How the Conservative leadership campaign is pushing the party further to the right

Here’s your who’s-who guide to who’s taking us backward
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The Conservative Party will soon assemble again for a leadership convention, after Erin O’Toole was ousted for not being Conservative enough.

Those standing for election to be the next leader are a rogues’ gallery of people who each express their conservatism in a different way: some through their social conservatism, and others through their fiscal ultraconservatism.

Some have made attempts to build bridges with the LGBTQ+ community, while others fail to mention them at all. Almost none put into writing what their approach would be to preserving bodily-autonomy rights and reproductive justice, which ultimately gives the game away as to where the party is headed.

As with food and musical trends, anything that was popular two years ago in America eventually comes to Canada, and this time it’s manifesting as a Bannonesque approach to capturing the Conservative base. It would seem to an outside observer that Conservatives understand that the middle is likely conceded to the Liberal party, or simply voter abstention, but what can still be captured (and, thanks to our first-past-the-post electoral system, exploited) is the true-believing base. And that base has moved consistently further to the right in the past 30 years, but has made most of its gains in the past five.

Someone like a Brian Mulroney would no longer be able to capture the leadership, let alone form a government now.

Authoritarian creep

What is fuelling this sea change? The same thing that is happening in the United States: a rising Christian white nationalism. Canadians who identify as evangelical or nationalist are exercising their freedom of speech and are increasingly active online, meeting, organizing, fundraising, and forming coalitions and international alliances. Without these folks and their efforts, the Ottawa trucker convoy would likely never have gotten off the ground.

White nationalists are quick to claim that they are “never listened to,” while on any number of platforms, from Rebel News and True North, to far-right podcasts and conservative newspapers, to YouTube and Twitch channels. Many openly subscribe to “replacement theory,” the white-nationalist talking point that first came to light in the mainstream following the Charlottesville, Virginia, white supremacist Unite the Right rally in 2017.

This new wave of Conservatism in Canada doesn’t believe in the old “Progressive Conservative” canard of keeping the unsavoury stuff quiet. They say the quiet part out loud, because it’s incredibly lucrative to do so.

Frontrunner Pierre Poilievre openly supported the trucker protest, which paralyzed downtown Ottawa for weeks and blocked Canada-U.S. border crossings, made up of a mix of anti-vaxxers, online racists, organized white supremacist groups, and conspiracy theorists.

Recently, some sitting Conservative MPs hosted members of the convoy on Parliament Hill.

Some longtime Conservatives have expressed concerns ahead of the party leadership vote. Marjory LeBreton, former advisor to Stephen Harper, recently told Global News, “I’m very, very worried… about what’s happening to the party and what’s happening during this leadership debate.” LeBreton resigned from the board of Poilievre’s Carleton riding over his repeated support for the convoy crew.

What separates the Canadian wing of this larger Trumpist-style movement internationally is the expression of these virulent ideas. Anger about Black Lives Matter protests gets translated as “support for policing.” Concerns about the growing climate movement are greenwashed with propaganda like “ethical oil.”

It’s canny doublespeak that helps inform where the end point of these policies lie — increased racial profiling, attacks on queer and trans people, clamping down on public education (and sex education in particular), expansion of the petrostate. Every candidate wants Canada to expand its mining, logging, and fossil fuel extraction industries even further — the opposite of what the global scientific community says is urgently needed and we have committed to do.

What's at stake

For non-Conservatives, the stakes have never been higher. Whoever wins, if elected prime minister, will push Harper-style (and even more extreme) policies that are anti-science and anti-human-rights, and further privatize our publicly-owned institutions.

The group currently standing doesn’t really comprise a gamut of opinion as much as they’re splitting hairs on the far-right end of the Canadian political spectrum.

Going into the leadership convention on September 10, Poilievre appears to be the favourite, but Patrick Brown and Jean Charest are hoping to change that with their name recognition and media savvy. Perhaps Leslyn Lewis will ride the current moment’s anti-abortion fervour among evangelicals to re-energize the party’s social conservative wing. It remains to be seen who will truly pull this rabbit out of a hat.

Here are the contenders this time around:

Scott Aitchison

Background: A former real estate salesman with Coldwell Banker, he became the mayor of Huntsville, the epicenter of Ontario’s wealthy Muskoka Cottage Country area. He was elected an MP in 2019 and joined the shadow cabinet. He has advocated for a rural broadband policy.

What he’s for: The platform on his website has only three pillars: “Make life more affordable, keep Canada strong and free, and defend Canadian values.” It is not a costed plan, and the details are scant. It breaks down to real boilerplate conservative platitudes like scrapping carbon taxes and “balancing the budget.” The “strong and free” pillar has vague references to “real leadership” and “tackling gun crime” that have no detail attached. The Canadian-values pillar is where he breaks with the pack: he claims to support the LGBTQ community, the right to abortion, and Truth and Reconciliation, yet no details are provided.

What he’s against: Gun control, Quebec’s Bills 21 and 96, yet no details are provided as to his solutions.

Notable story: He’s remarkable for being unremarkable. The Globe and Mail called him “the long shot with a heart of gold,” because of the relative touchy-feeliness of his campaign compared to his foes. His current polling is dismal, indicating he’s not ‘the man of the moment.’

Chances? He’s a statistical outlier when it comes to his socially liberal (by comparison) policy stances. His chances of finishing in the top half are likely not great.

Roman Baber

Background: A lawyer who was born and raised in the USSR. He was an MPP under Doug Ford, and who authored the infamous Baber Report on the government’s autism program.

What he’s for: Difficult to say if you visit his website, which contains precisely zero platform information. His performance in the first debate indicates he’s very much in favour of Canadian mining and “harvesting” oil and gas.

What he’s against: Carbon taxes. Likely for the same reason.

Roman Baber has appeared on far-right media, including an interview with Ezra Levant on Rebel News.
Screencap from Twitter

Notable story: He was a COVID-19 protocol skeptic, who was vocal in his disdain for the province’s pandemic health restrictions. He was removed from Doug Ford’s caucus as a result.

Chances? Doug Ford was just handed a majority win in Ontario. A person whose notability is primarily tied to being a detractor of a famous politician might not fare well in this election.

Patrick Brown

Background: Once the leader the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, Brown resigned prior to the province’s 2018 election due to a series of allegations regarding inappropriate sexual conduct. As is often the case with Conservatives, this has not deterred him from going after a bigger prize: the federal Conservative leadership. In between, he sought and won the mayoralty of Brampton, Ontario.

What he’s for: According to his website, which doesn’t have a policy page, just a series of blog posts, he’s in favour of “Terrorists being in jail,” “No vaccine mandates,” and “Scrapping the firearms act.” The posts are more often than not just embedded tweets.

What he’s against: Spending on social programs; he describes himself as a “strong fiscal conservative.” Also the concept of SEO, since good luck finding his campaign site by googling his name; its url is fighterleaderwinner.ca.

Notable story: Brown had to give up his chance at becoming premier when allegations emerged he’d had inappropriate relationships with women, allegations he not only denies but pretends he’s been cleared of. He is currently mayor of Brampton, Ontario, which has been notable for having one of the worst COVID case counts in the province.

Chances? At best a dark horse.

Jean Charest

Background: Jean Charest is a career politician and is such a journeyman at it, he has run and held office for multiple parties. He is the Francophone candidate to beat in this race (but that in and of itself is not enough to clinch the nomination). He recently came under fire for consulting for Chinese telecom firm Huawei (which was embroiled in the “Two Michaels” scandal and has been recently banned from Canada for suspected security issues).

Jean Charest in 1990.
jemesouviens.biz

What he’s for: He’s primarily for winning another leadership role for himself, so every policy is created in a lab to sound as appealing as possible. For instance, his regressive climate policy is called “A Plan for Clean Growth.”

What he’s against: “Political blockades.” This one is an outlier, since the other candidates chose during the Ottawa blockade to either stand next to the protestors or to not really comment. Charest stands out as determined to make it illegal to “threaten infrastructure.” A leftist would see this immediately as a tool to be used against legitimate protests, especially Indigenous land defence actions, but perhaps the Conservative convention won’t.

Notable story: He was the federal PC leader in the mid-90s, then became a Liberal to run in Quebec provincial politics in 1998. He was elected as Liberal premier of Quebec in 2003 and now is running for the Conservative leadership in 2022. Is he a cynical careerist? No, it’s the voters who are wrong, surely.

Chances? In a final showdown with three places, he probably finishes third.

Leslyn Lewis

Background: She’s a litigator turned politician who came in third (out of four) in the 2020 Conservative leadership convention.

Recently, Leslyn Lewis welcomes convoy organizers to Parliament Hill.
CBC screenshot

What she’s for: No details as to her policies exist on her site, which heavily pushes fundraising. Socially, she stands with Conservatives who believe that “parents’ rights” need to be protected (which is often a dogwhistle for things like strict religious upbringings, anti-LGBTQ, anti-sex education, etc.)

What she’s against: She’s publicly anti-abortion, and thinks climate change is overblown. She is against the carbon tax. She also was against the government’s ban on conversion therapy.

Notable story: Taking a leaf out of the U.S. campaign playbook, she recently took aim at “cancel culture” as it pertains to vaccine status.

Chances? Women usually only achieve leadership positions in Conservative parties when a major scandal has happened or a mess needs cleaning up. This isn’t one of those times.

Pierre Poilievre

Background: The centre of the Venn diagram where Martin Shkreli, Ted Cruz, and Steven Crowder intersect is Poilievre country. A man with a carnival barker’s mentality and a dubious grasp on economics, Poilievre is growing his name recognition and is the guy to beat. He loves to make ‘explainer’ videos about things he has a very gossamer grasp of, like the economy or what the Bank of Canada is for.

On June 30, Pierre Poilievre marched through Ottawa with Trucker convoy organizers.
Luke LeBrun

What he’s for: His website is called “Pierre4PM,” and he’s the only candidate to mention the ultimate goal. Pierre is a fiscal conservative with a capital F. And his plans include clawing back funding from universities that don’t meet “free speech” requirements (presumably a weapon to be used against opponents in a culture war).

What he’s against: He’s against the government “preventing” people from crossing the border with vaccine mandates.

Notable story: He has never met a potential headline he wouldn’t try making. He threw his lot in recently with the convoy in Ottawa and has been the only leadership candidate to really boost cryptocurrency and the Blockchain (though he hasn’t said much since the recent rout of several cryptocurrencies).

Chances? He has been playing the populism card expertly, and in a world where Doug Ford can be premier, Pierre can certainly be Conservative leader.

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