There is no perfect way to elect a party leader. But the Conservatives seem to have achieved the worst of both worlds with a hybrid system that allows single-issue interest groups to hijack the process, leaving the party vulnerable at election time.
Erin O’Toole’s victory in the Conservative race that ended early Monday illustrated a fundamental design flaw in the ranked-ballot system the party used to select its leader. By allocating equal points to every riding regardless of membership, the Tories encouraged the worst kind of behaviour by candidates eager to pander to special interests.
The system also gave disproportionate weight to a small number of Conservative activists in Quebec, where the party remains a marginal force overall. And it discouraged the synthesis of views needed to win over moderate voters come election time.
Some Conservatives insist the party has fundamentally changed since the 2003 merger of the Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance, to the point of purging Red Tories entirely. However, the coalition of voters the party needs to win government has not changed. Yet, the Conservatives insist on electing their leaders under a process that exacerbates cleavages within the party, rather than building on consensus views.
In 2017, Andrew Scheer’s organizers only needed to sign up a few hundred dairy farmers in Quebec to knock off his chief rival Maxime Bernier, who had promised to abolish supply management in the milk sector. This time around, Mr. O’Toole’s camp targeted gun-rights advocates in Quebec to sail past Peter MacKay in the province.
“Thank you to all the gun owners of Quebec who took out membership cards to vote. You were a turning point in this race,” Guy Morin, the head of a group that has fought the introduction of a provincial arms registry said on its Facebook page on Monday.
Out of the 174,000 first-ballot votes cast in the leadership race, just 7,600 (about 4.3 per cent) came from Quebec. Yet, Quebec accounted for 23 per cent of the total points allocated under the system used to elect the leader. It did not take much imagination on the part of Mr. O’Toole’s organizers to figure out a way to game the system.
Mr. O’Toole managed to sound welcoming enough to anti-abortion activists who had lined up behind Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan to win over most of them on the third and final ballot. But what really pushed him over the top were gun owners in Quebec.
Of course, aligning himself so closely with the gun lobby could come back to haunt Mr. O’Toole at election time. While many Quebeckers are hunters, most voters in the province support tougher measures to restrict gun sales. Hence, Mr. O’Toole’s pandering to the gun lobby makes him an easy target for the Liberals and Bloc Québécois.
He will also be forced to account for his double-talk on social issues. Mr. O’Toole insisted on Tuesday that he has always been clear about his pro-choice stand on abortion. But he refused to state his personal view on abortion when pressed by Mr. MacKay during the English-language leadership debate in June, and only did so after repeated questions from journalists in a post-debate scrum.
Mr. O’Toole was the only leadership candidate to table a Quebec-specific platform, welcoming “Quebec nationalists” into the party. He promised that a federal government led by him would “never interfere in the internal affairs of Quebec.” He vowed to grant Quebec more power to choose its immigrants, including those who come to Canada as refugees or through family-reunification programs, currently Ottawa’s exclusive domain.
In regards to public broadcasting, Mr. O’Toole has promised to preserve funding for the CBC’s French-language service, Radio-Canada, while cutting the budget for the broadcaster’s English-language television division in half. That might require some explaining at election time, if it leads to charges that local news services would suffer from the cuts in English Canada.
Mr. Scheer was never able to move beyond the issues that defined him during his own leadership contest. Mr. O’Toole appears determined to avoid that trap. He wasted no time during his Tuesday news conference in pivoting from the culture-war issues of his campaign with a message that stressed social inclusivity and economic pragmatism.
Mr. O’Toole is also smoother politician than Mr. Scheer, who seemed uncomfortable most of the time. He may yet be able to put the divisive strategy he used to win the leadership behind him.
Still, his was not a pretty victory. He needs to show he aims to rise above it.
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