Inside the Conservative Party’s debate over whether to delay the leadership race

Inside the Conservative Party’s debate over whether to delay the leadership race
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OTTAWA — As travel is shut down, businesses are ordered to close and people are told to stay in their homes to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Conservative party is still going full steam ahead with its leadership race — despite two of the four candidates on the final ballot calling for a delay, including Erin O’Toole.

Peter MacKay, meanwhile, is now calling for the vote to take place sooner, saying the party needs a permanent leader quickly to be an effective check on the government. MacKay and O’Toole are the front-runners in the race, though MacKay is still widely seen as the favourite.

But behind the scenes there has been growing debate among party officials over whether continuing the campaign is the right move, according to multiple sources who spoke to the National Post on condition of anonymity.

There is concern that holding the campaign during the pandemic is awful public relations for the party, and unfair to candidates who can’t campaign in person and have to try to raise money despite mass layoffs and a tanking economy.

On Sunday, the party’s 20-member national council discussed the issue on a conference call and considered a motion to ask the leadership election organizing committee (LEOC) to delay the June leadership vote. However, council president Scott Lamb ruled such a motion would be out of order, angering some council members.

Instead the council passed a compromise motion that requested LEOC investigate the feasibility of delaying the race, and report back by Friday.

The national council, elected by party members at bi-annual policy conventions, is a high-level governing body for the party. It appointed 17 members of LEOC, and as president, Lamb also sits on LEOC as an ex-officio member.

The power to delay the race or extend the deadlines is in the hands of LEOC, at least formally. Sources say there is still broad support on LEOC for the race to go forward as scheduled. The committee will meet later this week, likely on Thursday.

LEOC includes a mix of Conservatives from various levels of the party, including MP Diane Finley and senators Don Plett and Linda Frum. It is co-chaired by Lisa Raitt, a former Conservative MP and deputy leader, and Dan Nowlan, an investment banker who chaired LEOC during the 2017 leadership race.

One source with direct knowledge of LEOC’s discussions said the committee has already been investigating contingency plans, including the possibility of cancelling the convention planned for June 27 and doing all of the voting by mail-in ballot instead.

But the March 25 deadline to qualify for the final ballot and the April 17 cutoff for membership sales are, at this point, unlikely to change. There is also little appetite for delaying the vote itself.

How you lead and manage a campaign in a time of crisis is very indicative of how you can lead the party

“LEOC is in regular discussions in relation to the evolving situation around COVID-19, and recognizes the need to adapt to the realities of the virus, and took steps last week to do just that,” said party spokesman Cory Hann.

That refers to moves to help candidates hold virtual town halls, to collect party member signatures electronically, and to hold the official debates without a live audience.

Until recently, the only candidates calling for the race to be delayed were Marilyn Gladu, Rick Peterson and Rudy Husny — who are also the candidates furthest back in the qualifying process.

But over the weekend, both O’Toole and Derek Sloan spoke out for the first time and called for a delay.

“I’m asking (LEOC) to delay the Conservative leadership contest to ensure that all time and resources of our Conservative caucus and our grassroots members can be focused on helping our constituents and the needs of our communities in the fight against COVID-19,” O’Toole said.

Sloan said that continuing the race is damaging the party’s brand, and that the pandemic makes campaigning practically impossible.

LEOC recognizes the need to adapt to the realities of the virus

Some observers feel that continuing the race despite the disruptions is beneficial to MacKay, as MacKay has the highest name recognition and is already flush with cash, .

In a message sent to supporters on Monday, MacKay called on the party to shorten the race, not lengthen it.

“Our party needs to elect a permanent leader now, not later,” MacKay said. He said the membership cutoff should be moved up and “a vote should occur as soon as logistically possible.”

“We need a strong and united Conservative Party performing its role as an engaged opposition,” he said.

Leslyn Lewis, the fourth candidate on the final ballot, has said she believes the race does not need to be delayed.

“The next leader of our party is going to be required to show leadership in a time where Canada is still in the valley created by this pandemic,” she said in a statement. “How you lead and manage a campaign in a time of crisis is very indicative of how you can lead the party, and more importantly, our country in a time of crisis.”

Our most powerful weapon is that we know what it is and we can learn from people who have already suffered through it

Looking back at how politicians reacted, how the public felt and what was normal just a week ago makes the change even more abrupt

We may dodge a big bullet here. ... But we may well end up in a situation where we have to make some very tough ethical decisions
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