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Another Conservative leadership race, another controversy

Another Conservative leadership race, another controversy

Like peanut butter and jam, or salt and pepper, Conservative leadership races and controversy are now among the things that seem inseparable in Canada.

Both at the federal and provincial level, Conservative leadership races over the past few years have often been bitterly fought and mired in controversy. The current federal leadership race is no exception.

Brown allegedly violated campaign finance rules

The race was shaken up earlier this week when the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) Leadership Election Organizing Committee (LEOC) announced that Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown would be disqualified from the race for an alleged campaign finance violation.

The allegation, which the Brown campaign denies, involves the expenses of a campaign volunteer being paid for by a third party corporation.

The volunteer in question, Debra Jodoin, was a volunteer with the Brown campaign from May 2022 until June 3, 2022.

“Mr. Brown told me that it was permissible for me to be employed by a company as a consultant, and then for that company to have me volunteer with the campaign,” said Jodoin. “He connected me by text message with a third party for that purpose. I trusted him, but as time went on I became increasingly concerned with the arrangement and suspected it was not OK.” 

Jodoin brought her concerns to the LEOC, who then requested an explanation from the Brown campaign.

“In the spirit of good faith and fairness, the party gave them every opportunity to clarify and resolve their concerns aside. Ultimately that effort failed,” said LEOC chair Ian Brodie in an email obtained by the CBC.

Despite assertions from the LEOC to the contrary, the Brown campaign claims that they were taken by surprise by the announcement that their candidate had been disqualified from the race.

“Essentially, we’ve been disqualified on a phantom allegation that we have no information that would enable us to refute it,” Brown said in a statement to CityNews.

Who benefits?

The removal of Brown from the leadership race, at least for the time being, represents a significant shift in dynamics.

Brown was seen as a moderate, one who could carry parts of the GTA for a party that often struggles in that region at the polls. He was also seen as a viable alternative to moderate CPC members who could not bring themselves to support Jean Charest, another middle-of-the-road Conservative.

Does this mean that some Brown supporters will now back Charest? Yes, some will, but more likely than not, a sizeable chunk of Brown’s supporters will simply not participate.

Ultimately, this controversy benefits Pierre Poilievre, the widely agreed upon frontrunner of the race. Thanks to this turn of events Poilievre has seen a major rival removed from the leadership ballot, and his remaining opponents may very well be unable to scavenge much from the scraps Brown has left behind.

Just the latest in a long line of CPC leadership controversies

Almost as surprising as the revelation that Brown had been disqualified, was the fact that the race had gone on this long without a controversy.

All parties, and all elections, often have controversy to some degree. These are passionate candidates putting themselves out there in the most public way. Nerves fray, tempers flare, and candidates find themselves asking “how far is too far to win.”

The CPC, however, seems to be especially snake-bit when it comes to party infighting when they have to pick a new leader. There have now been three CPC leadership races since 2017 and to observe them you would think that the Conservatives fight more bitterly with themselves than with any other party.

The 2017 leadership race saw Andrew Scheer narrowly defeat Maxime Bernier to become the leader that succeeded former prime minister Stephen Harper.

That election saw Scheer win after 12 rounds of voting and on the last ballot he managed to pull ahead of Bernier with just 51 per cent of the vote.

Bernier ultimately quit the party over that election and formed his own, the People Party of Canada (PPC). While the PPC has yet to gain a single seat in the House of Commons, its very existence is a reminder of the bitter divide between the moderates, represented by Scheer, and then O’Toole, and the far-right, represented by Bernier, and now Poilievre.

Erin O’Toole succeeded Scheer as leader, and was able to do so in just three rounds of voting in 2020. That vote too, however, was not free of controversy.

O’Toole leveled allegations against his main rival at the time, Peter McKay, that he had illegally obtained campaign strategy information, including confidential Zoom videos from the O’Toole campaign.

Provincial races not clean either

Recent provincial Conservative leadership races have not been free from controversy either.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford narrowly won the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party in 2018 over long-time MPP Christine Elliott.

Ford narrowly won, and for a time, Elliott disputed the results of the election.

Elliott claimed that she won the popular vote, and stated that she won a majority of the ridings with the final margin between herself and Ford being a mere 150 points. She also leveled accusations at the process, claiming that thousands of Conservative voters were assigned to the incorrect riding. Ultimately, Elliott stepped aside for the sake of party unity.

Alberta too, that once unbreakable bastion of Conservative politics, was also not free from controversy in the 2017 race to crown the first leader of the United Conservative Party.

Eventual winner Jason Kenney was dogged throughout his tenure as Premier by allegations of dirty tactics he employed to become leader.

Kenney’s campaign was eventually investigated by the Alberta Election Commissioner and the RCMP for what was then dubbed the “Kamikaze campaign” scandal.

It was alleged that with Kenney’s knowledge, his campaign encouraged and partially managed fellow leadership candidate Jeff Callaway. The plan was that Callaway’s campaign would bleed away votes from Kenney’s real leadership rival, former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean.

Investigations into the Callaway controversy by the RCMP are still ongoing.

Can the Conservative movement withstand controversies

Raucous disagreements and underhanded election tactics are nothing new when it comes to the internal politics of the national Conservative movement in Canada.

One generation ago, Preston Manning splintered off from the main national Progressive Conservative Party and created his western based Reform Party. This party quickly grew from being a small movement to being Canada’s official opposition in less than 12 years, leaving the old PCs as a rump party in Parliament.

Eventually those wounds were healed, if not quite healed, then stitched back together into the modern CPC.

The CPC has seen controversial leadership races in its recent past, and the current race is no different.

I doubt that Patrick Brown will be back in this race. That leaves the remaining candidates to decide how far they are willing to go to stop Pierre Poilievre.

The final vote in this race will be in September. There is still plenty of time for new controversies to surface, which leaves the question: how much bloodletting can the Conservative party endure and still remain standing?

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