OTTAWA — New Brunswick MP John Williamson framed the ongoing Conservative leadership race as a colour war Wednesday, with progressive “reds” and traditional “blues” set to battle over the direction of the party.
His assessment came as he announced he’s exploring his own leadership bid, calling the race “wide open.”
“I think it’s clear that Peter MacKay has sewn up the Red Tory bloc and there is a huge element of blue conservatives on the right which are looking for a candidate,” he said.
“Erin O’Toole is moving in that direction, trying to occupy that space, but that’s not his natural home.”
O’Toole, in launching his campaign this week, described himself as a “true blue” Conservative. In the past, though, O’Toole has been understood to be closer to the wing of the party once led by MacKay. The former MP from Nova Scotia was at the helm of the Progressive Conservatives — the reds — when the party merged with the Canadian Alliance — the blues — to form the current Conservative Party of Canada.
Both O’Toole and MacKay are the only two candidates to have submitted full application packages to the party so far: answers to a lengthy questionnaire, the first $25,000 of the non-refundable $200,000 entry fee, and a third of the required signatures. MacKay’s application has now been formally approved, while O’Toole is awaiting sign-off.
Alberta MP Garnett Genuis said Wednesday what he’s looking for is a conversation during the race that bridges all the divides.
“I think as a party we can talk about issues and ideas that are particularly relevant to Canadians but I don’t think we’re a group of three or four narrowly defined sub-tribes,” he said.
“I think we’re a vast group of Conservatives with different combinations of different views on different issues.”
Genuis was responding to the frustration among many in the party with two prospective candidates, who in recent days have put forward highly controversial viewpoints opposing LGBTQ rights and access to abortion.
Both Richard Decarie and Derek Sloan are seeking to enter the leadership race as social conservatives, the moniker attached to people in the party who believe “traditional” values are under siege by more modern factions.
Social conservatives have, in the past, had a powerful presence in the party. But, current leader Andrew Scheer’s alignment with them is widely seen as having cost his party victory in the fall federal election. Among other things, he’s refused to march in LGBTQ Pride parades.
Whether a candidate would do so has become an early defining policy point in the current leadership race. MacKay has applied to march in the Toronto parade, which will take place the same weekend as the leadership vote, while O’Toole said he’d march in a parade but not one like Toronto, where police are barred from participating.
Marilyn Gladu, who has submitted part of the application to the party to run, though is still gathering signatures, has also said she will march.
Williamson said what he thinks party members are looking for in the race is a “movement conservative” — a phrase applied to people active in the centre-right in Canada, but outside the traditional political party structure. As the past national director of one of the larger communities in that sphere, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, he is seen to fit that mould.
That particular space in the race could have belonged to Pierre Poilievre, who until last week was intending to run. Though a longtime Conservative MP, he was widely respected within the party for his dedication to traditional conservative ideology and philosophy.
While some leadership candidates appear to be moving swiftly to try and shift the party’s thinking on social conservative issues ahead, one Conservative noted for his relatively progressive environmental policy said Wednesday the party isn’t moving fast enough on that subject.
Michael Chong, who ran for party leadership in 2017 on a platform that included a revenue-neutral carbon tax, declared Wednesday he won’t run again.
The party’s thinking on environmental policy, foreign aid spending and defence spending is taking its time evolving, he said, and the time isn’t right yet for him to try for leadership.
“The first time you can run to put some ideas out there and make sure they are part of the discussion,” he said.
“The second time you run, you have to have a path to victory.”
Former Quebec premier Jean Charest and Rona Ambrose, who served as interim party leader after Stephen Harper stepped down, are also out.
There are, however, at several others people actively engaged in signing up supporters and raising funds to enter the race. That includes Alberta businessman Rick Peterson, who launched his bid Wednesday — his second time vying for the job. Several others are thinking over whether they could meet the requirements.
Conservative party members will elect a new leader on June 27.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 29, 2020.
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press