A tale of two very different leadership races

The federal Conservative and Green parties are both trying to pick new standard-bearers. But that’s about all their leadership contests have in common
By Steve Paikin - Published on Jun 25, 2020
Part 1 of TVO’s Green Party leadership debates featured, clockwise from top right, Amita Kuttner, Annamie Paul, Glen Murray, David Merner, and Judy Green.

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Day by day, we’re all finding ways to adjust to the new reality of living with COVID-19. In the world of politics, they’ve figured out how to have virtual sittings of Parliament, committee hearings, and daily media briefings by first ministers. And, frankly, all things considered, it’s worked not badly.    

But one part of politics has really suffered. Both the federal Conservative and Green parties are trying to choose new leaders to replace Andrew Scheer and Elizabeth May, respectively. Both parties have had to disappoint leadership candidates and party members alike by postponing their conventions until the fall. Unlike the president of the United States, they just don’t think it’s smart to put thousands of people in a hockey arena or convention centre in the midst of a global pandemic. 

Furthermore, raising money and signing up new members has been infinitely more challenging given that handshaking, indoor coffee parties, and fundraisers have essentially all been banned for nearly four months. 

But, beyond that, the two parties seem to be having two wholly different leadership-selection experiences. 

The Conservatives, despite having won the most votes (although not the most seats) in the last federal election, have seen many of their A-list potential candidates take a pass on their leadership contest. The two leading candidates (out of only four seeking the job) have made it abundantly clear that they don’t much like each other. The name-calling between presumed front-runner and former cabinet minister Peter MacKay and his prime challenger, Durham MP Erin O’Toole, has gotten quite vicious. O’Toole even branded MacKay “a liar” in a recent video on social media. That’s a word usually reserved for opponents in other parties, not your own. 

You can add to that some inflammatory — and, in the view of many, racist — comments that another contender, Hastings-Lennox and Addington MP Derek Sloan, made about Canada’s chief public-health officer, Theresa Tam. Sloan, who’s hoping to be the champion of the party’s social-conservative wing, had to put out a statement insisting he wasn’t questioning Tam’s patriotism or loyalty, even though many inferred that his original statement did just that. 

All the negative publicity surrounding these stories has detracted from a truly historic development in the race — namely, the first-ever candidacy by a Black woman for the Conservative leadership. Not since 1975, when Rosemary Brown contested the leadership of the New Democratic Party, has a Black woman sought this job for one of Canada’s major parties. Leslyn Lewis, who ran for the party in a Scarborough riding in 2015, has captured some positive attention for her efforts. 

Contrast that with the 10 candidates seeking to replace May as leader of Canada’s Greens. For the past two nights on TVO, we’ve hosted the only televised debates of that campaign. With so many candidates in the mix, we decided to split the field into two groups of five, to give our viewers a better chance to meet the candidates, only one of whom has much profile in political circles. 

The two Green party debates featured none of the viciousness of the Conservative campaign. In fact, I’d estimate that, for 55 of the 56 minutes in total that the 10 candidates debated, while there was plenty of disagreement, it was all quite civilized. It was only when Montreal-based candidate Dylan Maxwell suggested that the police should give $20 to every racialized person they encounter on the streets to compensate them for past harassment that another Montreal-based candidate, Meryam Haddad, responded with outrage, saying, “That is super racist.” 

There was, though, plenty of disagreement over whether the party ought to move to the left or to the right; whether putting a price on pollution through cap and trade or some other mechanism was preferable; and what measures could be taken to fight anti-Black racism. But the candidates showed lots of mutual respect in hashing out their differences. 

The events might not have featured a lot of the fireworks of a typical leaders’ debate. But viewers were introduced to some serious, sober-minded people, all of them with a variety of interesting life experiences, who clearly understand the herculean task at hand — replacing a seasoned, iconic parliamentarian, in May, and leading the party to an electoral breakthrough that heretofore has eluded it. 

Like the Conservatives, the Greens also feature a Black female candidate in Toronto-born Annamie Paul, who ran for the party in Toronto Centre in the 2019 election. She has a ton of international experience, having worked in Europe, but also understands the complicated transition our fossil-fuel-based economy needs to make: her brother is a laid-off oil-sector worker in Alberta. 

The best-known candidate, at least in Ontario, is the province’s  former environment minister Glen Murray, who has left his former red team for this green one. Murray is the lone candidate with any governing experience, but it’s still to be determined whether experience in a Liberal government will prove to be an asset in a Green leadership contest. 

Lawyer David Merner is thought to be one of the favourites in the race, and, like Murray, he’s a former Liberal. His base in Saanich, British Columbia, is fertile ground for the Greens (he ran a strong second there in 2019). The challenge, of course, is to expand the party’s popularity beyond its Pacific and Maritime beachheads. 

There’s an astrophysicist in the race (Amita Kuttner from Vancouver). An emergency-room physician and president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (Courtney Howard, who lives in Yellowknife). A Canadian Forces veteran (Judy Green, who came a weak third in West Nova in 2019). There’s also lawyer Dimitri Lascaris, a strong performer who ran in London West in 2015 but has attracted controversy for his efforts to have the party back the BDS movement against Israel. Ottawa-based Andrew West, who’s notable for wanting to drag the party away from the socialist direction many of the other candidates would take the party and is interested in attracting disaffected blue Liberals and red Tories by offering a more centrist approach. Maxwell, a six-time candidate and eco-entrepreneur. And Montreal immigration lawyer Haddad, who ran in the last election in a Quebec riding, emigrated to Canada from Syria as a child of five. 

Politics is, of course, a game of expectations — and, admittedly, with several months still to go before both parties pick their standard-bearers, one group is winning the expectations game and one clearly isn’t. As the official opposition, the Tories are supposed to be the government in waiting, especially given that they topped the polls in the last election. But their race has inspired few and has descended into nastiness. Conversely, no one has any expectations for the Greens, and, yet, their debates are interesting, passionate, civil discussions about what this country needs to do to seize the opportunity this pandemic has given us, to reinvent our economy with a greener focus. Most of the social-media feedback I saw suggested that people liked not only what these candidates said but also the way they said it. 

Maybe the Conservatives should take note. 

Watch the Green party candidates on The Agenda With Steve Paikin: Part 1 and Part 2


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