Jean Charest, the former premier of Quebec, was the odd man out in this week’s dust-up between Conservative leadership candidates at the Ottawa convention centre.
The crucial question for Charest, if not Conservatives themselves, is whether the same is true about the entire federal party. If the crowd at the Canada Strong and Free Networking Conference is representative of the Conservative party as a whole, Charest and his brand of politics are an outlier force.
Or, to put it more frankly, it may be now that the old, progressive conservatism is the real fringe movement in the Conservative Party of Canada.
It was the chorus of boos greeting Charest that showed just how much he was in unfriendly territory Thursday night. Standing in a convention centre that was near ground zero of the Ottawa occupation this winter, Charest had the nerve to call the protest illegal.
That’s not what the crowd, or the other candidates, wanted to hear. They howled outrage. Not only is Charest the only non-Ontario contender in this race, he is also the only would-be leader who isn’t looking to align himself with the angry mob that put the capital city and crucial border points under siege in February.
He’s also not declaring war on the media or the CBC, conflicted on abortion rights or nostalgic for the days of Stephen Harper. All any candidate needed to do to get the crowd cheering Thursday was to whip up rage against “legacy media,” elites and anything else deemed “liberal.” Even the moderators got in on the act, positing that Conservatives keep losing elections because the media gangs up on social conservatives.
No, Charest pointed out at one early stage of the debate – Conservatives are still paying a high political price for their “barbaric cultural practices” tip line during the 2015 election, he said. A modern Conservative party has to be welcoming to new Canadians and national in outlook. His own supporters cheered. Many in the room did not.
This isn’t just a question of whether Charest will win when the votes are all counted in September. It goes to the heart of what the Conservative party is all about, after losing three elections and the discipline of power they had during the Harper years.
Only Scott Aitchison, who did himself a lot of favours with his low-key, let’s-get-along interventions through the night, seemed to agree with Charest that a Conservative party drenched in anger is doomed to stay in opposition forever.
“If we put on a show that is divisive and nasty with each other, I just don’t see how that unites all Conservatives,” Aitchison said.
“I don’t see how it shows to Canadians that we can govern, we can lead.”
The tension between Charest and front-runner Pierre Poilievre reminded me of the days when the Reform party, led by Preston Manning, was emerging as a threat to the old Progressive Conservative party of Brian Mulroney. Back in those days, in the early 1990s, it was hard to imagine Charest, then a cabinet minister, darkening the door of a Reform gathering. The party didn’t survive that split. In 1993, Reform won dozens of seats in the election and Charest was left as leader of a two-MP party – which got swallowed up by Harper’s unite-the-right takeover.
You have to wonder, given the crowd dynamics Thursday night, whether that mathematical ratio once again looms on the right. Then again, this conference used to be called the Manning Networking Conference, so maybe there’s a whole other kind of conservatism out there that didn’t feel welcome either at this gathering.
I spoke to Manning when the crowd was exiting the hall Thursday. He greeted me warmly, as he always does, and I asked what he thought of the debate. He winced a little, gestured toward the stage and said he wished it hadn’t taken the tone it did.
Others stopped me on the way out to say much the same thing; that Justin Trudeau and his Liberals would be dining out on what the Conservatives put on display. But these people may not be representative of what now is the Conservative base in Canada.
Charest and his team will no doubt be reflecting on that scene at the conference, and whether it’s wise or even possible to lead a party populated by partisans more interested in knocking things down than building anything up. No one talked of climate change, Canada-U.S. relations or even Ukraine in any substantial way.
But those are just the observations of a “legacy media” spectator sitting at the back, as unwelcome in the room as the ex-premier and former leader of a very different conservative party.
Susan Delacourt is a national affairs columnist.