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Pierre Poilievre is the acknowledged frontrunner in the Conservative Party leadership campaign. The longtime MP and former cabinet minister is favoured by 50-55 percent of party supporters in most major opinion polls. The gap between Poilievre and his closest rival, former federal PC leader and former Quebec Liberal premier Jean Charest, is roughly 34-40 points on average.

These numbers will undoubtedly bounce around before the Sept. 10 vote. It’s hard for a leadership candidate in any political party to maintain this type of momentum and enthusiasm for an extended period of time.

One polling firm, Abacus Data, recently suggested the margin between Poilievre and Charest slipped from 28 percent in early May to 21 percent on May 25. While the overall gap seems rather low in the face of existing data from other companies, the apparent shift in momentum on either a temporary or permanent basis isn’t completely illogical.

Regardless, Poilievre’s leadership campaign is and remains highly successful. Putting the numbers aside, an obvious indicator of this is the way his critics and opponents have predictably painted his policies, ideas and opinions.

Charest suggested in April that Poilievre should be “disqualified” from the leadership race for supporting the Freedom Convoy, and criticized him for supporting “an illegal blockade” during the May 5 debate. At the May 25 debate, he went as far to claim that Conservatives don’t want a leader “to go sending signals about conspiracy theories, who goes off into theories about the Bank of Canada or bitcoin.”

Ed Fast, the co-chair of Charest’s leadership campaign, abruptly resigned as Conservative finance critic on May 18. The reason? When he spoke out against Poilievre’s suggestion that he would fire Bank of Canada Governor Tiff Macklem, he claimed that several caucus colleagues tried to mute him. “Some of the MPs who tried to muzzle me don’t even agree with Pierre’s policies themselves,” he wrote in an email distributed by the campaign, “But still, they wanted me to keep my mouth shut. I refused.”

A former Bank of Canada governor did go after Poilievre. When the leadership candidate called the central bank “financially illiterate,” David Dodge called the statement “bullshit” during a May 8 interview with CTV Question period host Evan Solomon. “I’m very insulted by that,” he continued, claiming the Bank of Canada “understands what’s going on, they made a judgment call, which I think was 100 percent right.”

Leslyn Lewis, also a leadership candidate, suggested that Poilievre “did not even speak up” about the Freedom Convoy “until it was convenient for you.” Another leadership candidate, Patrick Brown, critiqued Poilievre’s interest in bitcoin and cryptocurrency  by calling it “magic internet money.” And there’s been a litany of political commentators, columnists, opinion makers and average Canadians speaking out against just about everything Poilievre says, does and thinks.

Has any of this bothered Poilievre? Not in the slightest. He’s successfully pushed back in each and every instance.

Charest was bombed for his refusal to discuss his role as a consultant with Huawei Technologies, spendthrift nature as Quebec Premier and “repeating a bunch of Trudeau rhetoric on our hard-working truckers,” for instance. Brown was blasted for his flip-flop on the carbon tax, “lying in his attacks on the Harper government” and the “little coalition” he’s formed with Charest. There have also been sold retorts against Dodge, Fast, Lewis and other critics and opponents.

Part of Poilievre’s long-standing skill set has been an ability to make strong statements and back them up with facts, ideas and memorable quips. He’s passionate and combative during tete-a-tete encounters, and will defend his ideas and policy positions to the bitter end.

“My critics say I’m a bulldog,” he tweeted on Sept. 17, 2021. “They’re right.”

Conservative party members are largely pleased with Poilievre’s tone, tenor and tactics. They’ve enjoyed his speeches, and attended his rallies in record numbers. They respect his strategic mindset, and appreciate his thoughtful, intelligent ideas. They agree with his small “c” conservative values on lower taxes, smaller government and more rights and freedoms. They respect the fact that he’s discussing outside-the-box issues like affordable housing, cryptocurrency and making the Bank of Canada and its current Governor more accountable – or else.

Most importantly, they’re not paying a great deal of attention to the fear-mongering coming from his critics and opponents. Party supporters largely don’t see Poilievre as being extreme or populist in nature, but rather a person of conservative convictions who is willing to engage in open-minded discussions.

“The reason Pierre Poilievre is the favourite to win the Conservative party leadership should be no surprise to anyone: it is because he is speaking to people desperate for a voice,” Macdonald-Laurier Institute director Aaron Wudrick wrote in the National Post on May 27. “His critics cannot have it both ways. They cannot complain about the increasing polarization of society while at the same time insisting a substantial chunk of people on the ‘wrong’ side of various debates should have zero voice in those debates.”

Wudrick is right. If Poilievre’s critics and opponents continue to utilize this foolhardy strategy, the momentum for his already-successful leadership campaign will continue to flourish during the summer and fall. That’s exactly what the Conservative frontrunner is counting on.

Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has already led the most left-wing federal government in our country’s history. That’s a widely accepted statement of fact. His working agreement with Jagmeet Singh’s NDP will push it so far to the left that it will be, as interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen observed, akin to “backdoor socialism.”

Several policies of mutual interest, including national dental care, pharmacare, reducing carbon emissions and a so-called “fairer tax system.” are multi-billion programs that will undoubtedly continue to escalate on an annual basis. This will enable the Trudeau Liberals to continue its reckless trend of spending taxpayer dollars like drunken sailors. If some of these policies find a home in the April 7 federal budget, those tipsy seafarers could be left in a permanently inebriated state.

The Conservatives, who are in the midst of a leadership race, can’t stop the financial bleeding if the Coalition of the Left runs its course. Fortunately, they’ll have time to rebuild the party into a desirable political alternative. To accomplish this, the new leader should utilize a successful electoral strategy from the not-too-distant past.

There are four main leadership candidates. Two are classified as Blue Tories, or right-leaning Conservatives: Pierre Poilievre and Leslyn Lewis. The other two, Jean Charest and Patrick Brown, are classified as centrists by some, and Red Tories (or left-leaning Conservatives) by others.

Conservative party members have gradually become more right-leaning. They favour Blue Tory principles like small government, low taxes and more individual rights and freedoms. Charest, a former federal PC leader and Quebec Liberal premier who raised hydro rates, auto insurance fees, set provincial, Kyoto Accord-like targets and imposed a carbon tax on businesses in the latter role, is therefore completely out of step. So too is Brown, a former Conservative MP and Ontario PC leader who supported a provincial carbon tax and likes to tout his “pragmatic Progressive Conservative” roots.

Poilievre, a Conservative MP since 2004 and cabinet minister under then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and Lewis, a lawyer and rookie Conservative MP who ran in the 2020 leadership race, both offer a more succinct political message. Nevertheless, the former stands head and shoulders above the latter – and all other candidates.

I’ve known Poilievre for years. He’s intelligent and media savvy. He admires great Conservative thinkers and leaders, including Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. He’s a strong fiscal conservative who supports free markets, private enterprise, trade liberalization and oil and gas development. He has a clear foreign policy vision, and wants Canada to be a leader and not a follower.

In many ways, Poilievre is similar to Harper. He’s also starting to face the same sort of media scrutiny his predecessor did. That is, he’s “too conservative” for Canada, “out of touch” when it comes to funding social services and protecting society’s most vulnerable, and has an “unwinnable” strategy.

Poilievre, as a good student of history, knows differently. Canada is a Liberal-leaning country, but not a socialist monolith. They’ll vote Conservative if they tout a positive, forward-thinking message. Hence, he needs to implement Harper’s successful electoral strategy of incremental conservatism.

University of Calgary professor Tom Flanagan originally defined incremental conservatism as “endorsing even very small steps if they are in the right direction, and accepting inaction in areas that can’t feasibly be changed right now, but opposing government initiatives that are clearly going the wrong way.” An informal 10-year plan was then crafted by Harper to shift Canadian conservatism into a positive political force for change – and build a “conservative Canada” in its place.

Harper favoured targeted tax cuts rather than broad-based tax relief. Small private reforms to health care were championed, but a firm commitment to universal health care was maintained. He increased military spending and defended veterans, apologized to Chinese Canadians for the discriminatory Head Tax, supported farmers, amended the vetting process for immigration, and allowed free votes on issues like gay marriage. In foreign policy, Harper took a leadership role in Afghanistan, publicly condemned totalitarian regimes like Syria and Iran, defended Israel and told Russian President Vladimir Putin to “get out of Ukraine” at a G20 meeting in 2014.

Harper won three elections (2006, 2008 and 2011) with incremental conservatism as his guiding force. He showed that Conservative ideas can become part of mainstream thinking in Liberal Canada. Existing myths and concerns some Canadians had about conservatism could also be chipped away and, in many cases, permanently dismantled.

Poilievre has a significant lead among Conservative supporters. A March 15 poll by Angus Reid found he had 54 percent support, followed distantly by Charest (15 percent), Lewis (9 percent) and Brown (5 percent).

If Poilievre becomes the next party leader, he should immediately channel his predecessor’s winning electoral strategy. This would be the perfect counter to Trudeau, a tax-and-spend Liberal who formed a Coalition of the Left to stay in power, and would help make Canada’s Right an attractive political alternative once more.

Michael Taube, a long-time newspaper columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

Listening to Erin O’Toole’s party critics today, you might think that he is the first Conservative leader to tack in different directions between his leadership and election campaign races, or to face the outrage of his early supporters about his policy flip-flops. He will not likely be the last one either, as long as his party membership base no longer reflects the broader Canadian political consensus.

An illustrative example of the challenges within today’s Conservative party are highlighted by the striking parallels between the political journeys of Patrick Brown and Erin O’Toole. Both tracked similar paths to leadership followed by their subsequent efforts to adopt, over the objections of party members, centre pitched policy in order to attract disaffected Liberal as well as unaffiliated voters.

In tacking hard right to secure internal party victory,  Brown and O’Toole were frequently accused by their rivals of catering to the party’s social conservative base.

Brown had actively campaigned for the ON PC leadership by rejecting the ‘radical’ sex education curriculum modernization proposed by the Kathleen Wynne government. He used his opposition as a rallying cry to recruit major support for his candidacy among new immigrant and faith groups opposed to the Wynne initiative.

Federally, Brown had sided with pro-life groups and voted against same-sex marriage and abortion.

By the lead up to the 2018 campaign, Mr Brown disavowed his earlier positioning. Saying he wanted to lead a “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” party, PC Leader Patrick Brown confessed some of his ‘mistakes’ in courting social conservatives. He downplayed their importance to his initial leadership campaign success.

As leader, Mr. O’Toole, like Mr. Brown, openly declared that he was “pro-choice”, in the face of dissenting caucus members.

But he has continued to uncomfortably walk a  tight rope between courting and rejecting social conservatives.

O’Toole controversially permitted his deputy chief of staff to help social conservatives secure party nominations. He allowed his caucus a free vote on banning conversion therapy and offered a defence of Egerton Ryerson and the residential school system.

O’Toole demoted Finance Critic Pierre Poilievre; he expelled Derek Sloan from the caucus for accepting donations from a white supremacist during the leadership race. Both MPs had deep support in the socially conservative party base.

O’Toole was against banning assault weapons, an important issue for his western and rural caucus- before he was for it- sort of-during the campaign.

In response to the question how his portrayal of a different Conservative party ‘squared with allowing candidates who have shared racist, conspiratorial, and anti-vaccine views to remain under his party banner’, O’Toole repeated that he would have a zero tolerance to racism.

Both leaders reversed themselves on climate change.

As a federal MP, Brown had opposed the Liberal carbon tax. As the newly minted leader, he spoke out against the Ontario Liberals joining a Western Climate cap and trade initiative. In the provincial election run-up, he ultimately accepted the value of some kind of carbon tax.

Like Mr Brown, Mr O’Toole started out rejecting any carbon tax. Shortly after his election as leader, O’Toole signed a pledge that he would “immediately repeal the Trudeau carbon tax … and reject any future national carbon tax or cap-and-trade scheme.”

By the time of the 2021 campaign, O’Toole had committed to a 30 per cent reduction in national emissions by 2030; the party platform he authorized “recognized that the most efficient way to reduce our emissions is to use pricing mechanisms”.

Brown declared himself a fiscal conservative and claimed to be able to reclaim billions in wasted government spending through value for money auditing. But he refused to renounce Ontario Liberal pre-election initiatives like expanded pharma-care and rent control, and a $15  minimum wage.

Brown clothed his election platform in populist garb. His ‘People’s Guarantee’ was aimed at re-establishing the same trust with voters that Erin O’Toole would later describe as the focus of his campaign.

Mr. O’Toole had been a fierce critic of Liberal deficits and spending plans, campaigning for leader as a ‘True Blue’ Conservative  in 2019 after failing in the 2017 leadership race as a moderate.

Yet, his 2021 platform highlighted massive increases in health care transfers and mental health spending with no corresponding tax increases or program cuts, accepting a deficit that would not be under control for up to a decade.

His platform was swathed in blue collar rhetoric about fighting for unions, working people and economic nationalism instead of traditional Conservative free market and free trade policies

As long as the governing Liberals were slumping in the polls, disapproving federal and provincial Conservatives bit their tongues.

Mr Brown lost his leadership because of accusations against his personal conduct.

However, his successor, Doug Ford, supported similar social conservative tropes in the following leadership race, seasoned with a dash of populism ‘for the people’.

Ford wasted little time after his leadership victory in discarding a controversial social conservative candidate and former leadership opponent Tanya Granic Allen and modifying social conservative policies he had previously embraced.

Ford won his election and could face down his internal critics. By the measures of seats, popular vote or an urban breakthrough, Mr. O”Toole did not even improve over his predecessor’s achievement .

Failure has opened the floodgates of pressure for an accelerated federal leadership review process .

Loyalty is a two way street in every political party. As Mr Mulroney famously was quoted, ‘you dance with the one that brung ya’.

Winning remains the best way a leader can avoid paying the price for abandoning his political base.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.