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Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidates Erin O'Toole and Peter MacKay wait for the start of the French Leadership Debate in Toronto on June 17, 2020.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party held a leadership debate in which front-running candidates Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole auditioned to replace outgoing Leader Andrew Scheer, without having anything of their own to say.

The Conservative Party appears to be sliding into that comfortable trap of mimicking the former prime minister’s approach to conservatism, half a decade after Mr. Harper left the scene. But we live in very different, far more frightening times, though you wouldn’t know it from what went on Thursday night.

The English-debate lacked the chippiness of Wednesday’s French-language debate, with Mr. O’Toole for the most part limiting any criticism of Mr. MacKay, the perceived front-runner.

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But it was a dreary affair, devoid of energy or ideas. Because he is the front-runner, Mr. MacKay benefited from the torpor. But really, who cares?

Mr. O’Toole, MP for Durham, stressed that he could win over those all-important suburban voters in Greater Toronto where his own riding is located. How? Based on what he said Thursday night, I really don’t know.

Mr. MacKay, a co-founder of the party with Mr. Harper and a senior minister in three Conservative governments, pleaded for party unity. Fine. But how does his vision for Canada in the coming decade differ from that of Mr. Harper – or, for that matter, from that of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau? Beats me.

Both candidates pledged to fight racism, to improve the lives of First Nations on reserve – the most tired and unfulfilled promise in Canadian public life – and to tackle climate change. Though they spoke with great passion – ”I’m a patriot,” Mr. O’Toole bravely declared at one point. “I love this country” – anyone would be hard pressed to explain their vision for Canada in the third decade of the 21st century, in the wake of the worst pandemic since the Spanish flu and the worst economic crisis since the Depression.

The only dynamism and innovation to be found in the Conservative Party right now resides in its social conservative wing. Derek Sloan, a rookie MP, would withdraw Canada from its commitment to fight climate change, would abandon the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, would pull out of the World Health Organization and cut back on immigration. He’s also suspicious of vaccines. For her part, Leslyn Lewis, a lawyer, repeatedly stressed her proposal for legislation on parental rights.

These are, for this writer, destructive ideas that would wreck the party if adopted. But at least the socons are willing to innovate.

Mr. MacKay and Mr. O’Toole criticized the Liberals for not closing down borders sooner when the coronavirus arrived in Canada. Maybe they would have done things differently, maybe not. But other than fretting over the spiralling deficit – what would they do instead, eliminate wage subsidies? – they had no plan for reviving the Canadian economy.

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To be fair, both Mr. MacKay and Mr. O’Toole have reasonably fleshed out platforms with some interesting ideas that you can find on their websites. But during their last opportunity to address their party and the country, the two front-runners hid in plain sight.

More than one Conservative thinker has noticed that the party under Andrew Scheer and, soon, under either Erin O’Toole or Peter MacKay, proposes a federal government that is small, pragmatic and deferential to the provinces.

This was how Mr. Harper governed, and for the most part he governed well. But we are in the midst of one of the great crises in the life of this nation. Have the Conservatives nothing to say about it?

Astonishingly, there was little discussion of the Liberals’ embarrassing failure this week to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council. Beyond rubbishing China, what is the Conservative vision on foreign policy? On defence? On immigration policy, which lies in shambles because of the closed borders?

Mr. MacKay or Mr. O’Toole could become prime minister. Yes, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are popular right now. Canadians tend to rally round their governments in times of crisis. But by next year, as the economy struggles to recover and unemployment remains high, the mood could sour. If so, the opposition parties could combine to bring the minority government down and force an election.

In that election, voters would consider the Conservatives as a possible alternative. What would that alternative look like? From what went on Thursday night, it’s hard to tell.

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