Charest stands best chance of defeating Liberals, but a Poilievre win is feasible

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It would be a huge mistake to think that a right-wing Conservative is unelectable in Canada. In politics, anything is possible.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on August 8, 2022.

OTTAWA—Jean Charest was at his most eloquent during the recent Conservative debate last week.

The only problem, the lights were on, but there was no Tory home.

The debate did not attract major television attention and was held at 6 p.m. Eastern Time, pretty much the worst possible slot for widespread coverage.

But the whole purpose of the event was to avoid national attention.

After all, what political party has a debate where the front-runner refuses to attend and simply pays a $50,000 fine to absent himself from the proceedings?

Pierre Poilievre and Leslyn Lewis both coughed up the $50,000 so the party actually made money by allowing two candidates to duck out of a leadership debate.

That will probably not be the end of the story.

Elections Canada, which has some oversight of party nomination processes, will probably be asked to take a look at the payments, as the Tories might have benefited from a tax credit courtesy of the Canadian taxpayer.

But the sad thing about the non-debate is that nobody beyond those actually voting in the leadership even care about this egregious abuse of process.

Too bad for the Conservatives. Had they actually watched Charest in action, they might have come to the conclusion that the rest of the country has already arrived at: Charest stands the best chance of all Tory candidates of defeating the current government.

He is seen as capable, moderate, and appeals to those in the centre who have kept the Tories out of power for years.

The debate was a bit of a moot point. According to official Conservative records, in excess of 100,000 ballots have already been mailed into headquarters, more than a month before the winner’s announcement on Sept. 10.

If the twitterverse is any indication, dozens of voters claimed that Charest’s performance could not change their minds, as they had already voted for Poilievre.

The eligible voters’ list is more than 600,000, but there is a chance many of them may not vote.

The decision of the party to turf candidate Patrick Brown because of alleged irregularities will undoubtedly cause some of his supporters to boycott the race.

Others will likely throw their support behind Charest, who is the most closely linked to Brown in political ideology.

But if history is any indication, the party will be hard-pressed to get a 50 per cent voter turnout in the dog days of summer.

The whole intent of the campaign was to keep it as low-key as possible, which plays in the favour of front-runner Poilievre.

The race is certainly as close to a coronation that any party could carry out. Sometimes, a healthy and robust leadership race can be good for the process.

Liberals had their experience with a coronation and it did not end well. When the party believed that finance minister Paul Martin was the obvious choice, the race became a coronation.

At the final Toronto celebration, in a standing-room-only Air Canada Centre event, even international celebrities like Bono attended to congratulate the future prime minister.

The biggest question facing Martin’s leadership at that moment was how many years he would stay. In the end, the coronation fractured the party.

In the current Conservative leadership, a similar front-runner phenomenon is unfolding.

Unlike Martin, who was already extremely popular with the public at large when he was chosen, Poilievre mainly appeals to the right-wing of his own party.

He will have a hard time convincing the moderate middle to support him.

That is what all other parties, especially Liberals, are counting on.

If Charest were to be successful in September, Liberals on the Hill would sit up and take notice.

They know he has the capacity to turn things around in Quebec, and whither Quebec goes, so goes the country.

Charest would also bring progressive Conservatives back into the fold. These are the Red Tories who the party must attract to win elections.

If Poilievre succeeds, as is most likely, Liberals will be counting on him to stay in the opposition benches.

However, there is a truism in politics.

When it comes to elections, opposition parties don’t win, governments lose.

When voters decide they have had enough, they will move to throw the government out. In most cases, they are prepared to give the opposition leader the benefit of the doubt.

A Poilievre win could be very feasible.

It would be a huge mistake to think that a right-wing Conservative is unelectable in Canada.

In politics, anything is possible.

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