Tories should resist the temptation to limit the field of candidates

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The worst thing for the Conservative Party of Canada in its current state would be for its next leader to be decided by the rules of the leadership race rather than the voters.

The rules are important, of course, but that doesn’t mean they should be drafted with the intent of narrowing the field of candidates.  There are voices within the Conservative party pushing for such a scenario.

The party’s national council is currently tasked with charting a path forward for the CPC, which lost its leader, Andrew Scheer, and its executive director, Dustin Van Vugt, within just a couple of days last week.

The timing was not coincidental.  It was Van Vugt who made the offer – which Scheer ultimately accepted – for Conservative funds to pay for a portion of the Scheer children’s private school tuition.

While Van Vugt took the fall for what never should have been a news story in the first place, the brouhaha has only amplified the Conservative party’s fragility right now, because everyone I’ve spoken to within the party thinks the Conservatives need Van Vugt to steer them through this leadership process.

At this point, it’s not known when or how the Conservatives will choose their next leader, nor what the rules of the leadership race will be, nor whether the party’s April policy convention in Toronto will proceed as is, be turned into a leadership convention, or be aborted altogether.

While this blank slate may be comforting for some, it also presents a great responsibility.  My advice to national councillors is to resist the temptation to manufacture a limited field of candidates, even with the risk of another clown car of a contest.

The 2017 leadership race, which lasted a year and a half, had a packed field.  There were 14 candidates on the ballot by the time the votes were counted.  A lot of them were heavyweights, like Scheer, Maxime Bernier, Lisa Raitt, and outsider Kevin O’Leary before he withdrew.  Though the race also had its share of backbenchers without a shot at victory, who nonetheless managed to pay their $100,000 entrance fees and stay in the race until the end.

For contrast, the 2018 Ontario PC leadership contest had just four candidates by the end of it.

The one advantage to this year’s CPC leadership race is that it will have to be much more expedient.  Conservative house leader Candice Bergen – who hasn’t ruled out a run herself – said she would like to see the leader in place before the summer.

This is prudent in a minority parliament, during which an election could theoretically be called at any moment.

The shorter runway means fundraising must be done a lot more quickly.  This means that dramatically jacking up the entrance fee, to $200,000 or even higher, would significantly narrow the field as numerous candidates simply don’t have the capacity to fundraise it, in addition to other campaign expenses, in time.  This could serve to block outsiders or lesser-known candidates from running, but it would be a mistake nonetheless.

There is an inherent logic to this, admittedly.  In practical terms, the candidates who struggle to raise $100,000 are probably not the ones within arm’s reach of victory.  But even so, candidates should not be set up to fail when it’s the responsibility of the voting members to decide who their standard-bearer should be.

Tense and monotonous as long, crowded races can be, no one benefits from coronations – especially manufactured ones.  Strong candidates should have to prove to the members they deserve it.  We saw from Scheer’s narrow victory the divides that exist within the party, even using its preferred ranked voting system.

Beyond the high profile current and former MPs and cabinet ministers reportedly mulling bids, including Jean Charest, Erin O’Toole, Rona Ambrose and Pierre Poilievre, there’s also a businessman and two former political staffers I’m told plan to get in the race.

I have faith in the members’ ability to winnow the list down, as they did in 2017, more than I do in a roomful of party thought leaders, however well-intentioned they are.  Put simply, the Conservative brass needs to respect the members or risk exacerbating the already-tenuous challenges of maintaining unity.

Photo Credit: National Post

Andrew Lawton is a fellow at the True North Initiative and a Loonie Politics columnist.

More from Andrew Lawton.     @andrewlawton

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