Maxime Bernier Main Winner of Conservative Race

Andrew Scheer lost an election that should have been easy to win. With the numerous scandals surrounding Justin Trudeau: Lavscam, vacations with the Agha Khan, his silly costumes in India and the blackface scandal among others, any credible Conservative leader would have defeated the Liberals. Andrew Scheer was not that man. 

Having won the leadership in a controversial election, with substantial support from dairy industry lobbyists, Scheer’s performance as leader was lackluster. Perhaps his biggest mistake was failing to make peace with second place contender Maxime Bernier. Instead he limited Bernier’s participation in the caucus and applied pressure that eventually led to Bernier quitting the party, declaring it “intellectually and morally corrupt”. He took thousands of loyal Conservative members with him when he founded a new party, The People’s Party of Canada.

Beyond the immediate loss of voters, Bernier’s defection cost the party much of its intellectual base and many hard working campaigners. Worse, Scheer proved to be a poor campaigner. He was unable to stand up for his personal views, stumbling when asked about his views on abortion and even on his early career in a mortgage brokerage. While the party did well in western Canada, with many voters so eager to get rid of the Liberal government that they were prepared to overlook Scheer’s failings, it failed to gain support in eastern Canada. Andrew Scheer was returned as Leader of the Opposition although in a minority parliament. 

In the aftermath, it became conventional wisdom in the Conservative Party that Scheer’s social conservative views had cost the party the election. There is little evidence for this. What we had was a leader unable or unwilling to stand up for conservative policies or even for his own integrity. Voters east of Manitoba were unimpressed and voted for other parties.

In these early days of the Conservative Party leadership race I have talked to many Conservatives and People’s Party members. There was excitement around the prospective candidacies of Pierre Poilievre and Rona Ambrose. These were candidates who were seen to be genuine principled conservatives who might have had the potential to reunite the party and win over voters. Then, in the past week, Rona Ambrose and Pierre Poilievre both declared they would not run.

The clear front runner now is former Progressive Conservative Party leader Peter Mackay. As the last leader of the PC Party, Mackay had pushed for the Conservative Party to adopt the PC Party’s leadership voting policy rather than the one member, one vote policy of the Canadian Alliance, and earlier Reform Party. This system assigns one hundred votes to each electoral district regardless of the number of members in the district. The immediate impact was to give greater weight to the members of the much smaller Progressive Conservative Party who were mostly located in Atlantic Canada and urban Ontario. Despite this, Stephen Harper, a strong leader with solid conservative credentials, won the founding leadership campaign on the strength of overwhelming support within the Canadian Alliance and cross party support from former PCs. 

The party’s voting system remains a lingering problem that is likely to hand the leadership to Peter Mackay, or some other leader acceptable to “moderates” in the party, even though those moderate voters make up a minority of the membership and Conservative voters. Under the system each district is assigned one hundred votes, regardless of membership size, so an electoral district with one hundred members is given the same number of votes as one with ten thousand members. This creates two problems. Firstly it means that votes of members in weak districts are worth more than votes in strong districts and secondly it allows the vote to be influenced by outsiders signing up large number of new members in weak districts, as the dairy lobby did in the 2017 leadership vote in order to boost the support for Andrew Scheer. 

The overall impact is that party members in the weakest districts, often ones that are completely unwinnable by Conservatives while diminishing the votes of members in highly winnable or marginally winnable districts. Voters in downtown Toronto, Montreal and Newfoundland, for example will have a greater say in the election of a leader than members in Calgary. Candidates supported by such voters are not likely to gain strong support in the party heartland, nor are they likely to win over new voters since their appeal lies mainly in areas dominated by the left. This is a poor system for electing a leader who can win an election, but it is ideal for the election of a red Tory like Peter Mackay. Its still early going, and more candidates may come forward, but for now it looks very much like Peter Mackay will be the odds on favorite to win the Conservative Party leadership.

If the Conservatives elect Mackay, or some other red Tory, as leader the big winner will be Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party of Canada. Within months of organizing a little over a year ago, the People’s Party had signed up 40,000 members many of them former Conservatives. A lurch to the left under a leader like Peter Mackay will undoubtedly drive many more Conservative members out of the party and into the People’s Party. Rather than making it more electable, a “moderate” leader will perhaps irretrievably damage the Conservative Party. The People’s Party will be the beneficiary, just like the Reform Party benefited from the collapse of the Progressive Conservative Party thirty years ago. 

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