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Clowntime is over.

For much of the past decade, voters across the democratic world have indulged in the fantasy that they could elect, in essence, a bunch of clowns to lead them: demagogues, dilettantes, billionaire brick-throwers, people with no experience of or fitness for office but only a talent for distraction. Politics was not about electing serious people to make serious decisions in a dangerous world. It was about sending a message, or making a point, or sticking it to the people we don’t like. Or else it was about entertainment. It was only the government, after all. What was the worst that could happen?

Canadians are especially given to this sort of thinking. We have, we imagine, no natural predators. We are likeable (or at least, we like us), we are rich, we are bounded by oceans on three sides, and our nearest neighbour and largest trading partner is the most powerful country on Earth. Does it really matter all that much who leads us? We’ll be all right. We’ll get by.

The past two weeks should have dispelled that illusion. Whether we know it or not, we are at war. Those may not be our soldiers fighting in Ukraine, but they are our weapons, and it is our fight. Vladimir Putin, it can no longer be denied, represents a singular threat to the democratic world. A leader who invades a neighbour for the sole purpose of extinguishing a nascent democracy, who levels whole cities in this pursuit, and who threatens any country that intervenes to stop the carnage with nuclear annihilation – and who can do all this entirely at his own, not-necessarily-rational discretion – is a creature out of our worst nightmares.

The stakes could not possibly be higher. And not only for the peace of the world. With Russia’s economy collapsing under the weight of international sanctions, commodity prices soaring, and inflation at 40-year highs, Canada’s economy is in highly uncertain territory. Deeply held assumptions, born of a decade or more of relative stability – that interest rates would stay low, that fiscal deficits were manageable, that in the end, we’d be all right – are now having to be revised, on the fly.

Perhaps it will be objected that Canada is a bit player in the larger drama that is now being played out. But we are a part of NATO. Our vote matters, as does our counsel, and our example; the collective defence of all will depend upon the resolve that countries like us display, and the sacrifices we are prepared to make. We also share the Arctic Circle with Russia. We cannot assume any longer that it would not test our sovereignty in the North, as it might test our willingness to defend other countries.

Who gets to define what a Canadian Conservative is: our history, or Fox News?

To save the Conservative Party, open the membership doors wide

So it very much matters who leads us. It matters what their policies are, but it matters more who they are: character and judgment, experience and temperament, are suddenly at a premium. With the threat of nuclear armageddon hanging in the air, we are in need of the most surefooted possible political leadership. We need it in government. But we need it also in opposition, in the government-in-waiting.

This Conservative leadership race, then, takes on unusual importance. Opinion will vary on the current Prime Minister’s qualities as a leader, but what is indisputable is that the opposition has a duty to provide the country with an alternative: to elect a leader who could credibly step into the job at any moment and provide as good or better leadership in a crisis.

A great deal of time and energy will be spent in the coming campaign seeking to persuade Conservative voters of the vast ideological differences that supposedly separate the leading candidates. No doubt there are some. But frankly most of these are trivial, in the grand scheme of things. And they fade in importance in times like these.

Given a choice between a candidate whose policies I prefer, but who lacked the requisite qualities of leadership, and a candidate deficient in policy but well supplied in character and judgment, I would unhesitatingly choose the latter. That is the choice that matters in this race: not between right and left, or Blue Tories versus Red, but between adolescence and adulthood.

Not that there is any necessary contradiction between ideology and maturity. If anything the two are linked. If you want your party to get a hearing for its ideas, all the more reason to prefer a leader with conspicuous good judgment. I’ve said it before: the moderation that matters, the moderation that most voters look for, is not of ideology, but of tone and temperament.

This is an especially important lesson for Conservatives to learn. Too many Conservatives make the same mistake as their most blinkered opponents – of confusing being conservative with being a jerk. Stephen Harper was certainly blessed with the ability to irritate Liberals, but in 10 years in government left precious little in the way of a lasting conservative legacy.

What he did leave was a party that was all too prone to picking needless fights and peddling conspiracy theories – the party, or rather that section of it that is attracted to this sort of thing, that thinks the World Economic Forum is a threat to our freedom, but cheered on the lawless mob that occupied Ottawa. To subscribe to such idiocies does not prove you are a principled conservative. It merely marks you as unfit to govern.

That is what the party will have to decide in this race: whether it wants to be a serious party with serious ambitions of governing, or a marginal party for marginal cranks. Again: this is not about ideology! A party that put forward radical proposals to raise Canada’s productivity, to restore order to our finances, to repair our bedraggled military, or to reform our dysfunctional democracy, would be offering the country a useful alternative to the Liberals. With the right salesman, it could find a market.

The country needs a self-confident, ideas-based Conservative Party. Most of all, it needs a party led by grownups, who can persuade a nervous public they have the character and judgment to lead the country through the dark days that might lie ahead – who not only can win, but might deserve to.

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