Canada’s Donald Trump?

Part 1 in a two-part series about the next leader of Canada’s Conservative party. Part 2 is about Michael Chong and the rise of the Green Tories.

The Donald loomed large over last weekend’s Manning Conference in Ottawa, a bright orange beacon of either electoral salvation or ruin, depending on your vision for the future of the Conservative Party of Canada.

One panel was interrupted by the tinny sound of Trump splashing bottled water around at a news conference — a video someone couldn’t resist watching on their phone from the audience. Speaking on Saturday, Michael Gerson, President George W. Bush’s former speechwriter, issued a stark warning: “Trumpism is Putinism by another name.” Trump jokes in the breakout sessions prompted nervous laughter.

The acceptable consensus, of course, is that Trump is electoral Kryptonite, a nightmare from which the GOP can’t seem to wake up. And yet there’s something tempting about his relentless rise. If you believe that government is broken and Canada’s conservative parties are failing to connect with voters, maybe a brash, populist entertainer is the answer.

Enter the Dragon

That would be Kevin O’Leary. The rude, ruthless, right-wing TV host flew in overnight from Florida, where he films the business reality show “Shark Tank,” to toss the Manning audience some much-needed red meat.

“I listened to Rachel Notley speak to investors in New York, and I wept,” shouted O’Leary, pacing the stage in his signature rich-guy outfit. “She’s an incompetent.”

“I’m going to be your worst nightmare,” O’Leary promised Liberal Finance Minister Bill Morneau. “I’m going to tear your budget to pieces! I’m sick of seeing my money wasted. I’m really pissed off.”

From pipelines (get ‘em built, one East, one West) to cap-and-trade (a “slush fund” for politicians), O’Leary’s policy pronouncements got the crowd cheering.

Afterward the former “Dragon’s Den” host explained his political strategy to reporters. Three years from now, after unprecedented economic pain under Liberal and provincial NDP governments, O’Leary predicts a bubbling rage across Canada, waiting to be harnessed. Just like Trump’s campaign is doing south of the border.

Trump and O’Leary both play wealthy, arrogant jerks on TV. Both are party outsiders, looking to tap into popular anger toward politicians. But there the comparisons end. Born to Lebanese and Irish parents in Montreal, O’Leary has no time for anti-immigrant politics. He opposes Canada’s military mission against ISIS, and supports doctor-assisted dying.

Who then could carry the torch for Canada’s social conservatives, who spent the Harper years practically locked in the basement, lest they embarrass the party? That would be Jason Kenney.

Ex-Reformers divided

The pro-life Catholic former cabinet minister made a brief appearance on the margins of the conference Friday, but didn’t speak onstage as he has in years past. For a long time Kenney was regarded as the heir to Stephen Harper, but he’s mentioned less often now as a future leader.

Kenney comes from the same Reform Party background as Harper, Preston Manning and former Sun News host Ezra Levant. Last year Levant launched a campaign attacking Manning, his former boss, for speaking out in favour of carbon pricing. This year Levant’s hard-right conservative website, TheRebel.media, was notably absent from the Manning conference.

Rather than search for a future Prime Minister, Levant seems more interested in waging a culture war. His spittle-flecked online videos attack climate science, Muslim immigration and the lesbian Premier of Ontario. Traffic on The Rebel is surging as a result, and Levant is building a massive email list. Jason Kenney is the candidate who would most appeal to this emboldened digital constituency.

But that doesn’t mean he’s electable.

Harper’s brand is still toxic in Canada, as the Manning Foundation’s annual cross-Canada poll confirmed at the conference. And social conservative policies have always been a hard sell in general elections. It seems nearly impossible to maintain the kind of ideological purity demanded by Ezra Levant while taking votes from Justin Trudeau.

Kenney has impressive fundraising chops and loyal organizers, but unless party members across the country think the Calgary MP is the fresh face to lead them out of the political wilderness, he’s more likely to operate as a kingmaker.

The middle of the pack

Previous editions of the Manning conference featured provincial heavyweights Jim Prentice, Danielle Smith and Brad Wall. All have since taken themselves out of the running for national leadership — the first two in a disastrous Alberta election, while Wall is running again to be Premier of Saskatchewan.

Interim leader Rona Ambrose is disqualified from running by the party constitution, which disappoints some grassroots members who see her as a solid performer. Former cabinet colleagues James Moore and John Baird have also bowed out. Ex-PC leader Peter MacKay is said to be interested, though he was a no-show over the weekend.

The conference did offer the chance to compare Lisa Raitt, Maxime Bernier and Tony Clement, in a panel titled “If I Run … Here’s How I’d Do It”.

Raitt was most recently Minister of Transport, well-liked across the aisle and widely seen as competent and cooperative. Bernier is an anti-tax Libertarian, best remembered outside Quebec for leaving classified NATO documents at his girlfriend’s house (who had earlier dated a notorious biker). Clement is the caucus’s social media guru and popular with the Conservative troops, but lacks a commanding physical presence. It’s hard to imagine him going head to head with Trudeau.

Rise of the Green Tories?

The most intriguing candidacy on display was that of Michael Chong, the only leadership contender to favour both carbon pricing and democratic reform. You can read more about Chong and the debate he’s sparking within the conservative movement in Part 2 of this series.

Chong embodies the Green Tory, an archetype Preston Manning has worked to make space for within the conservative movement over the last five or six years. The Green Tory believes above all in conservation — living within our means ecologically as well as fiscally. It’s an idea that’s picking up traction now Harper is gone.

Actually, several big changes are underway.

As Manning points out, the need for climate action is not the only thing Canadians broadly agree on. With majority support for marijuana legalization, dying with dignity, marriage equality and so on, the reality is that hard-right activists like Ezra Levant are losing the culture war. No conservative leadership candidate could talk about reopening the abortion debate, lakes of fire, or tip lines for barbaric cultural practices — and expect to beat Trudeau in a general election.

What about a wave of populist rage propelling a figure like The Donald into 24 Sussex? Not likely. Canada is a very different country than the United States, with a different political culture and electoral rules. As popular as Rob Ford may have been in Toronto, a Trump-style insurgency at the national level wouldn’t get very far.

Whoever wins the Conservative leadership will need to be a coalition-builder, not a bullying demagogue. They are likely to strike a very different tone from what we’re used to: sunnier, funnier. They will tell personal stories, interact on social media and give interviews to journalists. And they will have to come up with serious, substantive policy proposals to address the great challenges of the 21st century.

So far the person that best matches that description is Ontario MP Michael Chong. Read about Chong and the debate he’s sparking over carbon pricing and the future of oil in Part 2 of our series on Canada’s next Conservative leader.

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