Canada’s conservatives picking a leader to rival scandal-scarred Trudeau

By Ian Austen

When the four contenders to lead Canada’s Conservative Party gathered virtually in June for an English-language debate, one subject dominated their conversation: the many ways they felt Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had failed Canada.

On Sunday evening, the Conservative Party will announce its new leader, who will become the closest political rival to Trudeau, a Liberal, at a time when he is once again ensnared in an ethics investigation.

Several prominent Conservative Party members have argued that, no matter who wins the leadership race, the party’s top priority should be offering an alternative vision for Canada’s future rather than focusing on the weaknesses of Trudeau and his government or the bitter disagreements in their own party.

Since 2015, when Trudeau unexpectedly defeated Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister, the party has struggled to respond effectively to Trudeau’s personal popularity. But a new Conservative Party leader could successfully challenge Trudeau’s platform, particularly as the prime minister continues to struggle with scandals, analysts say.

“Trudeau is an anomaly because he’s the first true Canadian celebrity politician,” said Jenni Byrne, a former campaign manager for Harper. “He remains the Liberals’ biggest asset, even now.”

Last week after offering a sweeping vision of post-pandemic Canada during a ceremony, Trudeau named a new finance minister, Chrystia Freeland, and announced that he would shut down the current session of Parliament in order to reset the government’s agenda toward economic recovery.

Opponents swiftly cast the announcement as an attempt by Trudeau to mute committee hearings into his links to WE Charity, an organization that was awarded a multimillion-dollar administrative contract by the government and later paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to Trudeau’s mother and brother.

Bill Morneau, the previous finance minister, resigned abruptly last week. Morneau had also been caught in the throes of the ethics investigation.

While Trudeau remained in power after the October election, it was without a majority of votes in the House of Commons. The Conservatives managed to pull in more of the popular vote, with Andrew Scheer as leader. But after several weeks of criticism over his campaign performance, Scheer announced in December that he would step down following a new leadership vote.

Among the first to criticize Scheer was Peter MacKay, the former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party. Not long after last October’s vote, MacKay said that Scheer’s personal opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage had hung around his neck “like a stinking albatross” that drove away women and urban voters.

Sharp barbs have continued between the four candidates vying to lead the Conservative Party.

“This has actually been the nastiest leadership race that I believe I’ve seen the conservative movement run,” Byrne said. “You have different campaigns who are basically saying if you support this candidate, you’re not a true conservative.”

MacKay, who is from Nova Scotia and who served in Harper’s Cabinet, is now a leadership candidate and is widely seen as one of the two front-runners.

His chief rival, Erin O’Toole of Ontario, is a former air force navigator and corporate lawyer. O’Toole, who was first elected to the House of Commons eight years ago, was the veteran’s affairs minister in Harper’s government and finished third in the leadership contest that selected Scheer.

Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan, the other two candidates in the race, are making explicit appeals to other social conservatives in the party.

Lewis, who is Black, is a fiscal conservative and a newcomer to politics. A lawyer with a graduate degree in environmental studies, she also represents a change for a party that is often criticized as being dominated by white men and weak on environmental issues.

During the campaign, O’Toole has promoted the idea that, compared with MacKay, he is the more true conservative. But several prominent party members said that the men’s political histories suggested otherwise.

“They are carbon copies of each other,” said Kory Teneycke, who was Harper’s director of communications. “Their differences are quite modest.”

The next federal election could come as soon as Parliament resumes in late September if the House of Commons votes down a confidence motion in Trudeau, although most political analysts think that is unlikely.

“This is our chance to build a more resilient Canada,” Trudeau said last week during his speech. “A Canada that is healthier and safer, greener and more competitive. A Canada that is more welcoming and more fair.”

Morneau, the former finance minister, said he quit his post because it was time to let a new minister guide Canada’s recovery. But some news outlets reported that there were substantial disagreements between Morneau and the prime minister over the cost and extent of pandemic relief programs.

In the flurry of events that followed the resignation, Trudeau indicated more government spending would loom large. And the choice to replace Morneau with Freeland, who had been deputy prime minister, fits with that approach.

In her previous life as a journalist and author, Freeland wrote extensively about income inequality. Even Doug Ford, Ontario’s Conservative premier, praised her appointment. “I absolutely love Chrystia Freeland,” Ford told reporters. “I’ll have her back, I’ll help her any way we can.”

Ken Boessenkool, a prominent Conservative and former adviser to Harper, said that he and most other Canadians believe that when it comes to the pandemic, Trudeau’s government “managed phase one of this thing enormously well.”

While Boessenkool said that the WE Charity investigation had been too complicated to damage the prime minister severely, the combination of the inquiry and Morneau’s resignation had curtailed some of the gains he had made in the pandemic.

But Boessenkool said that the new Conservative leader should not propose slashing the country’s social safety net. He also warned the new leader not to underestimate Trudeau, particularly with a new finance minister by his side.

“That makes me more nervous than facing just Trudeau,” he said.