By: Luke Montalbano
At the time of writing, seven candidates have entered the race for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada, all presenting policies from across the Conservative political spectrum. As expected, the race has become full of mud-slinging thanks to the pugilistic Member of Parliament Pierre Poilievre. Now narrowly trailing him is the former Premier of Québec Jean Charest who has, so far, run a clean campaign, focused on positively reintroducing himself to Canadians and Conservatives after a near 10 year hiatus from political life.
These two are not the only candidates, though. The current Mayor of Brampton, and the candidate regarded as the most centrist, Patrick Brown, has managed to gain some ground in urbanized regions of Canada. The Member of Parliament for Parry Sound-Muskoka, Scott Aitchison, recently announced his candidacy, along with the MP for Haldimand-Norfolk, Leslyn Lewis (the third place candidate in the 2020 leadership election). Also running are the Member of the Ontario Provincial Parliament Roman Baber, British Columbian MP Marc Dalton, and businessman and far-right activist Joseph Bourgault of Saskatchewan.
Most Canadians know of Pierre Poilievre (most often because of his fierce and vocal opposition to the Trudeau government), but few born in the mid-1990s and onward recall Jean Charest. If they do, it may be the vague knowledge that he was the Premier of Québec. For non-millennial and non-Gen Z Canadians, he is a famed figure for defending the unity of the Canadian confederation in the 1995 Québec independence referendum.
Charest’s campaign has positioned him as someone who has been out of Canadian politics for a meaningful time and thus is disconnected from the current social conservative movement, yet possesses fresh perspectives from a relatively seasoned centrist politician that can build bridges across all spectrums in Canada. With a new generation of voters that haven't grown up with Charest’s presence in the news cycle, he can define himself as he pleases—so long as his opponents don’t do it first.
Pierre Poilievre, the front runner, is a libertarian and populist Ontarian Member of Parliament and the only federal Conservative to represent a riding in the region of Canada’s capital. His focus, both in parliament and on the campaign trail, has been on two things; first, his substantial knowledge of fiscal policy, which has defined his career in opposition, having been the shadow minister of finance before former CPC Leader Erin O’Toole replaced him and second, Poilievre has relied on a strategy of effectively neutralizing all opponents, in parliament and on the campaign. For example, even before Jean Charest announced his candidacy, Poilievre’s social media pages released a number of publications attacking Charest. This was followed by attacks upon Patrick Brown and his brief stint as Leader of the Ontario provincial Progressive Conservatives.
When comparing the two leading candidates, so far, their vision for Canada rely heavily on rhetoric, to attract new party members rather than meaningful differences of policy. In fact, contrary to popular belief, both Charest and Poilievre are social liberals (openly pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ, etc.) and are relatively similar on economic policy. The difference? Charest wants to appeal to the Canadian centre, while Poilievre believes capturing as many disenchanted social conservatives who now vote for the People’s Party is the better strategic path to victory.
Poilievre and the Future of the Party
Mr. Poilievre has made his vision clear: re-attract disenchanted social conservatives in order to place the Conservative Party ahead in not only the popular vote (as they have been in the previous two elections), but also in the number of seats in the House of Commons.
With the People’s Party of Canada, a far-right populist party, having shot up to fourth place in the popular vote, many pundits began referring to them as “spoiler” -possibly playing a critical role in the coming election, namely siphoning important votes from the Conservative Party in winnable ridings. Poilievre’s belief is that if the Conservatives veered further to the right ideologically, they would gain considerable support. Interestingly, while this platform position solidifies his standing within the far-right established base of the party, there is little evidence to support that it will be a winning strategy at a federal election. With the Conservatives recently having performed at the same level as the previous election under Scheer (a social conservative was leader), the two recent outcomes suggest that something greater is at play with the Canadian electorate. Throughout the previous three election cycles, the Conservatives launched negative campaigns with numerous attack ads across various media platforms; fierce attacks on incumbents and severely negative campaigns are consistent with social consevative election strategies. Canadians have become conditioned to see the party as aggressive opposition rather than a policy-forward Party fit to lead a government.
Poilievre’s strategy is one that is not novel: amp up the aggression and appeal as a populist, rather than a “generic” social conservative. Although in theory a libertarian, his brand would bring about a resurgence in the social conservative establishment of the party. Appealing to this base must imply currying favor to policy that appeases it. If strategically successful, the vision for Canada under Poilievre is very likely a socially conservative one. A future that would look more like a U.S. Republican agenda, more than one ever seen in Canada Will enough Canadians shift so far right when historically winning parties have claimed the center?
Jean Charest’s Vision
Premier Jean Charest seemingly offers a future that is quite different from his opponent. If elected, he would become the first Quebecois leader for the Conservative Party since, well, himself (1993-1998). Yet, the party is no longer the one he led throughout a good part of the 1990s. After the merger of the Progressive Conservative Party (centre-right and the founding political party of Canada) and the Canadian Alliance Party (a right wing party), the new Conservative Party found itself dominated by Alliance members with many progressive conservatives retiring, resigning, or joining other federal parties. From Charest’s perspective, winning the leadership of his own party may be more difficult than winning a national election and becoming Prime Minister.
The view that Charest is offering to conservative voters is one of expansion. His strategy for the Conservative Party of Canada to become the ruling party is one to regain the political centre, something that the Conservative Party has struggled to achieve since 1988 (the last time they gained over 40% of the popular vote). Moreover, being the first Quebecer to lead the “new” Conservative Party could provide ample momentum, building upon the recent successes of the Party in Quebec. Although the Party failed to increase its seat count in Quebec in the previous election, it raised its share of the popular vote in the province to its largest amount since 2006. Charest would likely bring much needed additional seats in the Province of Quebec. In the Maritimes, Charest has proven popular and will likely ameliorate the gains seen in the previous election. Moreover, his centrism will likely play an important role in regaining votes in urban and suburban ridings, particularly in British Columbia.
Mr. Charest is not a perfect candidate in the eyes of many Conservatives though, as he is perceived to possess substantial political baggage from his long career in politics. Seen as too centrist for social conservatives, it is feared his leadership would drive even more such Conservatives to the People’s Party. This shift is likely to occur primarily in Western Canada and rural Ontario and could make a number of traditionally “safe” Conservative ridings become competitive, as occurred in 2021. Charest is likely hoping, much like former Conservative leader O’Toole, that his centrist policies will attract enough new voters to offset these Western losses.
Although not well known amongst young Canadians, Charest is the most experienced candidate in the race, having served as the Deputy Prime Minister; the Minister of the Environment; the Premier of Quebec; the leader of the federal Conservatives; Minister of State for Youth; the list goes on. Charest brings experience, appeal, and centrism. A vision for Canada under Charest would likely be one that is not too unfamiliar to Canadians - fiscal conservatism with liberal-like views with respect to social and environment policies.
The future of the Conservative Party is still up for debate and the membership must make a choice: centrism or populism. The party seems once again poised to take the latter course. Canadian Conservatives will likely have to choose between a leader that speaks to Conservatives versus a leader that speaks to most Canadians.