A seminal event in Canadian politics is taking place. You'd never know it given the dearth of public interest our Conservative Party leadership race is attracting. The U.S. Republican Party presidential race seized that country. Here, dairy farmers capture more front-page headlines.
But our leadership fight is as significant for this country as the one to the south was for theirs. It could well shape our federal politics for a decade or more.
We treat federal elections as more important than leadership campaigns. Wrong. While an election sets the political landscape for up to four years, the choice of leader for the two major parties often has a more enduring impact.
Mackenzie King was a dominant presence for no fewer than seven elections. Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier had similar wingspans. The elections of these leaders and others, such as Pierre Trudeau, Stephen Harper, Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien were of more consequence than single elections.
The right choice means power, while the wrong choice means the wilderness. The right choice means party unity; the wrong choice, lasting division. John Turner's victory over Mr. Chrétien in 1984 spawned bitter Liberal Party infighting that lasted a quarter of a century.
With the right Tory choice, Justin Trudeau could be defeated in short order. The wrong choice – he could be around for a decade or more.
The Conservative Party could go in one of several directions. It could remain a Stephen Harper lookalike. It could go back to its moderate, long-standing Sir John A. tradition. It could go populist.
Or, as it is beginning to appear, it could enter into a march of folly by making a major leadership miscalculation. The two front-runners, Kevin O'Leary and Maxime Bernier, are oddball candidates. One's a free-market libertarian who speaks clumsy English, the other a bombastic unilingual TV celebrity with zero political pedigree.
Yet in a race lacking volatility, Conservatives appear to favour these two men over a clutch of solid choices such as Andrew Scheer, Erin O'Toole, Lisa Raitt and Michael Chong.
Mr. Bernier has some strengths. He's popular in Quebec, is a very good organizer, dresses well, smiles nicely and has strong, defensible policy positions on issues such as supply management.
But how many Canadians are of his libertarian school? Maybe 10 per cent? Of his free-market principles – deregulate, decentralize, privatize, shrink revenues – Mr. Bernier says, "I don't want to make any compromise."
Fine. But Canadians don't like ideologues of the left or right. The country became one of the world's most successful federations via a conciliatory political philosophy employed by moderate and discerning Liberal and Tory leaders.
The federation is the most unified and stable it's been in a long time. Do Conservatives want to mess with it by opting for a leader determined to decentralize – as in his intent to turn over the financing of our health-care system to the provinces?
The tax revenue base has already been sharply contracted by the GST and other cuts. Mr. Bernier wants more heavy chopping, as does Mr. O'Leary. Tax cutters have held sway in this country and elsewhere for a long time. Can they make the case that economic growth and income and social equality rates have fared better compared with times previous?
While Mr. Bernier has a narrow conservative vision, Mr. O'Leary is expansionist and populist. He's got the right idea in wanting to broaden the party's reach. He would shake things up.
But on policy he needs more than snake oil. With little depth on the issues, loose lips, next to no French and no experience, chances are we'd get amateur hour on the Rideau. For all the noise about boosting the annual growth rate to 3 per cent, Mr. O'Leary has no real road map to get there. Playing the insult game, as in calling Alberta Premier Rachel Notley a "vicious, poisonous toxic cocktail of mediocrity," won't get him far.
Given the complex nature of the leadership voting process, predictions about this race could be way off. There's still a month to go before Conservative members make a decision of great consequence. They have time to reassess.