Canadian political landscape could change dramatically by summer’s end

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Controversy inside the Conservative federal leadership race will have a spillover effect into the provincial elections in Ontario and Quebec.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on March 21, 2022.

OTTAWA—By summer’s end, the Canadian political landscape could change dramatically.

Ontario is into a provincial election in less than two months, smack in the middle of a national Conservative leadership race.

Quebec must have an election by Oct. 3, and next month Alberta’s controversial premier faces an internal review which could plunge his party into another fight.

Federal and provincial parties are separate, but the voting public sees them all as a single, homogenous mass.

So, controversy inside the Conservative federal leadership race will have a spillover effect into the provincial elections in Ontario and Quebec.

In Ontario, the premier has already stated that he will remain neutral and none of his ministers will be involved in any campaign.

That is bad news for Jean Charest, as the leadership list of Caroline Mulroney, whose family has deep ties with the former Quebec premier, could be very valuable.

Charest’s only path to victory is to saturate Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada with enough votes to overcome his socially conservative deficit in the west.

But even though Mulroney herself cannot get involved, there is nothing stopping key organizers from enlisting volunteers and voters for Charest.

The organizing skills of former provincial Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown are well known. He could secure a base for a more centrist vote which would likely end up in Charest’s camp in a frontrunner’s fight.

Brown has no love for the premier, as Doug Ford actually came to office after Brown resigned following two allegations of sexual misconduct, which he denied and for which CTV recently expressed “regrets” over some inaccurate details in its story. The Brown exit was ugly, and paved the way for Ford to beat Christine Elliott in a subsequent provincial leadership contest.

Any reference to the hate-hate relationship between Brown and Ford will not help the premier in the key ridings in Brampton. Mississauga and Scarborough where Brown has many supporters who would not likely support the premier in a general election.

As for Quebec, issues within the Tory federal leadership could definitely create some blowback in the provincial campaign. The bill that forced teachers to choose between religious headgear and their jobs has caused quite a stir across the country.

However, it is largely supported in Quebec, so attacks on Bill 21 by national Conservatives will simply reinforce the re-election chances of Premier François Legault.

Charest will have to tread carefully there because he needs to secure his Quebec base, but cannot afford to alienate the rest of the party on a divisive religious issue.

Alberta’s Jason Kenney, already hobbled by a popularity plunge in his home province, has historically tried to play a brokerage role in the federal campaign.

But given he has so many Alberta problems, the usual cadre of candidates lined up to seek his blessing will definitely decrease in this leadership campaign.

Ford is facing the voters on June 2, but 25 per cent of his current caucus has decided not to run again.

The most recent announcement by Christine Elliott, former leadership rival, that she is stepping down, does not augur well for the party’s election chances.

Most seasoned politicians can smell a change in the wind. When they decide not to reoffer, it is because they think their chances of losing are greater than winning.

Of course, they usually cite family or personal reasons for resigning, but in the end, a party on its way out loses more incumbent members than a party in the ascendancy.

Ford’s saving grace at the moment is that the New Democrats and Liberals are in a virtual tie as to who the replacement should be.

That being said, the Liberals have the edge as the NDP polls heavier in certain urban constituencies like Hamilton and Windsor, but it’s presence in rural Ontario is much weaker. That skews the numbers because an equal vote actually means more seats for the Liberals, in the same way that an equal federal Conservative/Liberal vote means more seats for the grits.

By October, we will likely have at least two new premiers in Alberta and Ontario, which also has federal repercussions.

In Ontario’s case, voters like to have political bookends at the federal and provincial scene. So, if the Liberals win the provincial election, it will open more doors for a Tory federal victory in the next election.

In Alberta, it is a Tory/NDP dance, and a provincial win for the New Democrats would provide energy and workers for the next federal election.

The only certainty in Canadian politics this year is change.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.