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Kevin O'Leary, Rick Peterson and Maxime Bernier laugh during a Conservative Party leadership debate at the Manning Centre conference, on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Kevin O'Leary, Rick Peterson and Maxime Bernier laugh during a Conservative Party leadership debate at the Manning Centre conference, on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Globe editorial

Globe editorial: Dear Conservatives: Who are you? Add to ...

If you’re looking for something that encapsulates the crisis besetting the Conservative Party of Canada, a metaphor for its transition from the confidence and discipline of power to its state of confusion and self-doubt in the run-up to its May 27 leadership vote, look no further than Kellie Leitch’s latest video.

Until a little over a year ago, this MD and MBA holder was a cabinet minister in a government – a Conservative government – that had won three elections in a row, increasing its seat margin each time. It had pushed the Liberals, the former Natural Governing Party, to their breaking point. Many Liberals had come to believe that their only hope lay in allowing themselves to be swallowed by the NDP.

It all seems a very long time ago now.

The content of Ms. Leitch’s video, “On Screening for Canadian Values,” is problematic enough. But its bizarre style is what has viewers talking and mocking. Over eight and a half minutes, one of the leading Conservatives repeatedly pauses awkwardly, stares into space as if decoding an interstellar transmission, and generally makes herself a candidate for a Razzie.

As a work of political cinematography, it’s the strangest thing since Stéphane Dion’s infamous out-of-focus broadcast to the nation of 2008. Nobody really heard what Mr. Dion had to say that day, and nobody could. The medium became the message. And the message was that a party that couldn’t find the focus button on a videocamera couldn’t be trusted to govern.

As for the content of Ms. Leitch’s video, it’s one more repetition of her only idea: that immigrants need to be screened for Canadian values – which values, we still do not know – and that to effectuate this vague but unmistakable bit of racist dog-whistling, a Leitch government will order that every immigrant to Canada should henceforth receive, in addition to all the usual screening, a “face-to-face interview” with a “trained immigration official.”

I have a dream, and it is of the glorious day when the Canada Border Services Agency bureaucracy hires more bureaucrats.

Smallness and meanness of vision have become the hallmarks of the Conservative leadership race. It feels too much like a distillation of the party went down to defeat in 2015, and deserved it. It feels too little like the party that years earlier took power, and deserved to.

Everyone remembers the Conservative Party of 2015; a government that in its death throes grasped sadly at niqab bans and hotlines for reporting barbaric cultural practices.

But before the downfall, the Conservative Party of Stephen Harper had won power with a different and more optimistic philosophy.

The Harper Conservatives did not become the government by running on a message of racial resentment. Instead, they won Canadians over, after years of being portrayed by the Liberals as dangerous bogeymen, by promising to make taxes a bit lower and government a bit smaller, and to prudently manage what remained. That simple message transcended race and religion.

And the Conservative party’s history has not been that of an exclusionary party. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney raised immigration rates that been lowered under his Liberal predecessors. Mr. Harper’s government held them steady, at levels higher than those of the Liberal governments that preceded him. The Conservative Party, pre-2015, also successfully reached out to Asian-Canadian voters, recognizing that a fiscally conservative message knows no race. The Conservative success in suburbia, in particular the Toronto area’s 905 region, was built on this.

Now, large parts of the Conservative Party, including much of the leadership, appear to be determined to act like the bogeymen the Liberals once accused them of being.

Nearly all Conservative MPs and leadership candidates – Michael Chong being the shining exception –were uncomfortable supporting a banal Parliamentary motion expressing solidarity with Canada’s Muslims and condemning Islamophobia.

The party that won power more than a decade ago wasn’t peddling racial or religious resentments. It was, instead, claiming to be the economically literate party, the party that took the free market seriously, and that understood that, while government is not the enemy, it has inherent limitations and blind spots. For much of Mr. Harper’s term, it didn’t sound or act much like the Tea Party or Donald Trump. It liked to imagine itself as substance over flash.

Which brings us to reality-television personality Kevin O’Leary. If the polls are to be believed, he’s the leadership race’s front-runner. He comes with few ideas – hates: taxes; loves: entrepreneurs – but exceptional television presence. Where Mr. Harper was bookish and uncomfortable in front of the camera, television is Mr. O’Leary’s comfort zone. He’s half Tony Robbins, half ShamWow guy. He was born to sell.

But he’s also someone who’s never shown much interest in the details of public policy, or even the Conservative Party itself. And his run for leader is still a kind of part-time gig. As an American entertainment personality, even his presence in Canada is part-time.

Remember how Conservatives attack ads went after the last two Liberal leaders, calling one “Just Not Ready” and saying of the other, “He Didn’t Come Back For You”? Mr. O’Leary appears to be Just Not Ready To Come Back For You.

Canada needs a sane, sensible, rights-respecting alternative to the Liberals. It needs a party that knows how to sell, but more importantly has something true to sell. It needs a party whose primary focus is the economy and the well-being of middle-class Canadians, and which understands that economics is a lot more complicated than just mouthing slogans about the evils of taxes. It needs a party capable of governing, and governing well, for all Canadians.

The Conservatives have less than three months to decide whether that’s who they are.

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