The Conservative leadership race is widely mocked by pundits as a too-large collection of relative nobodies running to replace Stephen Harper as the party’s second full-time leader. At one point there were nearly 18 potential candidacies being considered. Some of the early favourites chose not to run. Former MP Jason Kenney’s bid to unite-the-right in Alberta removed one frontrunner and former defense minister Peter MacKay deciding to practice law and spend time with his young family took out another marquee name.
Yet the leadership contest is shaping up with a relatively young cast of characters – former foreign affairs minister Maxime Bernier is the eldest of the candidates at 53 – with a wide array of styles, priorities, and policy preferences.
Bernier represents the libertarian wing of the party and Kellie Leitch, another former cabinet minister, is running a populist, identity-politics campaign. MP Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills), is a Red Tory.
The social conservative wing of the party may have to sort things out a bit with MP Brad Trost (University-Saskatoon) officially entering the race and former MP Pierre Lemieux (Glengarry-Prescott-Russell) exploring the possibility of running. To complicate matters, former Speaker of the House Andrew Scheer announced on Sept. 28 that he will run. All three had perfect voting records on life and family issues according to Campaign Life Coalition.
Scheer is backed by 20 MPs and senators – half of whom stood behind him when he announced he was seeking the leadership – and by our reckoning they are all rated pro-life. And then Scheer pulled a Stephen Harper and announced during his press conference that while he was “personally pro-life,” he would not re-open the abortion debate if he was elected prime minister. He said he would allow MPs the freedom to talk about the issue, but did not clarify if he would allow MPs to raise the issue with private members’ bills or motions.
Talking about abortion and same-sex “marriage,” he said, “it’s not up to me to reopen the debate on these issues.” He said the party and caucus has “decided it was not a good idea to reopen those issues.” Scheer said that he would focus on what unites rather than divides the party.
Campaign Life Coalition said Scheer, who they were prepared to back along with Trost and Lemieux, had adopted a “pro-abortion stance” without going so far as to call him pro-abortion. In a statement on their website, CLC said, “from CLC’s perspective, this is a pro-abortion stance which suggests to society that the unjust killing of 100,000 preborn children every year in Canada, should be of no concern to our elected lawmakers. It sends the message that these vulnerable human beings do not deserve the protection of the law.”
CLC vice president Jeff Gunnarson said the organization was “shocked and disappointed” with Scheer’s comments. CLC made numerous attempts to reach Scheer’s office for clarification, but their calls were not returned.
Trost pounced on Scheer’s comments, saying, “I don’t think he’s taking a pro-life stand in this campaign,” and “I’m not sure if Mr. Scheer is a social conservative. That’s something he’s going to have to deal with.”
Meanwhile, Trost is actively courting the social conservative vote. Pressed by Evan Solomon on CTV’s “Question Period” for being too socially conservative, Trost did not back down. He said he would vote for a private members bill to rescind same-sex marriage if one were introduced and would act on the abortion file if he is elected prime minister. “Two things I will do … for the unborn,” he said is enact an unborn victims of violence law, which he noted is part of the Conservative platform, and to “deal with gender-selection abortion.” Trost also addressed an anti-sex-ed protest at Queen’s Park in September. He told The Interim in August that when he releases his platform, there will be “five or six items of interest for social conservatives.”
Trost also released a social media ad promoting traditional marriage. It featured two fingers, one a male and one a female, with the caption “Marriage is the union of one man one woman.” It was mocked on Twitter and by the CBC’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, where host Susan Kent said she wanted to “raise” a single finger to Trost.
Meanwhile, the Hamilton Community News reported that Maxime Bernier said during an event held in the Ontario city that he would allow MPs to have a free vote on the abortion issue, going so far as to say, “I’m open to having a debate if members of my party want that debate … it is a democratic right.” He said he couldn’t comment on how he would vote without seeing a specific bill: “I need to look at a bill first.”
Many of the leadership contenders attending the Newfoundland and Labrador Progressive Conservative annual general meeting in Gander. The St. John’s Telegram referred to Trost as “an unapologetically anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage social conservative.” Trost has challenged Leitch and her advocacy of screening immigrants for “Canadian values,” with the Saskatchewan MP wondering if people like him would be allowed to immigrate if she had her way. Leitch told the paper that one of her tests of Canadian values is “tolerance” perhaps implying that social conservative views are beyond the pale.
Leitch has called herself pro-life but also vows not to touch the issue if elected leader.
The field took shape in October with MP Steven Blaney (Lévis—Bellechasse) and Erin O’Toole (Durham) announcing they were joining Scheer, Trost, Leitch, Bernier, Chong, and MP Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn) in the race, and former Treasury Board chair Tony Clement dropping out of the race. Reality TV star and businessman Kevin O’Leary told journalists he hasn’t made up his mind about running. MP former labour minister Lisa Raitt (Milton) and former immigration minister and defeated MP Chris Alexander both mulling a run. Communications consultant Adrienne Snow, former MP Andrew Saxton (North Vancouver), Dan Lindsay, president of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba, and Rick Peterson, a venture capitalist, were all exploring a possible run.
All members will be able to vote on a preferential ballot in their own ridings on May 27. That means members can vote for more than one candidate by ranking their favourites; if there is more than one pro-life candidate, they can all be supported. The membership deadline to vote is March 28, about a month after the nomination period closes.
There will be five official debates, with the first being held in Saskatoon on Nov. 9. The second official debate will be in Moncton on Dec. 6. A number of unofficial debates will also take place. If the media treatment so far is any indication, Trost will be answering questions about his socially conservative views, but it will also be a test for the other contenders over whether or not they can countenance debate on the issue within their party.
Campaign Life Coalition is urging supporters to buy a $15 membership in order to support the pro-life candidates who are running to lead the Conservative Party. Gunnarson said the leadership race is “vitally important” because “with social conservatives being shut out of the NDP and Liberals, the Tories are the only mainstream party in which people who are pro-life and pro-family are tolerated, and they must become involved to ensure these issues do not disappear completely from the public square.”