MacKay must be verily relieved

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Decisions by Jean Charest and Rona Ambrose to stay out of the Conservative leadership race were met with huge sighs of relief on more than one front.

By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on January 27, 2020.

OTTAWA—The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau dodged a couple of political bullets last week.

Decisions by Jean Charest and Rona Ambrose to stay out of the Conservative leadership race were met with huge sighs of relief on more than one front.

The immediate beneficiary of the sorties was Peter MacKay, who now leaps to the position of frontrunner amongst progressives in the party.

He was closely followed by Pierre Poilievre who was working hard to solidify his support amongst the more right-wing members of the party until he dropped out of the race last week.

MacKay must be verily relieved that neither Charest nor Ambrose will be in the race.

Most of the media attention had been focused on Ambrose’s star status, but Charest would have been a tougher adversary.

Ambrose did a terrific job as interim Tory leader. But her ministerial record was anything but stellar.

Charest, on the other hand, introduced progressive environmental legislation and, under the leadership of prime minister Brian Mulroney, his government was the first to focus on going green.

Ambrose was the minister responsible for the controversial decision to for defund pro-choice women’s organizations. Post politics, she has been very active in promoting her private member’s bill to incorporate gender sensitivity training into the judiciary. But when she had the levers of power to accomplish that as a minister, she did not.

To be fair, both were dealing with constraints imposed by their leaders.

Mulroney wanted to capitalize on the world environmental reckoning which began at the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. The meeting was spawned by a report entitled “Our Common Future” authored by Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland in 1987. Rio marked the beginning of a world consensus that we must “Think globally and act locally” to stem environmental degradation. Mulroney mirrored that message back to Canada, launching a $3-billion Green Plan in the leadup to the summit.

Mulroney supported the global consensus that we needed to start treating the planet differently.

Then-prime minister Stephen Harper went the other way. Like Donald Trump, he ignored the world climate change consensus, and spent most of his political capital on a rearguard action to blame the environmentalists. He also forced all ministers to delete gender analysis from their cabinet analysis and was probably the key driver in cutting women’s funding across the country.

The other element that would have put Charest squarely in the leader’s seat, should he have decided to run, was his ease of communication in both official languages.

A weak command of one of Canada’s official languages may not be the deciding factor in an in-house Conservative leadership campaign. But it certainly makes a difference when someone is wooing one-quarter of the Canadian population in an election campaign.

In Quebec, New Brunswick, northern Ontario and the southern shore of Nova Scotia, one cannot expect to get any support if she or he cannot speak to voters in their mother tongue.

But speaking both languages is not enough. The leader must also reflect the values of the country.

And that is where the current leadership race gets tricky. The entrance of Quebecer and social conservative Richard Décarie has provided the perfect foil for other would-be candidates to show their progressive side. Harper’s former deputy chief of staff is the self-described leader of the so-cons in the party. He claims to be the only voice representing the values that true social conservatives hold dear, including sanctity of heterosexual marriage and a ban on abortions.

Décarie told CTV news that being gay is a choice, providing an opportunity for other putative candidates to contradict him.

By the end of the week, the campaigns of Erin O’Toole and MacKay began to narrow the focus of delegate support.

Most are moving away from the social conservative constructs that proved fatal in the last election.

MacKay hails from the former Progressive Conservative party so he won’t fall into the trap of boycotting gay pride parades. Some are calling for an eastern-based choice for leader, so the party can finally make the breakthrough it needs in Ontario and Quebec.

In five short months, we will have the answers to all these questions. The result could well turn Canadian politics on its head.

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