Peter MacKay-Erin O’Toole

Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole

The 2020 Tory leadership race has shaped up to be a boring, pale reflection of the exciting contest that marked the party’s 2017 race.

In 2017, 14 candidates fought it out for the Conservative brass ring. The contenders – for the most part – represented different factions, and featured a battle between people with substantive policy differences.

Maxime Bernier the anti-establishment libertarian. Michael Chong the Green Tory. Brad Trost and Pierre Lemieux the social conservatives. Kellie Leitch the Red Tory cum populist-nationalist. Lisa Raitt the socially progressive Red.

Kevin O’Leary ran less on policy, than the force of his considerable personality before bowing out.

Erin O’Toole and Andrew Scheer also ran light on policy, trying to position themselves as the centre-ish goldilocks candidates for down-ballot support. In Scheer’s case, his only noted policy was his fanatical defence of the supply-management dairy cartel.

The race was fought with a healthy number of debates held in almost every major region of the country, and the large number of candidates forced the contenders to stand out from the pack.

Contrast the 2017 race with the 2020 race, and the reflection is not flattering for the party.

By necessity, COVID-19 has nixed most of the debates and put a hard dampener on campaign tour events, but the virus cannot be blamed for most of the problems.

While packed stages with 14 candidates and large crowds are off the table, a camera pointed at four candidates on the stage were possible. The party held just a single one of these. True North News tried to hold a second, but it was effectively scuttled when Peter MacKay pulled out at the 11th hour. The result is that CPC members have hardly had any chance to see these candidates face off outside of duelling Facebook memes and news releases. This has added to the otherwise small contrast in ideas and styles between the two front runners, Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole.

And while the two “second-tier” candidates – Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan – have been a bit more policy heavy – they have received little attention from the media, and have little chance of an upset.

MacKay and O’Toole are the only two candidates with any realistic chance of winning, and the contrast between the two men is mostly rhetorical. Both support renamed carbon taxes on industry, like Alberta’s TIER. Both have not committed to any significant reduction in federal spending to balance the budget within a term in office. Both support the continuation of the supply management dairy cartel. Both will not commit to any specific on Equalization reform, or to reopen the constitution to address Western issues. Both have committed to upholding the status quo on abortion, although O’Toole has not shown the open distain that Peter MacKay has for the “stinking albatross” of social conservatives.

The differences between the two candidates largely boil down to their campaign rhetoric and style. MacKay is openly campaigning as the moderate successor to the Progressive Conservatives. O’Toole campaigned in the middle of the pack in 2017, but he smartly realized that there was no Bernier-style candidate in this race to carry the libertarian or more hardcore conservative banner in this race. As such, he has positioned himself as the “True Blue” choice.

The biggest difference between the two candidates, is largely who is supporting them. MacKay dominates the Atlantic provinces and Quebec, and in the absence of a Western candidate in the race, O’Toole is poised to win it. As with federal elections, the ultimate decision will boil down to Ontario.

Undoubtedly, federal Wexit activists are pining for a MacKay win. With very little support between Winnipeg and Vancouver, he will be easier to portray as an Eastern establishment politician with little regard for the West. While O’Toole’s Western policies may be similar to MacKay’s, he at least has allies in the neighbourhood.

O’Toole’s abstinence from attacking social conservatives will likely serve him well on down-ballot support. As Sloan and Lewis likely drop off in the first and second rounds, the smart money is on their next choices going disproportionately to O’Toole.

Lewis in particular has stepped out of obscurity in this race and will be well positioned for a front bench role if she manages to win a seat in the next election. Sloan may be doomed to suffer the fate of Brad Trost; thanked for his second-choice support, but shuffled off to the back benches, and potentially out of a nomination.

Candidates almost always run to the centre after capturing their party’s leadership or nomination. It’s the natural pull of political gravity, but on August 21st, CPC members are voting more for a brand, than a set of principles.

I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

Derek Fildebrandt is Publisher of the Western Standard and President of Wildrose Media Corp. dfildebrandt@westernstandardonline.com

Publisher, President & CEO

Derek Fildebrandt is Publisher, President & CEO of Western Standard New Media Corp. based in the Calgary Headquarters. He served from 2015-2019 as an Alberta MLA & Wildrose finance critic. From 2009-2014 he worked for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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