DOES A PIT BULL or bulldog make as good a leader – or even more importantly prime minister – as they do in the role of Opposition party critic?
That’s a question that now faces me as I think about the current leadership race for the Conservative Party of Canada.
I among many, I believe, cheered on Carlton Ontario Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre every time he would slice and dice the Prime Minister, or any of his front-bench Ministers, in the House of Commons. Poilievre is probably one of the most skilled I have ever seen at doing that.
I’m not so sure, however, that it’s going to work for me, or many who are centre-right-conservative (note the lower case “C” on conservative) supporters, members, or those who sit in the group of undecided that need to be swung to the Conservatives during an election campaign.
And let there be no mistake – winning the leadership race and then failing to connect with enough voters to win a majority are two very different things.
That’s why the viciousness of Poilievre’s attacks on his fellow rival candidates concerns me. If Poilievre and his campaign leadership team have what they believe is the best platform to win over Conservative voters, why the need for such vicious attacks?
Which brings me to former Progressive Conservative Party of Canada deputy prime minister and party leader – and Quebec Liberal Party leader – Jean Charest … and the decision now facing members of the Conservative Party of Canada.
What face, for the party, do they want to present to the people of Canada in the next federal election? Is Charest “conservative” enough to win them over?
I joined nearly 100 British Columbians in a Zoom meeting to hear from Charest, and one of the first things he did was speak to his conservative roots and beliefs.
“What we do want is government that has conservative values. I believe in fiscal conservatism. (In Quebec) program spending was always below nominal growth so that we could have a virtuous circle that would allow us to be able to pay down debt and have a balanced budget,” said Charest in opening his comments.
“I believe in a market-based economy which we (Conservatives) believe in – that’s where growth comes from. I believe in governments promoting, and putting forward policies that encourage economic growth, and has families able to increase their disposable income – which means lowering taxes, which means watching spending, which means growth that is really going to create job jobs that will allow people to prosper, buy houses, and educate their children.”
He continued, “I believe in families, which is at the very core of our society – and in the rule of law, which is a very real Conservative value.
“The very real core of our federation, something Conservatives believe in, is our federal system of government and one in which we respect the jurisdictions of both levels (federal/provincial) and that’s not a matter of detail. It is the provinces who run this country on a day-to-day basis – health care and education.
“The federal government has a critically important role, but its very important that they not cross that line where they’re actually trying to operate programs that are a provincial jurisdiction because that is when we get into trouble; financially, and otherwise.”
As someone who has been troubled by the ever-increasing intrusions into areas of government where they do not have jurisdiction – at federal, provincial, and municipal levels – those words definitely spoke to me. As did these next words, because I feel current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is totally failing in this:
“Maybe it would make sense to have a Prime Ministers who knows how to make the federal system work so that we can get big things done – which is what Conservatives do when they’re in government – we’re the ones who get big things done. The hard work? We’re not intimidated by it.”
Sounds good so far to me, as someone who considers themselves to be a fiscal conservative, but what about creating the unity required in the Conservative Party to make that happen? Charest spoke to that as well saying:
“We need a leader who’s going to bring everyone in … our job is to allow the party to grow and espouse their (member) values and to adapt them to the times, and that’s what I want to do, but we have to be united for that to happen. And we need a leader who will allow us to cross the line and win – and I’ll do that – I know how to do that.”
What about issues like getting energy projects built … the environment … two issues which seem greatly at odds with each other? He spoke to them, as well as on the Liberal environmental record:
“I want us to deal with the issues that have to do with energy – with great projects whether pipelines or other projects.
“In dealing with climate, with a smart policy, not one that is going to discriminate against rural Canadians, or be a cash transfer, but rather something smart.
“And by the way – Conservatives — on the environment; it frustrates me that we haven’t been able to claim the record that we have. What I see is that the Liberals are all talk. They don’t actually deliver anything on it.
“If you want to see a government deliver concrete, reasonable, common-sense policies – we’re it. We’ve done it on the past, and we’re going to do it in the future. But we’re going to do it in a smart way. In a way that will be credible for people because … if we’re going to go into the next election campaign, we have to get that right.”
The first question posed to Charest went right to the core of what many people have concerns about – division within the party — and how to galvanize a winning coalition.
He spoke of rural issues versus urban and the need to get that right so that those outside the large centres didn’t feel left out and left behind. Then he touched on one that seems to always be a bit of a minefield for conservatives:
“Now about the broader question of … ‘So-Cons’, and I don’t like the expression, So-Cons. I think it tends to define people. What are we talking about? We’re talking about people whose life is faith based, who believe in their church, they believe in their family, and they believe in their community.
“In fact, they’re the ones in their church basement that volunteer when there’s a disaster, or to help a community. They are Canadians who have a very real and respected view on their community and their society, and who should be respected.”
He went on to say, “We’re all like-minded people and I’m not worried we’re going to be that far apart from each other – in fact we’re a lot closer than what people think.”
As for winning what was called ‘the math game’ in beating rival candidate Pierre Poilievre … “Who can win the country?” Charest asked.
“The political math game is a good way to look at it. We have a choice in this race. We can choose a leader who is not going to allow us to expand the base of the party and keep us in Opposition where we are now. If you go to Canadians and ask to keep you in Opposition, they’ll probably grant you your wish – they’ll keep us in Opposition.
“The alternative is to elect a leader who will allow us to form government — and a national government. I want a national majority, not just a minority. I want a national majority, and that’s the biggest difference between Mr. Poilievre and myself.
“Mr. Poilievre is very bright, he’s very intelligent, he’s very aggressive in this campaign. I don’t know why he keeps attacking me. That style of wedge politics, American style wedge politics, isn’t what Canadians want. We don’t want to go down that road – we’re Canadians.”
In perhaps a mild reference to what’s been happening in recent years with the politics as done with our neighbours to the south, Charest said:
“We want politics that resembles who we are. We have real tough disagreements, and we fight it out, but I haven’t met anyone who’s told me they want to go down the road of what Americans are experiencing. I’m going to remain positive and Mr. Poilievre, if he wants to keep attacking me, well fine – he can go right ahead.”
He continued, “Trudeau practices it on the left side, and wins with it, because we’re not offering the alternative that says there is something different than trying to separate Canadians from each other – and we’re the answer.”
“Until we present that alternative, we’re just going to be sucker punched in every campaign by the Liberals. Let’s choose the right leader and do what’s right for the country.”
He closed with, what for me, some of the most important words of the evening:
“We need to avoid the excesses of identity politics that defines who you are by the colour of your skin … where you’re from … or our sexual orientation … when in fact we’re human beings. We are human beings, with all that comes with it, and we should be able to recognize that, embrace that, and celebrate that.
“I’ve always been extremely sensitive to issues around discrimination because we can never take for granted these issues will go away. We have to be alert about them, educate ourselves to them, open our eyes to forms of discrimination.
“That’s what I think represents our country – it’s the way we are as people. Those are the things I want us to hang on to. I don’t want us to lose those things; the sense of humanity that Canadians have always had towards each other.”
Powerful words, I thought, but now what?
Canadians, and in particular members of the Conservative Party, have a lot of thinking to do before they vote on their next leader – to be announced on Sept. 10. The main one being … do they want a pit bull as leader, or someone who at least came across to me as measured, reassuring, and competent to take on Justin Trudeau.
We’ll find out in four months from now.
Alan Forseth is a Kamloops resident. For 40 years he has been active, in a number of capacities, in local, provincial and federal politics, including running as a candidate for the BC Reform Party in the 1996 provincial election. He recently was a member of the Ellis Ross BC Liberal leadership campaign team.