Elevate Conservative Leadership Candidates Who Reject Populist Rhetoric

Originally Posted on The Huffington Post.

Co-written by Aaron Binder and Nicholas Tsergas

The world has changed much in recent years and perhaps none more so than this year on January 20, the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump. During the recent American election cycle, many Canadians observed from the sidelines — at first with chuckles when Donald Trump entered the Republican primary. Chuckles soon turned to nervous laughter, and in the election’s closing days finally devolved into shrill cries of “But don’t they know about Rob Ford?!”

The Trump situation takes place within its unique American context and many Canadians are assured that We The North are immune from the ideological virus of radical right-wing populism. Yet the savvy political observer can easily detect the toxic symptoms of this aggressive strain of New Republicanism creeping north into dinner-table conversations, Facebook fights and the shaky belief structures of our collective angry uncle populace.

Canada has done relatively well with its political discourse for quite some time, and regardless of political leanings most Canadians would be hard-pressed to say we’ve ever had a truly horrendous prime minister. Yet, as radical populism runs amok in America, similar sentiments threaten to gain a foothold in Canada while, infuriatingly, the same people that chuckled before at Rob Ford and then Donald Trump are now chuckling again — having clearly learned nothing and taking comfort in a smug sense of intellectual superiority over those who sympathize with the much-derided alt-right. In their infinite arrogance, the Chuckling Left are presently resting assured that radical populist politics will not gain traction here in Canada.

Enter the Conservative Party of Canada, currently in the throes of a leadership race punctuated by one-dimensional stabs at relevance from Kellie Leitch, a Where’s Waldo search for half the candidates, and the recent addition of a half-American, half-shark business person. It may not seem as farcical as the American election, but by Canadian standards this stuff is worthy of the Chicken Cannon.

As the leadership race begins to enter mainstream Canadian consciousness, it is easy to tell which candidates have toured the country, hearing the concerns of diverse communities across Canada, and which candidates have not. Michael Chong and Maxime Bernier have both gained traction as strong candidates in polling, social media discourse and fundraising. Both men have also distanced themselves from the toxic politics of religious conservatives and instead have decided to run on platforms embracing economic conservatism, revitalized taxation policy and next-generation leadership.

While both of these candidates should be lauded for eschewing the rhetoric-based campaign styles of their competitors, unfortunately Chong has run a campaign far too Ontario-centric to garner the Canada-wide support necessary to be a truly viable candidate.

If this were a regular leadership race, it probably would come down to these two, but this election is more than simply choosing the next Conservative Party leader — it represents a potentially massive shift in the party’s policies and core platform due to the power vacuum still evident in the post-Harper era, and could reflect a similar ideological shift across the country if Conservatives can successfully depose Justin Trudeau in 2019.

The threat of radical populism has also shown its ugly face during this leadership race, and that face is the dual-headed hydra of Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary. The concern is that if radical populism in the Conservative Party is left unchecked, it threatens to overtake meaningful and nuanced candidates like Bernier and Chong. Which is why not just long-time card-carrying Conservatives — but all Canadians bound by a sense of civic duty — need to concern themselves with the process of choosing the next Conservative leader, regardless of personal political stances and beliefs.

Policy substance in political discussions and debates needs to be considered, covered, and valued far, far above sloganized rhetoric, empty promises and the illusion of simple solutions to complex social problems. Bernier alone has been loud and clear in spreading his message to keep Canadian cultural values intact while invigorating the country’s fiscal outlook with policies that will affect Canadians from all walks of life.

This past week, Bernier released a speech targeted directly at the controversial equalization payments that have been a contentious point among residents of all provinces since their implementation in the 1950s. This represents a direct attack on business-as-usual in Ottawa with a level of policy substance not seen from most other candidates, creating an important distinction between Bernier and other candidates who focus on religious hot-points, their bald egos, and defending their roles and activities in the good ol’ Harper glory days.

As evidenced by the decline of the Liberal party after Jean Chretien’s departure from the prime minister’s office, weak competition in Canadian politics leads to a decline in the overall quality of our leaders, our parliamentary discourse, and our country. Harper and his cabinet certainly led the country well in some respects, but eventually became far too paranoid (and Americanized in their rhetoric) to exhibit true leadership for all Canadians, instead adopting the disappointing political practices of actively working to divide the population against itself, and implementing boutique tax credits to strategically target bases that could help them stay in power — for power’s sake.

To continue Canada’s tradition of positive political competition, Conservatives need to leave Harper’s brand of pick-and-choose politics in the past where it belongs, reject new-right radical populism and focus on a Canada inclusive of all, something that few candidates seeking the Conservative leadership seem to understand. Honesty and straight-shooting have become the defining characteristics of recent elections to the point where people would rather have a wolf telling them he’s going to eat them than a sheep they just don’t trust for some ambiguous reason.

The old-school politician is a dying breed, and now is the time to adapt and fight the risks posed by the alt-right and Chuckling Left with substantive policy positions, actual solutions to real problems, and true honesty rather than a sunny-ways mirage. It is now more important than perhaps ever to ensure that political disagreements do not devolve to personal ones, and to build a truly great country through collaboration and evidence-informed leadership.

If we do not elevate candidates who exemplify these values, we risk the wholesale surrender of Canada to idiot-appeasing slogans and the same fearful, divisive politics that have gripped the throat of America. No matter where Canadians happen to fall on the political spectrum, we need to remain undivided in our resolve to stand together in a world gripped by fear.

The Toronto-based Social Entrepreneur. CEO Go Tours Canada + Segway of Ontario. aaronbinder.com