Ghost of past cam­paign looms over Con­ser­va­tive party lead­er­ship event

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - STEPHANIE LEVITZ

TORONTO — The last time Con­ser­va­tive party faithful gath­ered en masse in Toronto it was to hear from for­mer leader and prime min­is­ter Stephen Harper.

On Fri­day, they met in the same lo­ca­tion, this time to hear from the 13 peo­ple vy­ing to re­place him.

The Toronto Congress Cen­tre, site of this week­end’s lead­er­ship event will see hun­dreds of peo­ple stand­ing on the same spot where some fore­saw the party’s exit from gov­ern­ment about 18 months ago.

That rally, late in the 2015 cam­paign, was or­ga­nized by the out­spo­ken Ford broth­ers; Rob, the con­tro­ver­sial mayor of the city and his brother Doug, who used their con­sid­er­able elec­toral clout to muster sup­port­ers for the fi­nal On­tario cam­paign spot of 2015.

That the no­to­ri­ously tough-on-crime Harper would al­low his cam­paign to be linked with the Fords, given Rob’s drug-us­ing past, was seen by many at the time as an ill­con­ceived and last-ditch at­tempt to rally the Con­ser­va­tive base.

Harper would go on to lose the elec­tion, and re­sign as leader, just days later.

Now, the party is ready to go for­ward with his suc­ces­sor. The can­di­dates are set to make their fi­nal pitches Fri­day night to those who’ve yet to cast a bal­lot in the 15-month­long race.

But the pop­ulist pas­sion the Ford broth­ers brought to bear that night hasn’t dis­si­pated en­tirely.

Can­di­date Kel­lie Leitch was one of sev­eral con­tenders for lead­er­ship who cam­paigned us­ing sim­i­lar pop­ulist themes; in­deed, for a time her cam­paign man­ager was the same fel­low who helped Rob Ford se­cure his may­oral vic­tory.

Leitch said her cam­paign has shown there is an ac­tive con­stituency ea­ger for a dis­cus­sion of Cana­dian val­ues and im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy, the key pol­icy planks of her run.

“In­di­vid­u­als have be­come en­gaged in our Con­ser­va­tive party be­cause of that is­sue be­ing at the fore­front,” she said. “And I think that’s fab­u­lous.”

The party did see its membership sky­rocket in the run-up to the vote.

Some 259,000 peo­ple paid the re­quired fee in or­der to cast a bal­lot, a process that’s been go­ing on now for about a month.

Fri­day marked the fi­nal day to get bal­lots in by mail, but mem­bers can cast bal­lots in per­son on Satur­day at the con­ven­tion site and at polling sta­tions across the coun­try.

Party of­fi­cials said some 2,000 peo­ple were reg­is­tered to at­tend the two-day gath­er­ing in Toronto, al­though MPs from other par­ties were not given passes to the event. The Lib­er­als called that a break from cus­tom and proof that the party — de­spite its as­ser­tions — has not left the days of Harper be­hind.

“The Con­ser­va­tive party is now be­com­ing more closed up than even Stephen Harper was,” said Lib­eral party spokesper­son Brae­den Ca­ley.

“It makes one won­der about the more ex­treme agenda that the party is bring­ing for­ward with these lead­er­ship can­di­dates and what they have to hide.”

The Con­ser­va­tives said they weren’t given passes to the 2013 Lib­eral lead­er­ship race ei­ther.

The spar­ring over ac­cess is an early pre­view of the ran­cour be­tween par­ties that’s ex­pected to es­ca­late once the per­ma­nent leader is cho­sen and takes a seat in the House of Com­mons as the leader of the Of­fi­cial Op­po­si­tion, as early as next week.

But Job 1 for the win­ner will be to en­sure party unity.

The pref­er­en­tial bal­lot be­ing used to se­lect the next leader could help ease some ten­sion, since ev­ery voter can rank choices from first to 10th. That forces them to con­sider who, other than their favourite, would make an ac­cept­able leader.

FRED THORN­HILL, THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

En­ter­tain­ers kick off open­ing night of the fed­eral Con­ser­va­tive lead­er­ship con­ven­tion in Toronto on Fri­day. A win­ner will be picked to lead the Con­ser­va­tive Party of Canada on Satur­day night.

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