Skip to main content

"Any interest in running for the Conservative leadership?" Michael Chong was asked after a panel appearance at the Trudeau Foundation Conference last weekend in Ottawa.

"Let's wait and see," said the Ontario MP who authored the 2013 Reform Act. "It's a big commitment." The boyish-looking 43-year-old said it would require him raising almost $2-million. But he gave the impression he is clearly interested – and so he should be.

He comes stacked with good qualifications, not the least of which was the dexterity and diplomacy he demonstrated in getting the reform legislation, which gives MPs more powers to remove the party leader, put into law. Mr. Chong had to dilute some provisions, but given the antagonistic attitude toward democratic reform in the Prime Minister's Office, it was still a noteworthy feat.

He is respected by both harder-line and moderate Tories and could be one to bridge any divide. He's from Ontario, a better fit for the party than would be another leader from Alberta. And he is the right age – the same as Justin Trudeau – to appeal to a new generation.

Mr. Chong's background is multiethnic. His father emigrated from Hong Kong, his mother was a Dutch immigrant. Tragically, they both died in separate car accidents at the same rural intersection near Fergus, Ont.

Their son overcame the adversity. He became a member of Parliament at 34 and in 2006 was named to two portfolios in Stephen Harper's cabinet – Intergovernmental Affairs and Sports. But he soon resigned over a split with the prime minister on recognizing the Québécois as a nation within a united Canada. Mr. Chong thought this was tantamount to supporting ethnic nationalism. The break with the boss meant permanent diminution in the Harper ranks but rather than sulk on the sidelines, Mr. Chong found a way to make a difference.

In the audience when Mr. Chong spoke at the Trudeau Foundation, a non-partisan charity promoting innovation and research in the humanities, was former prime minister Joe Clark. He sounded cautiously optimistic that with the Harper defeat, the more progressively oriented members of the party such as Mr. Chong will gain ground. Many Tories, Mr. Clark noted, showed a tougher line to fit with the leader's positions. But now they are free to speak their minds. Mr. Clark finds it ironic that while Mr. Harper gets credit for unifying the party, he sidelined its progressive wing during his stewardship.

It will be difficult for a moderate to win the leadership, added Mr. Clark (who served twice as party leader), because the riding associations are under the control of the old guard. If there is an early leadership convention, he said, a Harperite would have a big advantage.

But even among Harper loyalists there is some rethinking going on. Tony Clement, another likely leadership contestant, was the minister who cancelled the long-form census in 2011. He now says – better late than never – that the decision was not the right one. "I'll take the blame for that. …" In hindsight, he said, "I think I would have done it differently."

In the meantime, before a new permanent chief is selected, the party has acted wisely in choosing Rona Ambrose as interim leader. She is supplanting the malice in the party culture with a more open and conciliatory outlook. She wants it to return to being a big-tent party.

At the Trudeau Foundation gathering, its chairman Roy Heenan noted his satisfaction at seeing the Conservatives in attendance. Mr. Heenan, who headed up the law firm where Pierre Trudeau worked in retirement, was asked about how the father would have viewed son Justin's ascent. "He neither objected to or encouraged the idea of his sons going into politics," he said. "But he would have been delighted to see Justin become Prime Minister, especially because of the narrowness of mind of the government he defeated."

With the people in the Prime Minister's Office who ran that kind of government gone, with people such as Ms. Ambrose and Mr. Chong becoming prominent players, that narrowness might soon be old history.