Chairman's Desk

The Liberal-NDP deal opens a door for Conservative leadership candidates

This week the prime minister simultaneously took two different risks with two very different opposition parties.

The Liberal “confidence-and-supply” agreement with the New Democrats was a political manoeuvre that provides stability for a minority government, while offering NDP leader Jagmeet Singh reasonable positioning as a conscientious voice in Parliament.

The price? Limiting the government’s flexibility as it copes with a post-COVID world, by locking the prime minister into policies that are both popular and costly.

Notwithstanding those limitations, the decision must have been easy to make with respect to the New Democrats.

In another respect, a gamble has been taken here. The deal presents the Conservative party with a longer runway to develop ideas and campaign tools before the next general election, and provides distinct opportunities for each of the prominent leadership candidates to expand and strengthen their base. Competition to do so will be fierce; it could be the exact environment Conservatives need — if they don’t tear each other apart in the process.

Pierre Poilievre, Jean Charest and Patrick Brown are all licking their chops after the announcement.

As the loudest parliamentary voice against government excess, the deal plays well into Poilievre’s pugilistic strategy. He has amassed an enviable online following and list of caucus endorsements with his harsh criticism of deficits, inflation and incursion on personal freedoms. With this deal, Poilievre can no longer be accused of fighting a fictional bogeyman.

We know that Canadians share his concern for affordability, and many will see Liberal-NDP spending pledges as a bridge too far. When the confidence-and-supply agreement reaches its conclusion, we will no longer be in a pandemic. Our growing debt load, combined with likely increases in interest rates, will be a pain point for governments and taxpayers alike.

Who better to fight against this seemingly inevitable outcome than Canada’s loudest fiscal hawk?

For the seasoned Charest, the deal presents an opportunity to prove he really is “built to win.” His play will be to position himself as the Conservative best able to draw together the progressive wing, through moderate positions on climate change and social issues, as well as a credible appeal to national unity.

With the Liberals drifting away from their traditional centrist positioning — now more than just rhetorically — it stands to reason that progressive conservative voices have an opening.

Charest will have to contrast himself with other candidates, while convincing swing voters and existing party members that his team poses a credible alternative to the current government and is worth investing in.

More than that, Charest needs to convince them that it is worth taking out a membership card and joining. To do so will require not simply a compelling policy platform, but also a ground organization on a scale not seen before in a partisan leadership race.

As for Patrick Brown, he has the chance to cement his base and deploy his urban organizers to attract new members. As mayor of Brampton, he has a diverse coalition of voters to serve as a springboard and a proven ability to win in a Liberal-leaning city — but with a limited profile outside of Ontario, he has considerable ground to make up.

While generally seen as a moderate, Brown did not hesitate to loudly and provocatively decry the new “socialist coalition.” Campaigning against government largesse is hardly a novel strategy in Conservative leadership politics, but the newly formed Liberal-NDP alliance has added fuel to these efforts.

In fact, since the government announcement, Conservative fundraisers have found a real source of excitement and urgency. Hopefully, members will be treated to a much more aspirational debate about the role of the Conservative party — and the role of government — in this changing political ecosystem.

By securing this agreement, Justin Trudeau has made his immediate future as prime minister much more secure, but he has also opened the door for stronger, more coherent opposition in the long-term. The playing field is open for Conservative candidates to take advantage.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on March 27, 2022.

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