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The Conservative leadership race is heating up.  Michael Chong, Maxime Bernier and Kellie Leitch have thrown in their hats so far.  What does the CPC need to do in this leadership race in order to become a viable alternative to Justin Trudeau and the NDP in the next election? What will be the main strengths and drawbacks of the candidates who have declared so far? Who else is likely to jump in?  John Capiobianco, Tom Parkin and Richard Mahoney give their analysis.


John Capobianco:

As is the case after most elections, the losing parties go through post-mortems, a political cleansing of sorts, and in some situations their leaders either step down voluntarily or are voted out by their members. After the 2015 election, the Liberal win caused Stephen Harper to voluntarily step aside and Mr. Mulcair decided to stay on and face his party members in a mandatory leadership vote that most (me included) thought he would survive. He didn’t, so now both the CPC and the NDP are in leadership races.

The CPC race is well on its way with a date fixed of May, 2017 with declared candidates – MP Michael Chong being the latest to jump in, joining both former Ministers Kellie Leitch and Maxime Bernier. The NDP are just starting to wrap their heads around the embarrassing loss Mr. Mulcair suffered at their convention in Edmonton recently and have set the fall of 2017 as its selection date.

The attention has recently been on the CPC race since there are candidates declared and the party is the Official Opposition in the House of Commons. However, the focus has been less on those already in and more on those who have yet to declare: namely, Jason Kenney and Peter Mackay.  There is also mention of former TV Dragon's Den host Kevin O’Leary, but the media is taking his potential entry more seriously than are party members.

The other MPs likely to run are Tony Clement, Lisa Raitt and Andrew Scheer, who are all solid candidates with the credentials to seek the top job and the means to mount a competitive leadership campaign where there is a one-member-one-vote system with a $5 million budget.


Tom Parkin:

The Hogwarts' sorting hat: you can divide leadership candidates into one of two houses.

The first house is that of ideas, purity or commitment to cause. The second has the credo "strength to win."

The three CPC candidates out the gate so far belong to the first house. Kenny, McKay, Clement, Raitt, etc. - if they join - will be in the second.

In the first house, Leitch is the candidate who is overly sorry for barbaric cultural practices. Chong is providing some tax-shift ideas flatten and cut income taxes, shift to consumption - hitched to a Whig conception of Parliament. Bernier seems to be the libertarian - freedom for all, and let the market rule everywhere.

Candidates in the first house don't win.

They put themselves in that house because, lacking the strength to win, they try to bootstrap themselves up using ideas or purity.

But they are still a big threat to the "strength to win" candidates because they force the debate beyond popularity.

And John, if you think I am being mean to the Conservative Party, this is a universal rule. And it will apply to the NDP race.

That race starts July 2 and will wrap up September or October 2017. In that race, some candidates will go to the corners, to identify themselves as defenders of an idea - environment, workers rights, public enterprise, etc.

Then there will be those who can work in between those corners. These - whether New Democrat, Liberal or Conservative - are those who have the strength to win because they can string the various touchstones of their party into an overall agenda of change. That's the sweet spot.


Richard Mahoney:

If I had told John or Tom eight or nine months ago that, come next May, Justin Trudeau would be leading a majority government and the Conservatives and NDP would be in leadership races, they would have said I was smoking something not yet legal in this country. But that is the nature of politics - tough, unforgiving and often full of loss. I have had some modest experience in this phenomenon myself.

Before picking a leader, the Conservatives should first decide what kind of a party they want to be.

Part of that is what to do with the economic conservatism of Stephen Harper himself and his sort of one-man rule style of leadership/take no prisoners approach to governance and leadership. Left to wither on the vine during Harper's era was the considerable heritage of the old Progressive Conservatives, best represented by Bill Davis in Ontario and, for the most part, Brian Mulroney on the federal side.

But formed by the merger of the old Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives, this latest edition of the party has only had one leader - Harper.

Most media and commentators think that is who they are and see all the potential successors in that light: how do they fill Stephen Harper's shoes?

Is that who and what they want to be? Or is there something more complex, diverse and inclusive? When they answer that question it will be easier to decide which of the candidates can best meet the test set out by Tom above, which I largely agree with.

But I don't think Conservatives have yet figured out what kind of a party they want to be going forward.  Maybe John will tell us now.


John Capobianco:

The point Richard makes is a valid one, but many see it as a leader being able to define and shape the party vs. the party being able to fit the leader. Hence the long leadership race, and especially since this party has only known one leader.

What is interesting about your analysis of the "two houses", Tom, is whether candidates define themselves in those characteristics or whether party members do it for them. So far the CPC leadership has everyone automatically comparing the characteristics of a potential leader to being “Trudeau-esque” - young, hip, social media savvy, etc. - when in fact, trying to duplicate someone rarely works.

PM Trudeau has unique qualities that most brushed off and ignored at the start of the campaign, only to muse after that it was those very qualities - being young, hip and media savvy - that got him to 24 Sussex Drive.

While those qualities were no doubt important, I believe it was more that voters tired of former PM Harper and his government so much that they were looking for alternatives.

At the outset, the alternative was Mr. Mulcair, who some would say most resembled Stephen Harper in age, experience and gravitas. However, as the campaign went on voters turned to the narrative the Liberals and Mr. Trudeau were setting as a change agent who was not like the others. It worked.

But suggesting that the next leader of the CPC, or the NDP for that matter, needs to be like Justin Trudeau is flawed thinking, especially so early in the new government’s term.

I give voters far more credit than that and I would suggest any leader must have these basic qualities for the job: compassion, a set of ideals and a vision of where he or she wants to see the country go domestically and internationally. In addition he or she needs the ability to truly understand and connect with Canadians from across Canada, which means they need to be bilingual.

Having these qualities is not gender specific or age specific, nor does it mean you have to be completely telegenic. Finding this person is why the Conservatives (I’m sure the NDP as well) have decided to prolong the leadership process, as well as to ensure the party truly goes through a self-analysis of what worked and what didn’t. This also serves as much needed therapy.


Tom Parkin:

Yes, emulation is not a wise strategy. Besides, the best an NDP or Conservative leader can offer is "strength to win." Trudeau offered "born to win." I joke not. Devine inevitability.

The campaigns for the Conservative and New Democrat leaderships are long - this is interesting and, in my recollection, unusual.

The last NDP race started in the fall of 2011 and lasted seven months. This race will be about 16 months.

The NDP has set the "rake" on candidate donations at 25% and has upped the entrance fee and the spending maximum. And this reveals some of the true thinking.

We saw a report recently that the NDP fundraising is way down. I believe the Conservatives' is as well. And raising money with an interim or defeated leader is a tough job. Additionally, money requests require urgency on an issue. The NDP could be fighting for proportional representation, for example. And they should frame this as a fundraising need. But it is still a problem when you don't have a solid name signing the letter.

I think the NDP has decided that an extended leadership race with a high rake is the path back to re-engaging the base and refilling the coffers. It's not a bad strategy.

Also critical, in the NDP's case, was to work around the BC election next spring - clear the field for their ground and fundraising work.

I think these are the factors driving the timing, which was just decided on Sunday at the NDP Federal Council meeting in Ottawa.


Richard Mahoney:

I agree that finding a copy of Justin Trudeau is not the right strategy. Also, hard to do. Trudeau’s great political gifts include a profound capacity for growth - think of how much he has progressed on any milestone: since he entered politics, since he became Liberal leader in 2012, even since he became Prime Minister six months ago. It is impressive, to say the least. He is also fearless, and this is a quality rarely seen in politicians, who are usually wired to respond to the latest complaint, whim, fashion or objection.

All of that is tough, if not impossible to emulate. Of the candidates now in the race, Kellie Leitch seems to me to be hobbled if not disqualified by that craven, nasty announcement she did with disgraced former Immigration Minister Chris Alexander - a low point in Canadian politics, to be sure.

Maxime Bernier is a bit of tough one to size up. He was a mediocre minister with a few failures and a bit of a gadfly with some questionable behaviour, but he brings Quebec and economic conservative credentials.

Out of the gate the most impressively was Michael Chong - he had clearly thought through a lot of the big issues. Not exactly a household name, but he will have his appeal.

Peter MacKay and Lisa Raitt will have to get past their association with Stephen Harper, but both have some potential.

As I said, deciding what kind of a party the Conservatives want to be will help them figure out what kind of a leader they should choose. That said, I won't hold my breath waiting for them to take my advice.


Richard Mahoney is a lawyer with deep experience in politics and governance.  He is a former senior advisor to the Rt. Hon Paul Martin, a former Campaign Chair and President of the Ontario Liberal Party. John Capobianco is a Senior Partner and National Public Affairs Lead at FleishmanHillard. He has been a Conservative strategist with over 30 years of political activism at all three levels, including as a former federal Conservative candidate. Tom Parkin is a veteran NDP strategist and a frequent commentator on national issues. 




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