Live and up Close with Six Conservative Leadership Hopefuls

Ken Whyte Blog

I had the pleasure of moderating a debate – actually, more of a discussion -- among six candidates for the Conservative Party leadership Monday night at the York Club. Present were Kellie Leitch, Brad Trost, Erin O’Toole, Andrew Scheer, Michael Chong, and Maxime Bernier. Kevin O’Leary, the TV guy, who has not committed and so was not eligible to participate, lurked at the back of the room. I kept hoping he would at least ask a question. He just lurked.

I went into the evening unenthused about the Conservative race. I was more aware of the candidates who had ruled themselves out (Jason Kenney Peter McKay, Tony Clement) than of those who had declared. I’m more interested now having seen these six in action. There is serious talent in the field, if not much in the way of household names. And it’s a long race so they’ll all get better if they can hang in (fundraising is difficult if you’re not a household name).

A moderator is supposed to be neutral and I am, in fact, neutral, at the moment. I nonetheless formed some impressions.

Kellie Leitch is the strongest personality of the bunch. A smart, determined woman. She is going to matter in Canadian politics for a long time. Not sure that she has the broad appeal to win this thing, although I thought the same about her last boss (strong personalities matter). Three things impressed me. She is from my home province of Alberta. She brought her father to the event which (as the father of a daughter) warmed me to her. And she is funny.

Brad Trost is a social conservative, which made him the antichrist to many in the room. He pretty much had to crash the event. Good on him. Held his ground with a grace and forthrightness that I found admirable even though I’m not a social conservative. Trost has strong, clearly articulated positions on everything. He’ll make a great pundit when he tires of the political racket.

Andrew Scheer is young, the youngest of a young bunch of candidates. (Most are in their early forties -- Bernier, 53, is the oldest -- which bodes well for the future of Conservatism). I thought Scheer would have a tough time standing out in this crowd and he did until the very last question. He demolished the Trudeau carbon tax. Out of the park (or, at least, out of the friendly confines of the York Club). Received the biggest applause of the night as well as sincere congratulations from Bernier and others.

Erin O’Toole can claim a unique combination of private sector, public sector, and armed forces experience. Has a very likeable, everyman quality that will carry him a long way. Radiates thoughtfulness and sincerity. His policies didn’t seem as crisp as those of some opponents but he only announced his campaign a couple of days before this event. That will change. He has upside.

Maxime Bernier is good. Very good. I had preconceptions about him, rooted in that scandal from 2008 when as Minister of Foreign Affairs he left sensitive documents at the home of his girlfriend. The girlfriend, Julie Couillard, wrote a book. I interviewed her for Maclean’s. The scandal thus loomed larger in my mind than anything else about Bernier. I now find I have seriously underestimated him. Smooth, personable, easily the most charismatic of the candidates. Great political skills and instincts, and a clear set of free-market policies that he can defend with intelligence and geniality. If I was running, I’d fear him most.

Michael Chong has integrity. He resigned from Stephen Harper’s cabinet over Harper’s decision to recognize the Quebecois as a nation within a united Canada. He stood up at the York Club and made a nuanced argument on carbon taxes in front of a black-and-white-minded audience. He leaves you feeling that a Chong-led government would be low-key, sincere, and capable, if unspectacular. I, personally, would enjoy that. I worry that he’s too sensible, too reasonable to win this sort of contest.