‘Ottawa’ Michael Den Tandt: Tory leadership Hopefuls in Halifax Opt for low-key evening taking Pot Shots atOKevin O’Leary
Everything in Canadian politics has changed since President Donald Trump began issuing a series of executive orders from the Oval Office, just over two weeks ago.
Politicians, not least the 14 candidates for the Conservative party leadership who assembled for a debate in Halifax Saturday, are still trying to get their bearings. Hence the surreal quality of the exchanges, in which the candidates for the most part avoided talking about Trump, or immigration, or the Canada-U.S. trade relationship, or the massacre of six Muslim men at prayer a week ago in Sainte-Foy, or much of anything the vast majority of Canadians are concerned about just now.
There were brief forays into discomfiting reality, to be fair: B.C. businessman Rick Peterson offered a strong, heartfelt tribute to the victims in Sainte Foy, and an assertion of the importance of Canadian pluralism, in his closing remarks.
But for the most part, Saturday’s debate would not have sounded out of place a year ago – before Britons voted to leave the European union, before the Nov. 8 election that sent Hillary Clinton off to write her memoirs, before the White House threatened to impose a 20 per cent tax on imports from Mexico, and before Trump imposed his travel and refugee bans, since rescinded by court order – though no one knows for how long.
Where the White House goes from here is anyone’s guess. So rather than dive into that risky unknown, the Conservative field opted for a low-key evening of taking pot-shots at newcomer Kevin O’Leary, whom they cast as a celebrity interloper from Boston. O’Leary responded, for his part, by sticking to vague-yet-punchy assertions of his fitness as a magnet for the youth vote. Ontario MP Lisa Raitt briefly roused the crowd by taking a spirited run at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But even then, her approach was personal, not policy-driven. That is telling.
For one thing, neither Raitt nor any of her opponents tackled the Liberal government’s decision, revealed last week, to abandon electoral reform. New Democrats, most notably B.C. MP Nathan Cullen, were beside themselves with rage after the news broke. Green party leader Elizabeth May was apoplectic. But the Tory field has given it a pass.
The most obvious reason is that the Conservatives, still supported by roughly a third of eligible voters according to most polls, are generally happy with the existing first-past-the-post system. The less obvious reason is that the prevailing Main Street response to this particular broken promise will be quiet relief, to the extent it registers at all, because of the huge uncertainty engendered by Trump.
Even before the Nov. 8 presidential election, the Liberal electoral reform agenda wasn’t resonating much beyond the bubble. It was always going to require a major outlay of political capital, and a national debate, and a referendum, in order to yield a new electoral system. With the fabric of Canadian prosperity and security itself now in question, one suspects popular appetite for any of that is slim to absent. Trudeau and the Liberals will take a hit for the broken pledge. Opposition politicians continuing to campaign for dramatic systemic change, at a time when most Canadians are worried about the future and craving stability, may take a greater one.
Well, then. Conservative leadership aspirants could still have attacked Trudeau and the Liberals on other topical fronts, such as white-supremacist terrorism, immigration and refugee policy. Except that, for the time being, no Tory is keen to go there either, for fear of being linked to closely to Trump – because of the turmoil of the past two weeks in Washington, and because of the horrific events in Sainte-Foy, with which Quebecers and other Canadians are still coming to grips.
The resignation Thursday of Kellie Leitch’s controversial campaign manager, Nick Kouvalis, is an early signal of this re-assessment: He was reportedly the architect of her nativist-lite gambit. Leitch referred to her proposed immigration values screen in the debate, but only briefly, in passing.
That should have left, broadly, trade and foreign policy – formerly core areas of Conservative interest, now apparently unworthy of a single question at a debate comprising 14 people who aspire to become prime minister of Canada. What’s up with that?
Just this: If there’s a more workable strategy to preserve Canadian access to the U.S. market than the one now being led by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, while also asserting Canadian pluralism as has been done by Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, no one in Ottawa has yet figured it out. In this respect the Liberals are doing more or less what Conservatives – or Mulcair New Democrats, for that matter – would be trying to do if they were in government – and everyone in Ottawa knows it. Extraordinary events have obliterated some fault lines that once appeared unbridgeable.
All of which leaves precious little room for substantive debate. Thank goodness, for the Tories, there’s always the old “lower taxes, tough on crime” trope, to provide fodder for a rainy day.