The Parliamentary Budget Officer’s latest forecast puts the federal deficit for the current year at $252-billion. The economy is now projected to shrink by roughly 14 per cent. Some eight million people have applied for the federal emergency benefit. All of these numbers are likely to get worse for some time, as the country struggles to emerge from lockdown without igniting an explosion of new COVID-19 cases.
But meanwhile, in the Conservative Party, everything is pretty much as it was before the pandemic began. The same leader speaks for the party – notwithstanding his declared decision to step down earlier this year – while the race to succeed him, suspended in March, has now resumed with the same candidates and the same rules, albeit with a new finishing line: Aug. 21, rather than June 27.
Not only the world has changed. The political landscape has as well, not least in the relative standing of the parties: The Liberals have opened up a nine-point lead over the Tories, on average, in the most recent polls. An enormous debate is taking shape about the future direction of the country – how to get out of lockdown, how to put the economy back on its feet, whether to try to return government to the not-terribly-confining limits observed before the crisis, or whether the postcrisis world calls upon it to play some expansive new role.
The Liberals, the NDP, the Bloc – they’ll all be there, with a leader in place and a vision, largely shared, of what the “new normal” should look like. (The Greens are in the midst of their own leadership race, but no one doubts what they stand for.) And the Conservatives? For the next four months, it will be represented by the familiar but unloved face of Andrew Scheer, whose mandate to lead the party, uncertain enough before his resignation, is now all but extinguished.
How could it be otherwise? The party has some big decisions to make, not only about the leadership, but about what it stands for – a pressing necessity before the crisis, but an absolute imperative now. Until it does, Mr. Scheer can hardly commit it in one direction or another. But the opportunity the leadership race presented to debate its future direction, or at least decide it, has been lost.
A short race with a few candidates would have left it largely to the new leader to determine the party’s course. A long race with a larger field might have offered a clash of ideas for the membership at large to choose between. But the race that actually emerged – lengthy enough, even on the original schedule, to leave the party in limbo for months, but with a field, due to some overrestrictive entry requirements, of just four candidates, none compelling – promises only to compound the sense of drift and irrelevance.
So for the next four months, while monumental decisions of lasting importance are being made in Ottawa, the party will have next to nothing to say about any of them, while it goes through the agonies of choosing between Peter MacKay, Erin O’Toole, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan as its next leader. The first two are well-known, but not for their philosophies of government: As glad-handing pragmatists, they are essentially indistinguishable, devoted largely to getting themselves elected and little else – of which Mr. O’Toole’s belated adoption of a few populist buzzwords is more proof than refutation.
The latter two offer a contrast, though not with each other: Both are social conservatives, obscure as individuals but backed by a well-organized movement. Social conservatism in principle, tempered by compassion and a practical sense of what is achievable, might have something to offer. But in the form in which it has congealed, increasingly infused by Trumpian populism and xenophobia, it is little more than a synonym for extremism. A “debate” over whether homosexuality is a choice, or whether the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada is working for China, would little serve either the Conservatives or the country.
We are left with something of a catastrophe. The remainder of the campaign is unlikely to offer much further enlightenment, even if it were not hobbled by the lingering constraints of the lockdown. And whoever wins, the party’s basic dilemma will remain. Does anyone believe that any of these candidates would have the chops, as leader, to develop a serious and achievable program of government in tune with the needs of the postcrisis world – let alone sell it to the public?
There is still a chance to avoid this disaster, provided the party’s national council has the courage to seize it. The race began in a different world. It has not only been interrupted by the crisis: Its very foundations have been overturned. The kind of leader the party requires, the conversation it needs to have and the issues it has to confront are altogether different than was understood at the time the race was launched, way back in January.
So: Start over. A new race, with new rules. Do away with arbitrary entrance requirements, imposed for no reason but to limit the number of candidates; throw open the race to all comers. There’s no danger of an election any time soon; no harm, then, in pushing the vote back a couple of months, to late October. Would candidates of stature emerge, though they were unwilling to run before? They’d have to. Their party needs them. Their country needs them.
These are not ordinary times. The immediate crisis, in which we were concerned to prevent the deaths of tens of thousands of people, may be passing. But the crisis to come, that of dealing with the economic and social fallout from the first, is only just getting under way. If the Conservatives fail to show up for that debate, if they fail to offer a credible alternative to the parties of the left, they will deserve the oblivion to which they will be consigned.
The party will still need a leader while all this is going on. Fine. Let the caucus choose an interim leader, as they did after the 2015 election. There is still time to get this right. But this race, with this field, is not what the times demand.
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