This country has witnessed many exciting leadership contests over the years. The 2022 competition being staged by the Conservative Party of Canada is an altogether different beast, as we’ll discuss in a moment. As for the rest, every political junkie has personal favorites. Mine include:
Progressive Conservatives, 1967, the first big American-style convention, Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto; the election of Robert Stanfield spelled the sad end of John Diefenbaker’s era; five ballots — final, Stanfield (Nova Scotia) 1,150, Duff Roblin (Manitoba) 969.
Liberals, 1968, Civic Centre, Ottawa, a dramatic convention as the Grit universe unfolded to unveil Pierre Trudeau as its new leader and prime minister; four ballots — final, Trudeau (Quebec) 1,203, Robert Winters (Nova Scotia/Ontario) 954, John Turner (Quebec) 195.
New Democrats, 1975, Winnipeg, the NDP joined the big boys in the national spotlight as the party passed on a chance to be the first federal party to elect a woman (and a Black one) as its leader, choosing party stalwart Ed Broadbent over British Columbia MLA Rosemary Brown; four ballots — final, Broadbent (Ontario) 984, Brown 658.
Progressive Conservatives, 1976, Civic Centre, Ottawa, the Joe Who/Flora Syndrome convention, high drama as Alberta MP Joe Clark came from third to first; four ballots — final, Clark 1,187, Claude Wagner (Quebec) 1,112, Brian Mulroney (Quebec), out after three ballots, 369, Flora MacDonald (Ontario), went to Clark after second ballot, 239.
Progressive Conservatives, 1983, Ottawa Civic Centre, a return engagement between Clark, the incumbent leader and, briefly, prime minister, and Mulroney; four ballots, with Clark leading on the first three — final, Mulroney 1,584, Clark 1,325.
Liberals, 1984, Ottawa Civic Centre, the epic clash of rival princes for Trudeau’s throne, John Turner, heir apparent, versus Jean Chrétien, the “little guy from Shawinigan”; two ballots — final, Turner (British Columbia) 1,862, Chrétien (Quebec) 1,368, Donald Johnston (Quebec) 192.
To these six federal leadership contests, I add:
Ontario Progressive Conservatives, 1971, Toronto Maple Leaf Gardens, a heavyweight battle to succeed John Robarts as premier of Ontario, it launched the Tories’ fabled Big Blue Machine; voting machines failed, a blizzard paralyzed the Queen City, counting dragged into the night; four ballots — final, William Davis 812, Allan Lawrence 768.
As noted above, the 2022 CPC contest is a different kind of critter. More than the earlier contests, some of which changed governments, this Conservative battle is for the soul and the survival of an important national institution — the alternate government of the country. The Conservatives still represent what they have represented for decades — a democratic roadblock to perpetual Liberal government.
Even in their darkest stretches, they managed to connect with voters in the political middle. Now, however, moderate conservatives have lost their tenuous grip in the party. The parliamentary caucus is following its pied piper, Pierre Poilievre, as he leads them further to the right until they recreate the party of Poilievre’s mentor, Stephen Harper. From there, a hard right turn and the Poilievre party will demolish Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party and sweep the libertarian vote into the CPC.
That’s how moderate conservatives see events playing out. The only way they can stop it is by electing Jean Charest as leader. Charest is by far the best qualified of the candidates — in truth, the only one who is remotely qualified — for leadership of a party aspiring to become a national government. He has the credentials and requisite experience. Poilievre, a career politician with a silver tongue and a malevolent manner, has neither.
Charest is inching closer to him in approval and support among Conservatives. But he has a long road to travel and Sept. 10, decision day, is drawing desperately close.