Few Conservatives will accept an untested Leader
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, February 14, 2004

Confusion has marred the Conservative party’s leadership selection process, in particular by raising concerns about the potential influence of Quebec ridings. If Quebec - where Belinda Stronach has a strong and well funded organization - determines the winner, some fear that years of Western disaffection, compounded this week by revelations about the federal Liberal sponsorship scandal, will grow even worse. How valid is this fear?

“Under the rules, it’s anybody’s race,” says Don Plett, President and Chair of the Conservative Party’s Interim Council. The businessman from Landmark, Manitoba – “20 kilometers southeast of Winnipeg, and the longitudinal centre of Canada!” - is upbeat as he explains the system.

With so many ridings and so few party members, Quebec does appear to have disproportionate influence in the selection of the party’s new leader. Appearance would be reality if the process imitated Canada’s electoral system where there’s a clear winner in each riding and the candidate who wins the most ridings then wins overall. But the Conservative leadership differs in that the winner has to win a majority of a prescribed number of leadership selection points, not a majority of the ridings.

Party rules give each of Canada’s soon to be 308 ridings 100 points for a total of 30,800 points. So whether a riding has 3000 or 5 members, these 100 selection points will be apportioned to each of the leadership candidates according to the percentage of the vote each receives in that riding. Each candidate’s selection points are then pooled to give him or her a national total. If one candidate wins a majority, that is 15,401 points or more, he or she wins the leadership. The riding result is tallied by using the ‘preferential ballot’ or the ‘single transferable vote’, by which members indicate their first, second and third choices.

What’s reassuring about this process is that it means a candidate who scores highly in one region can still pick up points in another – it’s the overall total that counts, not whether or not someone has won a number of ridings in any particular region. If no winner emerges as everyone’s first choice, second and third choices come into play, further tempering the process.

Equally reassuring is that however many memberships are sold, only those who are members by February 29 and who show up with picture ID on March 20 will be eligible to vote. These rules mean the Gaspe dead are out of luck. “We expect our membership numbers to double,” says Plett. “We had approximately 140,000 members when the two parties merged. Nomination meetings and the leadership race could take them to 300,000 - way ahead of the 2000 leadership race.”

So it’s not the process that is contentious, rather it’s the manner in which it is being used.

Of course by selling memberships in Quebec where the Conservative party needs a launching pad and infrastructure, Belinda Stronach is providing an important service. But by paying for organizational support rather than earning it, she is handicapping her already tenuous credibility as an inexperienced politician.

The question now is whether front runner Stephen Harper, with superior language, tactical and policy skills, can consolidate her gains and match if not win over her support. The Montreal Gazette gave him a helpful if qualified endorsement this week. Given “some sophistication about Quebec” and despite his association with “the Reform party which incarnated decades of Western Canadian ignorance, disdain and suspicion of the province,” the paper concludes he “is the best qualified to be leader.”

Like Harper in Eastern Canada and Quebec, Stronach will need all the help she can get in the West. Rotary Clubs and Oilmen’s luncheons received her courteously but the story is different among the grassroots where she must win support from a combined Tory and Alliance membership which, in the last eleven years, has seen eight leaders come and go. Few, now, will accept a leader who is not tried, tested and true.

If he can galvanize interest, Tony Clement should benefit from the above scenarios. His assets as a conciliatory, earnest and experienced Ontario politician are considerable. But the best result for the West as elsewhere is a strong western voice. That clearly exists in Stephen Harper who from its earliest days was part of a movement created to address the kind of problems that implicate Quebec today.

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

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