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The federal Conservative Party leadership race could point to a crisis of identity within the party, according to one strategist.

"Maybe we don't know who we are anymore," said Alise Mills, a senior associate at Sussex Strategy Group and a party strategist. 

"Maybe Stephen Harper, because he was ... our first prime minister with the new Conservative Party per se, maybe we just haven't been able to evolve."

Mills said that Harper has remained influential since serving as prime minister from 2006 until 2015. But she added that he wouldn't want the party to be stuck in that time. 

"Even in the 2015 campaign, we were not campaigning for 2015, and we were not — in the last election — campaigning for 2019. We seem to be sort of stuck in the 2011 zone," she told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

What I want to hear is what are we for, and are we building for 2030?- Alise Mills

Eight candidates have declared their interest in running for leadership, the best-known among them being former cabinet minister Peter MacKay, and Ontario MPs Erin O'Toole and Marilyn Gladu.

Several big names in Conservative circles have chosen not to run, such as Rona Ambrose and Pierre Poilievre.

Former leader Andrew Scheer announced his decision to resign in December. A winner will be decided in June.

Mills said the contest so far has left her uninspired and concerned. 

"I think this to some degree can be considered an organic flow that a party has, when a big leadership name or brand removes itself like Mr. Harper," she said.

"But we should be through that process by now."

Mills said she was also concerned newer faces were not coming out of the private sector. 

"I had thought that this would be the opportunity that we would see somebody — sort of in their late 30s to mid-50s — see the opportunity to energize a party, a membership base that is starving for big ideas and passion."

Fringe candidates damage party: former policy director

Mills said she's concerned that many of the talking points so far have been candidates talking about "what they're against."

"What I want to hear is what are we for, and are we building for 2030?"

Last week, prospective candidate Richard Décarie faced criticism for calling being gay a "choice" in a television interview, and saying "LGBTQ is a Liberal term."

Rachel Curran, a senior associate at Harper & Associates Consulting, said candidates with those views were on the "fringe."

"When these folks get attention like that, I do think it causes damage to the party — reputational damage, certainly," said Curran, who formerly served as Harper's director of policy. 

"It also distracts from the real issues that we should be focusing on."

Mills thinks the party is facing a problem with its own diversity. 

"I don't think our party looks or sounds like the country," she said.

She explained that "Canadians have told us that, yes, I wanted to vote for you, your economic plans are great, I support your tax plans — but it's not enough."

"We have to catch up and we haven't done the work. And if you don't do the work, you don't get the reward."

Pipe for the Trans Mountain Pipeline is unloaded in Edson, Alta., on June 18, 2019. Former cabinet minister Monte Solberg says the next leader of the Conservative Party must balance resource development with a serious approach to climate change. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Balancing the economy and the environment

Mills thinks that the party has been stuck on a "merry-go-round" as they balance supporting resource development in places like Alberta's oilsands, amid growing concerns about climate change.

That focus has meant other issues are not being discussed, she said. 

"We're leaving behind emerging technologies, small [and] medium business owners, and entrepreneurs that this party traditionally has always supported," she said.

Monte Solberg, principal at New West Public Affairs and a former federal cabinet minister, agreed that reconciling economic and environmental concerns should be a major concern for candidates.

"The crown of the Conservative leadership will largely belong to … a leader who can figure out how to communicate on the one hand, that we have to be concerned about climate change and have to take it seriously," he said.

"And on the other hand, not sort of give away the idea that we need to develop our resources, to other countries in the world."

Who's running - and who's not - for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. (CBC News)

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Idella Sturino and Max Paris.

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