O’Leary king­maker gam­bit a gam­ble

Could an any­body-but-Bernier move­ment gain mo­men­tum?

Cape Breton Post - - Op-ed - Chan­tal Hébert Na­tional Af­fairs Chan­tal He­bert is a na­tional af­fairs writer with Torstar Syn­di­ca­tion Ser­vices.

With the Con­ser­va­tive crown slip­ping from his grasp, Kevin O’Leary set­tled on be­com­ing king­maker last week. But will the de­ci­sion to throw his support to Maxime Bernier do the trick? On that, the ev­i­dence is mixed.

There is not a Cana­dian po­lit­i­cal junkie who does not re­mem­ber the high drama that at­tended Stephane Dion’s up­set Lib­eral lead­er­ship vic­tory in 2006. Over the course of four bal­lots he climbed from fourth to first place. Had for­mer On­tario min­is­ter Ger­ard Kennedy not dropped out af­ter the sec­ond bal­lot and thrown his support to Dion, that would not have hap­pened.

As Lib­er­als lined up to vote for the third time that af­ter­noon, the two for­mer ri­vals stood shoul­der to shoul­der to shake hands with the del­e­gates. Kennedy’s sup­port­ers over­whelm­ingly fol­lowed his lead and that sealed the out­come of the con­ven­tion.

Un­der a sim­i­lar sce­nario, Bernier would win early and eas­ily next month.

But the Kennedy/Dion al­liance was struck on the floor of a con­ven­tion, a venue where peer pres­sure is ex­ac­er­bated by po­lit­i­cal pas­sions. The del­e­gates who took part in that Lib­eral vote were for the most part party ac­tivists who had his­tory with the lead­er­ship con­tenders. Many Kennedy sup­port­ers were look­ing for a win­ning al­ter­na­tive to Bob Rae and Michael Ig­nati­eff, the two front-run­ners.

The con­text of a mail-in bal­lot could not be more dif­fer­ent. Cast­ing a vote to de­ter­mine Stephen Harper’s suc­ces­sor is an iso­lated act, more of­ten than not per­formed in the pri­vacy of one’s home.

One needs a horde for the herd­ing in­stinct to kick in. Or at least that is what the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Cana­dian Al­liance’s 2000 lead­er­ship con­test sug­gests.

That year, Re­form party founder Pre­ston Man­ning faced two chal­lengers: then-Al­berta trea­surer Stock­well Day and On­tario back­room strate­gist Tom Long. There was no con­ven­tion floor ac­tion as the win­ner was elected un­der a one-mem­ber-one-vote for­mula.

Long came third on the first bal­lot and im­me­di­ately threw his support to Man­ning.

The two of them spent the week be­tween the two bal­lots work­ing hard to re­verse the pro-Day tide. But when the votes were counted, Long turned out to have mostly been speak­ing for him­self. Al­most to a man and a woman, those of his fol­low­ers who voted on the sec­ond bal­lot switched their al­le­giance to Day.

That is not to say that Bernier should not be thank­ful for O’Leary’s move. The lat­ter’s support was of­ten strong­est in ar­eas where the Beauce MP is weak­est. On that score, ur­ban On­tario comes to mind.

But most of O’Leary’s sup­port­ers ex­pected him to be one of the last two can­di­dates left stand­ing next month.

Many did not give their sec­ond or third choices a lot of thought. They still have the po­ten­tial to throw this race wide open.

On his way to em­brace Bernier, O’Leary flirted with the no­tion of sup­port­ing An­drew Scheer. The for­mer House of Com­mons speaker has been try­ing hard to cast him­self as the can­di­date most likely to beat

Bernier. O’Leary’s flirt shored up that mes­sage.

If an any­body-but-Bernier move­ment is to co­a­lesce be­hind any of his ri­vals, it is more likely to hap­pen from the ground up than as the re­sult of an or­ches­trated strat­egy.

For all of the talk of deal mak­ing in the fi­nal weeks of this cam­paign, it is far from cer­tain that any of the can­di­dates has the ca­pac­ity to steer sup­port­ers scat­tered across the coun­try to a given ri­val.

For in­stance, while most Que­bec MPs do not support Bernier and in­deed of­ten op­pose him stren­u­ously, in­ter­nal polls sug­gest that he – as a na­tive son can­di­date – still has the best chances of pick­ing up more support from his prov­ince as other con­tenders are dropped from the vote count.

It is on the ba­sis of Bernier’s edge in Que­bec that O’Leary is con­tend­ing that he is best placed to beat Justin Trudeau in 2019. That is not nec­es­sar­ily borne out by polls. Both O’Leary’s con­tention and the con­trary polling data should be taken with a big grain of salt or, prefer­ably, dis­missed al­to­gether.

“One needs a horde for the herd­ing in­stinct to kick in.”

There were no polls that showed Harper beat­ing Paul Martin, let alone win­ning seats in Que­bec at the time of his 2004 Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship cam­paign. Two years later, he had won one in four votes in Que­bec and was prime min­is­ter.

Less than a decade be­fore Trudeau be­came the first Lib­eral leader to win a ma­jor­ity of Que­bec seats since his fa­ther re­tired, he was con­sid­ered such a li­a­bil­ity in his home-prov­ince that Dion would not have him run as a by­elec­tion can­di­date in Outremont.

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