The race to replace ousted Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole took a promising turn last week when the party announced that the cut-off date for signing up new members – the people who will choose the next leader – will be June 3.
This is later than some expected – in particular Pierre Poilievre, the only declared candidate. He was enjoying a healthy head start in a contest whose outcome will be announced Sept. 10.
An earlier cut-off might have dissuaded others from throwing their hat in the ring. As it is, Jean Charest, the former federal Progressive Conservative leader and former premier of Quebec, is expected to join the race. Patrick Brown, Michael Chong, Tasha Kheiriddin, Leslyn Lewis and Peter Mackay are all believed to be considering it.
The later cut-off date, and the long campaign through the summer, will give candidates a shot at signing up lots of new members. The more the merrier.
This is critical for the party. The more it can do to ensure there is a broad range of people from across Canada choosing the next leader, the better the odds that it won’t elect someone captured by a small group of paid-up voting members pushing narrow interests.
And that means there is one more step the party must take: make membership free.
That was one of the recommendations in an internal report commissioned by Mr. O’Toole last fall after the Conservatives lost a third election in a row to the Trudeau Liberals.
It would help to address serious problems in the party’s leadership-election system, which has repeatedly been exploited by both activists and candidates.
Paid-up members use mail-in ballots to rank candidates in order of preference, in a system that tries to balance regional disparities in party support by assigning 100 points to each of Canada’s 338 ridings.
A candidate gets one point for each percentage point of the vote he or she wins in a riding. As long as a riding has at least 100 voting members, it gets the same weight no matter how many members it has, or how few. The winner is the candidate who captures the majority of the 33,800 points up for grabs.
In 2020, Mr. O’Toole took advantage of this by signing up a small number of gun-rights activists in Quebec ridings with low Conservative membership, and raking in the disproportionate points their votes produced.
His predecessor, Andrew Scheer, did the same thing by promising a handful of Quebec dairy farmers that he wouldn’t touch their beloved supply management system, which helped him narrowly defeat Maxime Bernier.
Mr. O’Toole was also able to exploit the ranked-ballot system, by positioning himself as the second choice of two hard core social conservatives on the four-person ballot. He was rewarded with many of their votes when they dropped off the ballot after the first and second rounds, allowing him to cross the finish line ahead of the more centrist Mr. Mackay.
But once elected leader, Mr. O’Toole reversed his positions on carbon taxes, vaccine mandates and gun control, and came out in favour of abortion rights and LGBTQ rights.
The fewer than 91,000 paid-up party members – a mere one-third of 1 per cent of the Canadian electorate – who’d voted for Mr. O’Toole in 2020 accused him of betraying them in 2021. They’re not wrong. But the party’s narrow membership put Mr. O’Toole in an impossible position. To win the leadership, he had to appeal to a crankish few; to win the election, he had to appeal to millions of other Canadians – the centrist many.
The Conservative system for choosing a leader guaranteed this unhappy outcome. Blame the game, not the player. It’s why Conservatives have to change the rules of the game.
The party needs to free itself from the tyranny of a minority of single-issue diehards. It needs a party membership that looks more like its voters, who are mostly reasonable, middle-of-the-road Canadians looking to cast a ballot for whoever they think will do the best job of managing the economy and governing thoughtfully.
The long campaign period, and the late cut-off date for signing up members, will help. But removing all barriers to new membership by making it free would go even further in the Conservatives’ critical effort to stop being held back by a narrow, unrepresentative fringe.
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