Picture this: The Canadian economy is faltering, people are worrying about their jobs and their futures, and a major federal opposition party is putting most of its energy into a leadership campaign that it hopes will revive its fortunes.
The party in question is being led by a placeholder, and Canadians are wondering whether the front-running leadership candidate is too out of touch with vast swaths of the country, and too inexperienced, to be prime minister.
But enough about Justin Trudeau and the 2013 Liberal leadership race. Let’s focus on the Conservative Party, and their dismal 2020.
It is tempting to write off the Conservatives at this moment. The extended leadership of Andrew Scheer, who resigned in December but has been unable to leave a job he doesn’t want, has been zombie-like.
At the same time, the campaign by the favourite to replace Mr. Scheer, Peter MacKay, has been gaffe-filled and uninspiring. The campaign of Erin O’Toole, the candidate with the best shot at beating Mr. MacKay, and who like the latter is a long-time moderate, is nevertheless built on fringe themes such as a distrust of global institutions including the World Health Organization.
Another candidate, Derek Sloan, embarrassed the party when he questioned whether Canada’s Hong Kong-born Chief Public Health Officer, Theresa Tam, was working for China.
For Canadians with more pressing concerns during the pandemic, the messages coming from the Conservatives have seemed tone-deaf. The party has dropped sharply in polls measuring voting intention since the start of the year. At the same time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has taken a 21-point jump in popularity since March. Where the Liberals have appeared in control and competent, the Conservatives have come across as out of touch.
It’s unwise to write them off, though, or to ignore the circumstances they find themselves in.
Even without the complication of a leadership race, the official Opposition would still run the risk of being sidelined by the peculiar dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And it’s not the Conservatives’ fault that the timing of Mr. Scheer’s resignation led them to call a leadership convention for June 27 – an event since cancelled and replaced by a mail-in vote in August.
It should be remembered, too, that leadership campaigns are never pretty. The candidates are trying to win the support of party members – appealing to the base, in other words. It makes sense for them to play to the grievances their decided voters most care about, even if those issues don’t always resonate with the broader public.
Back in 2013, the Liberals were the party in trouble, while the Harper government seemed to be on cruise control to re-election. Few considered the Liberals a threat; many said it was time to throw in the towel and merge with the NDP. And the party’s leadership race was not particularly edifying.
Mr. Trudeau, the front-runner, was accused by his opponents of being an empty suit whose privileged background prevented him from understanding the middle class. The progressive wing of the party saw him as too right wing.
His main competitor for the job, Marc Garneau, warned against an “entry-level” leader. Some said Mr. Trudeau’s family name would be an albatross around the party’s neck in the West; others said it would be poison in Quebec.
We all know what happened next. A political party’s fortunes rarely run in a straight line between the selection of a new leader and the next general election.
If there’s reason to criticize the Conservatives, it’s on tactical grounds. They might have been smarter to name a respected caucus member as interim leader (the Liberals chose Bob Rae after the 2011 election), put Mr. Scheer out to pasture and postpone the race until 2021.
But that’s not a fatal error. Conservative Party members will choose a new leader this summer. What happens next will depend on the winner’s success at uniting the party and forging a platform that appeals beyond the base. It will also depend on the public’s long-term impression of the Liberals’ performance during the pandemic.
In other words, it’s never wise to write off a floundering opposition party. No one knows that better than the Conservatives.