Supporters of the federal Conservative Party based in Western Canada are slowly awakening to a discomforting reality: The next leader may not emanate from their neck of the woods.
This is a not-insignificant development – the first time this would be the case in more than 15 years. The West has been the dependable backbone of the Conservatives since the party’s rebirth in 2004, when Stephen Harper took over. After Andrew Scheer announced he was stepping down, Western Conservatives were buoyed by reports that Rona Ambrose, the popular former Tory MP from Alberta, might seek the job.
But signals of interest from the Ambrose camp grow fainter by the day. And there is no one from the West ready to stand in her place – at least no one with broad appeal, who would stand a reasonable chance of winning the country in a federal election.
Consequently, Western Conservatives are looking at the alternatives likely to be on offer. While no one has yet formally announced a bid, there are indications that a handful are ready to declare at any moment. And if there is one name that scares party members residing west of Ontario, it’s Jean Charest.
Mr. Charest’s possible candidacy does have many in the party excited. There are few considering the job who have greater name recognition and experience. Long-time Conservatives will forever be grateful for the major role he played in bringing the party back from exile after it was all but wiped out in the 1993 federal election. He also had a pivotal role in defeating the Quebec referendum in 1995, helping avert a national crisis. His name still has cachet in that province, one in which the Conservatives need to make fresh inroads.
So, he would bring a lot to the table, unquestionably.
But he would lug a lot of baggage with him, too.
Many in the party remember Mr. Charest’s time as premier of Quebec (2003 to 2012), when he became one of the more enlightened provincial leaders on climate change. He was the first premier to bring in a form of carbon tax. But it was his constant, stinging criticism of Mr. Harper that many in the party will never forget.
Mr. Charest was incensed that Mr. Harper chose to align federal environmental policy with that of the United States rather than taking a more ambitious, independent approach. During that period, Mr. Charest never passed up an opportunity to slam the federal Tories’ approach to what he considered the most pressing issue of the day.
While some would see this as proof that he is precisely what the party needs – someone with a modern view on climate policy – many supporters in the West would not. People such as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, who is widely influential in federal Conservative circles, would undoubtedly have serious problems with a leader who plans to bring in a progressive climate policy with all the heartburn it might create for the energy industry.
But Mr. Charest’s problems in the West don’t stop there.
Recently, The Globe and Mail broke the news that he was part of a team at law firm McCarthy Tétrault advising Huawei, the Chinese technology behemoth, on the company’s efforts to get involved in Canada’s 5G cellular network. This is decidedly at odds with the federal Conservative Party’s current position that Canada should ban Huawei from the country’s 5G network, aligning itself with countries such as the U.S. and Australia.
The story also included an anecdote from a forum Mr. Charest participated in, alongside former federal Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay. In a discussion, Mr. Charest criticized the U.S. position on China, saying Canada’s policy toward the Asian superpower had been hijacked by U.S. President Donald Trump. This prompted Mr. MacKay to remark: “I’m picking a democracy every time when it comes to how we align ourselves” – a devastating retort, one that prompted some to suggest Mr. Charest may be the Conservatives’ Manchurian candidate.
If, as expected, Mr. Charest announces his candidacy in the next week or two, we will see how he addresses these matters. Because he’s wise enough to understand that he will have to, especially if he is going to allay concerns about his bid in Western Canada.
Right now, however, it’s difficult to see how the Quebec politician represents the kind of leader who would be palatable to the party right across the country.
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