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Gerald Caplan
Gerald Caplan

Gerald Caplan

In the race to replace Harper, have Conservatives learned nothing? Add to ...

Gerald Caplan is an Africa scholar, a former NDP national director and a regular panelist on CBC’s Power & Politics.

The Conservative Party of Canada has not yet figured out why it lost the election last year. To hear Conservatives talk, you sometimes wonder if they know they lost at all. It seems that many of them believe their 99 seats counts as a “moral victory.” The NDP should sue for breach of copyright.

Then there’s the widespread view among people within the party that the problem was their “tone.” It’s not at all clear what they think they mean by this, but it seems to have little to do with a series of mean and bigoted policies that failed to appeal to any but the Conservative base.

Everyone else knows that all these positions backfired on the Conservatives among a majority of Canadians. So here we are in the midst of choosing Stephen Harper’s successor – there are too many forgettable candidates to remember, with hundreds more threatening to jump in – and so far it seems that most have forgotten everything and learned nothing.

Opinion: Are Tory candidates grasping for a poisoned chalice?

Opinion: What way will the Conservative Party turn?

To be fair for a brief moment, though, even if none cares about inequality or global warming, at least there are no reckless nutbars à la Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

For example, take Kellie Leitch, who seemed at first to be ashamed of her shabby role in the Conservative pledge to establish a tip line to report barbaric cultural practices to the RCMP, but has since doubled down on the very notion.

As a leadership candidate, she is promoting a “discussion” of Canadian values for immigrants. Yet when given an opportunity by interviewers, she refuses to discuss anything except how very, very much she wants to discuss. So she simply advances her meaningless slogan, then repeats it over and over again without any elaboration.

Now, Chris Alexander, Ms. Leitch’s partner in peddling the snitch line, has joined the race. Given his impressive diplomatic background before entering politics, Mr. Alexander was among the most disappointing of the Conservative MPs under Mr. Harper – a mean-spirited antagonist. He has metamorphosed into an immigrant-loving progressive conservative. Who can doubt his sincerity?

Before he suddenly withdrew from the race last week, Ms. Leitch was emulated by Tony Clement, the cabinet minister whose main claim to fame was ending Canada’s mandatory long-form census. Years later, Mr. Clement allowed that he should “have done it differently.” But he never ever explained why he hadn’t done it differently.

As a candidate, Mr. Clement had chosen to compete with Ms. Leitch. He said that if you’re somehow deemed a terrorist threat and the cops can’t surveil you around the clock, he would lock you up. You may not have committed a crime. You may have no plans to commit a crime. But if Mr. Clement as leader had decided you might commit a crime, that would have been enough. Top that, Kelly Leitch!

In general, most leadership candidates seem – at least in Canadian terms – to hover near a political extreme. Quebec MP Maxime Bernier wants to turn Canada into a libertarian dystopia; he’s the Ayn Rand candidate, beloved no doubt by many impressionable first-year university students.

Someone named Brad Trost – allegedly an MP from Saskatchewan – offers to turn the clock back by repudiating both a woman’s right to choose and same-sex marriage.

The Conservative Party itself entered modern history only in May when its convention voted that marriage need not be defined as between a man and woman, something Canada itself had decided a decade ago. But history is moving far too fast for Mr. Trost and for that third of the convention delegates who voted against the resolution. But early indications are that they are resisting Mr. Trost’s reactionary lure.

Michael Chong has also thrown himself into the fray. But in Conservative terms, he’s the real outsider. Since he brings to the fight good sense and some modern ideas, he should be counted out from the start.

Sharp-eyed observers will have noted that even though it’s 2016, only one of the candidates to date is a woman. But usually reliable gossip indicates that at least two more women are about to follow, or already have intimated their decision. So you can take for granted that Candice Bergen and Lisa Raitt will be on the first ballot. Whatever one thinks of them, we can be pretty sure they’re no less qualified than some of their obscure, untried, unsung male rivals-to-be.

If there are other candidates whom I’ve missed, tough luck to them. Everyone expects many, many others to jump in, most of whom wouldn’t be recognized by the guards in Parliament or even Rosie Barton.

Last week, a Forum poll found that of 1,147 Canadians surveyed, 355 self-identified as Conservatives. That’s less than a third. So the leadership of the party is not one of the great prizes in world history.

Nor are the candidates among the most inspiring, as most Canadians agree. More than half of respondents told the polling firm that they would prefer “someone else” rather than the eight names it tested. But think of how appalling they might have been in today’s political climate.

Still, they do seem, on the whole, a generous gift from the Conservatives to the Prime Minister. Just what Justin Trudeau needs – more sunny days to wallow in.

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