Internal party warfare can be fatal

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Jason Kenney’s departure was unexpected as he had gathered together a group of key supporters for what was expected to be a victory celebration.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on May 23, 2022.

OTTAWA—Internal party warfare can be fatal.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney eked out a bare majority in a party vote on his leadership, only to be forced out by advisers’ pressure.

Kenney’s departure was unexpected as he had gathered together a group of key supporters for what was expected to be a victory celebration.

Days before the United Conservative Party mail-in vote was announced, Kenney claimed that he would stay on if he secured a single-vote majority.

A large gathering of supporters was expecting to see Kenney continue in the job, but instead, he dropped a bombshell last Wednesday night.

In the end, the pressure inside his own party was just too great, so Kenney decided to step down after 48.6 per cent of UCP review voters said they wanted him out.

Meanwhile, the internal fight in the federal Conservative party gets more bitter by the day. Last week, saw candidate slagging candidate, and supporters’ slagging each other.

The climate got so difficult that former finance minister Ed Fast felt compelled to quit his job as Conservative caucus finance critic in opposition to Pierre Poilievre’s promise to fire the governor of the Bank of Canada.

Claims of party-based racism and sleazy politics were traded as candidate Patrick Brown accused Poilievre of aligning with racists in his support of the trucker occupation on Parliament Hill.

Brown supporter, Michelle Rempel-Garner weighed in on the racism theme, accusing Poilievre of being too slow to condemn the race-based slaughter south of the border in Buffalo.

Brown also attacked Poilievre supporters for allegedly criticizing his campaign’s push to sell memberships to racialized minorities.

The past week in the Conservative party has seen the temperature increase as the end of the membership sale period looms.

The federal party Twitter feed was vitriolic, with candidates lining up to accuse each other of stoking the flames of racism. In a media interview, Poilievre promoted his use of “Anglo-Saxon” language, a lift from white supremacists’ vocabulary.

Compare federal Tory accusations to the civilized official Ontario election debate last week. Hosted by TVO’s Steve Paikin and Althia Raj of The Toronto Star, the debate was positively benign in comparison.

Candidates respected rules and time limits. They were careful to attack their opponents on policies, not personalities.

New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath delivered a surprisingly listless performance, absent her usual excellent communication skills.

Later in the week, she joined Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner with a diagnosis of COVID. Both were forced into virtual campaigns in the final stretch of the election.

While the NDP leader flagged, the Green leader shone in the debate. Schreiner was personable, articulate and knowledgeable, particularly on climate change issues.

Premier Doug Ford carried out his usual, aw shucks schtick, claiming friendship with everyone on the podium and defending government policies.

The most controversial was the Conservative promise of a $10-billion investment to build a highway which is not supported by any other leader.

In the last campaign, Ford promised a buck a beer in an attempt to reach out to the blue-collar cohort that was key to his victory.

This time, Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca promised a buck a bus ticket, vowing to take thousands of cars off the road by making public transit more affordable.

The Grit leader also promised to divert Ford’s $10-billion proposed road investment into education, repairing and building schools and cutting class sizes.

Horwath pitched an increase in the minimum wage, in direct contrast to Ford’s decision to abolish planned increases early in his term in office.

The NDP leader primarily focused on her base. But she took a direct hit when the premier claimed that unions were moving away from their traditional support for her party in favour of his re-election.

Ford’s strategy worked, with NDP support slipping after the debate.

That was good news for the Liberals because many anti-Ford voters want to rally behind the party that has the best chance to defeat the current government.

The latest six-point difference keeps Ford in the lead with just two weeks to go before voting day. But the 10-point difference between the Liberals and the New Democrats really favours a potential momentum shift to Del Duca.

As for internal Conservative struggles, on the federal level it is difficult to see how the angry differences among leadership camps of Poilievre, Charest and Brown can be healed in a post-campaign show of unity.

Centrist Conservatives may not elect a party leader.

But they hold the key to 24 Sussex.

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