Former chair of Conservative leadership race says quick vote on leader possible

OTTAWA — A senior Conservative instrumental in the party’s last leadership race says choosing a new leader at the upcoming convention in April is feasible, but would take a lot of work.

Dan Nowlan, who oversaw the 2017 leadership contest that ended in a photo-finish victory for Andrew Scheer, also says it’s disappointing that the party’s longtime executive director isn’t going to have a formal role to play in that process.

A new leadership race for the party informally started last week after Scheer announced his intention to resign. It was a move that wasn’t entirely unexpected, coming after months of both behind-the-scenes and very public pressure linked to his failure to win power in October.

But that all took a back seat to accusations that surfaced early last week that he’d used party funds to cover the costs of sending his kids to private school.

Caught up in the crossfire of that issue was the party’s executive director, Dustin Van Vugt, who has said he signed off on Scheer’s using the money in that way.

The overseers of the Conservative Fund, the party’s fundraising arm, apparently only learned of that decision last week and strenuously objected, leading to a fierce internal and ongoing fight.

Among the demands from the Fund are a line-by-line audit of Scheer’s expenses as leader that would include a deeper dive into contracts approved during his tenure, a source close to the Fund told The Canadian Press, on condition of anonymity so as to discuss internal Conservative party affairs.

Spokespeople for Scheer, and Van Vugt himself, have declined requests for comment. Among those who sit on the Conservative Fund’s board are former prime minister Stephen Harper. Efforts to reach him for comment have been unsuccessful. The Conservative Party has also declined official comment.

Nowlan, who has been active in the party for decades, called Van Vugt “one of the most obviously hardworking and ethical” people he’s ever worked with.

The two worked closely together during the lead-up to, and execution of, the 2017 leadership race, a 16-month contest that at one point involved 16 candidates, over a dozen debates, and the marshalling of votes from thousands of party members.

Nowlan and Van Vugt took to the stage during each round of voting of 2017 to announce the results, eventually culminating in a 13th-round win for Scheer, by a hair, over Maxime Bernier.

“It is disappointing he won’t have a senior role in the next leadership campaign,” Nowlan said of Van Vugt.

Who will be playing those senior roles is the subject of multiple meetings this week of the Conservative party’s national council.

Part of the discussion will be whether the convention planned for April 2020 is the appropriate time and venue for a leadership vote.

Some in the party have called for the selection of their next leader to take place after that, while others say with a minority government in Ottawa, there is no time to waste.

“It is possible,” Nowlan said of the potentially tight timeline, “but it will take a lot of work.”

One challenge can be found in the party’s own constitution: the leadership vote requires providing the option for a mail-in ballot. Getting those prepared and out the door, and allowing them enough time to come back for an April count, could be tricky.

The leadership organizing committee, which Nowlan ran for the 2017 race, sets the rules of the contest, including the minimum fee required for entry, and the number of signatures a candidate needs to sponsor his or her nomination.

For the 2017 vote, those were $100,000 and 300 party members from at least 30 electoral districts in at least seven different provinces and territories.

At the time, those were considered relatively high barriers to entry, but the contest still produced a broad field of contenders and there is debate this time around about whether there is a way, and demand, to narrow the field.

Despite the absence of the rules, potential candidates’ names are already swirling.

Among them is that of longtime MP Pierre Poilievre. He insisted Monday is has no campaign organization in place because he’s not campaigning for anything, but said conversations about the future are ongoing.

“It’s too early to say what’s going to happen,” he said.

“There will be lots of people who will put their names forward. What I do know is that we need someone who will stand up, fight back, and win.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2019.

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press

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