Unity at all costs? Ontario PC choice of Doug Ford as leader shows need for principled conservative division

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PHOTOS: Doug Ford in 2014 (Photo: Bruce Reeve, Creative Commons). Below: Toronto’s calamitous mayor Rob Ford, who died in 2016; second-place Ontario PC candidate Christine Elliott, who has not yet conceded the victory to Doug Ford; Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney; and U.S. President Donald Trump. (Photos: All from the Wikimedia Commons but for the shot of Mr. Kenney, which is the author’s.)

What’s troubling about the Ontario Progressive Conservatives’ choice of Doug Ford as their leader last night is not the man’s obvious Trump-like unsuitability for the job, but the tribalism of a party whose smartest operators must privately be shaken and sickened at the thought of what he represents.

Having seen the man’s little brother Rob in action as mayor of Toronto from 2010 to 2014, they know the long-term damage a candidate like Mr. Ford can do to their cause. This is true even if like U.S. President Donald Trump he is unexpectedly successful. Even worse, from their perspective, they know Ontario voters know it too.

Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney neatly encapsulated this problem in his stab at a little inspirational cheerleading for the Ontario PCs who had turned out yesterday to hear the vote results.

PC organizers must have been hard-pressed to find an out-of-town speaker acceptable to their chronically divided party even before the chaotic and comedic end to their leadership race late yesterday. It’s a sad commentary on the state of the Ontario PCs that a spavined Ottawa hack like Mr. Kenney, who before his entry into Alberta politics was one of Stephen Harper’s minions, would actually lend a little respectability to their proceedings.

Mr. Kenney asserted that Alberta’s NDP majority only happened because the province’s conservatives were divided between PCs and Wildrosers – a commonplace United Conservative Party talking point in this province, although it is a highly dubious interpretation of what actually happened in Alberta on May 5, 2015.

“When conservatives are divided, tax-raisers and leftist parties always win,” he went on … inaccurately, unfortunately. If only it were so! Most of the 75 years of Alberta politics before Rachel Notley became premier, which had conservative alternatives aplenty, provides proof Mr. Kenney got it wrong.

Mr. Kenney followed up with his already notorious crack that Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would doubtless refer to Ontario as Confederation’s “gender-neutral older sibling.”

This was a pretty lame stab at mocking the commitment of most elected Canadian governments nowadays to gender parity, gender neutrality and gender fairness. But I suppose Mr. Kenney was awkwardly trying to channel the locker room spirit of a coach shoring up his underdog team before a big game with the perennial champs. This was not really a natural persona for someone with Mr. Kenney’s aging-frat-boy vibe.

Perhaps a more troubling aspect of Mr. Kenney’s peroration is the unwillingness of supposedly respectable conservatives ever to say enough is enough when thoughtless and extreme candidates arrive on the scene like The Donald and the Brothers Ford.

In fairness, Mr. Kenney didn’t know Mr. Ford would emerge the victor any more than the rest of us did when he uttered the predictable call for post-vote unity, “Whoever is chosen, I ask you to support the democratic vote of all of your members.”

Most likely this was intended to salve the bruised feelings of members of the so-called “Ford Nation” in the event candidate Christine Elliott emerged victorious, as seems to have been expected. For her part, Ms. Elliott did not concede defeat last night, citing “serious irregularities” in the contest. Today will probably bring more details.

But the fact is, pulling together regardless is exactly what the Conservative apparatchiks in Ontario will most likely do, no matter how egregious their leader, as do the Republican Party’s supposed worthies in the United States in the face of Mr. Trump’s repeated depredations.

The North American conservative movement has been reduced to a state in which tribalism is everything and traditional conservative principles mean nothing. It is sad this condition now afflicts the “Big Blue Machine” of distinguished leaders like John Robarts and William Davis.

If there were ever a time for a principled division conservative movement – for the long-term good of both conservative parties and the country – it is now, and in Ontario.

For, even from a progressive perspective, Canadian political discourse needs a conservative alternative. It doesn’t need a dangerous clown like Mr. Ford.

However, as Mr. Trump proved, even egregiously bad candidates can get elected. So we should worry about Mr. Ford, who when he was a Toronto City Councillor distinguished himself by assailing public libraries until he was crushed like a bug, metaphorically speaking, by author Margaret Atwood.

Still, it seems likely last night’s PC debacle – to which Mr. Kenney lent his prestige – is good news for Ontario Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne, and perhaps as argued in this space two weeks ago, even better news for NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

Categories Alberta Politics Canadian Politics