Jean Charest, the former leader of both the defunct Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Liberal Party of Quebec, is expected to announce Thursday that he is running for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada.
That’s a lot of different parties. Mr. Charest’s wanderings might leave the impression that he has mutable loyalties.
Or, at least, it could be spun that way. On Monday, Conservative Senator Leo Housakos labelled Mr. Charest a “Conservative of convenience,” while Jenni Byrne, a one-time senior adviser to former PM Stephen Harper, recently characterized Mr. Charest on Twitter as a “Liberal who campaigned against Stephen Harper.”
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Mr. Housakos (campaign co-chair) and Ms. Byrne (strategist) both work for Pierre Poilievre, the first person to join the Conservative leadership race, and the presumed front-runner. Their pre-emptive attacks on a serious potential rival has raised speculation that the leadership race is going to be an ugly little spat about who qualifies as a “real” Conservative.
If that happens, it won’t be good for the Tories and it won’t be good for Canada. It will leave the only opposition party within shooting distance of forming government more divided than ever.
And divided it is. The Conservatives are enduring their third leadership race in five years and their second in 18 months. Ever since Mr. Harper’s departure, the party has been looking for – and failing to find – someone who can please both its tiny, ideologically driven membership base, which elects leaders, and the much bigger and broader Canadian population, which elects governments.
Right now, the base appears to have the upper hand. This was implicit in Ms. Byrne’s tweet, in which she also said, accusingly, that Mr. Charest “supported the long-gun registry, raised taxes [and] brought in a carbon tax.”
How could a Conservative do that! Except that there are some Conservatives who think that putting a price on pollution is an inherently conservative idea. Among them is Preston Manning – the godfather of the movement that eventually became the Harper government.
And as much as some from the narrow fringe may consider it heresy to advocate for gun control, Mr. Charest fought against the Harper government’s plan to scrap the long-gun registry while he was Quebec premier because the registry was popular in the province. He was a provincial politician standing up to Ottawa, something Conservatives usually admire.
It’s also bizarre to chastise Mr. Charest for being a “Liberal.” It betrays a real misunderstanding of the province’s politics.
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The Liberal Party of Quebec has long been the federalist party, and Mr. Charest led it at a time when its chief mission was to keep the separatist Parti Québécois out of power – which he did for nine years. But within the Quebec spectrum, the Liberals were the province’s more conservative party; the PQ were more on the left. Mischaracterizing Mr. Charest as a wicked “Liberal” is a dead end, especially in Quebec where federal elections are often decided.
This questioning of Conservative credentials – the suggestion that holding heretical positions is a first-class ticket to the stake – is a betrayal of what it means to be a Canadian Conservative. It’s as if Canada’s founding political party has been captured by people who think it didn’t exist prior to Mr. Harper. They take their cues on what it means to be a conservative from their American cousins, not Canadian history.
That history includes someone like Emmett Hall. A Saskatchewan Conservative, he was chosen by John Diefenbaker to chair the royal commission that, in 1964, recommended the adoption of national, universal health care. He used to be called the father of medicare.
Would he be welcome in the Conservative Party today?
In the United States of Fox News, Republicans who fail to show adequate fealty to Donald Trump are dismissed as RINOs – Republicans in Name Only. A similar mindset, of “real” Conservatives vs. CINOs, risks taking hold here.
Let’s not go there. The Conservatives need to embrace leadership candidates who are in favour of carbon pricing, and against it. For more gun control, and against it.
Because if it insists that only certain kinds of conservatives can be a Conservative, it’s going to once again find that only like-minded people will vote for it. And there aren’t enough of those in Canada for it to get elected to government.
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