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Federal Politics

Insiders Say Harper’s Fingerprints Are All over Leadership Race

He’s backing O’Toole, sandbagging MacKay, say sources.

Michael Harris 15 May 2020 |

Michael Harris, a Tyee contributing editor, is a highly-awarded journalist and documentary maker. Author of Party of One, the bestselling exposé of the Harper government, his investigations have sparked four commissions of inquiry.

The hapless remnants of the Harper Party never learn.

Trailing the Liberals by 10 points in this week’s political tracking report from pollster Nik Nanos, the Conservative Party of Canada is once again bungling its way through its latest search for a winner at the box office.

The CPC is supposed to be doing some soul-searching in the process of its 2020 leadership race. In 2017, the last time the party went searching for its soul, it came back with Andrew Scheer. The karaoke Stephen Harper.

Again in 2020, they have headed straight back to the vacant parking lot of Harper’s political vision — the CPC as archly socially conservative, northern Republican, anti-environment, pro-oil and meaner than ever.

Harper’s incredibly tone deaf piece in the Wall Street Journal this week, smack dab in the middle of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, was a lecture on economics and small government. Not a mention of mitigating human misery.

That same cold, cash-register ideology was rejected by Canadians in 2015, and again in 2019. Despite that, the party refuses to perform the long overdue postmortem on the Harper era.

Accordingly, the current race has all the excitement of a slow morning in traffic court. To be fair, COVID-19 has had a lot to do with that. But so has another fact. The traffic cop in the middle of the Tory intersection is still Harper. Which is why everyone remaining in the race — Peter MacKay, Erin O’Toole, Derek Sloan, and Leslyn Lewis, is trying to run to the right of Attila the Hun.

What other party would attract leadership candidates, some thankfully now out of the race, who would not support a ban on conversion therapy for gays (Leslyn Lewis); claim that people “choose” their sexuality (Richard Decarie); or don sweaters emblazoned with an assault rifle (Peter MacKay as justice minister, circa 2014).

Ever since Harper’s sudden resignation from the board of the powerful Conservative Fund last January, a move “top” Tory sources told journalist Paul Wells was made to facilitate his involvement in the leadership race, one thing is obvious: the former PM still thinks the CPC is his personal property.

If Harper is right, and he might well be, there is a corollary to that. No one will ever lead the party without at least Harper’s tacit support — unless of course the CPC gets out from under his shadow. Donald Trump will appear at press conferences in a Che Guevara T-shirt before that happens.

Tories spill the beans on Harper

Make no mistake about it, Harper is still throwing his weight around like a political sumo wrestler, belly-bumping the unwelcome and unwanted out of the leadership ring.

First, Scheer was pushed out, thanks to the strategic leak of closely held information about the Opposition leader allegedly using party funds for his children’s private school education. When CPC executive director, Dustin van Vugt, vouched for the leader’s expenses, he was summarily fired by the board of the Conservative Fund.

A lot of Conservatives who spoke to The Tyee on background, including former national candidates, hold the opinion that Harper was the source of the leak. Here’s how one of them put it:

“Scheer knows that he got screwed over by everyone from Bernier to Harper, basically everybody. When Conservative party activists got paperwork on the private school thing, anyone who knows anything knows that stuff like that is not widely available. Somebody on the fund decided to do that.”

Then Harper blocked former Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest, from even running for the job by withholding his endorsement. Although the former PM has not publicly endorsed any candidate, the signs are there that front-runner Peter MacKay may not be his man — co-founder of the party or not.

As one former Harper Conservative caucus member told The Tyee on background, “I just can’t see Harper letting MacKay take it. He will never let a moderate take the reins of his creation, especially with no western candidate in the field.”

The first sign that there could be some truth in that assessment was Premier Jason Kenney’s endorsement of Ontario MP Erin O’Toole for leader.

Kenney didn’t just endorse O’Toole, he took MacKay to the woodshed. He publicly trashed the former Harper cabinet minister for talking about the “stinking albatross” of the party’s socially conservative values during the last election.

“No one will have their deeply held beliefs dismissed as stinking albatrosses under Erin O’Toole’s leadership,” Kenney bristled. “Erin O’Toole respects the breadth of our big tent coalition.”

Is Kenney speaking for himself, or echoing the views of the man behind the curtain, that Wizard of Odds, Stephen Harper?

MacKay’s bumbling, O’Toole’s friends

Was it by accident that O’Toole, an Ontario MP, launched his leadership campaign in Calgary, while MacKay was mangling the French language in Stellarton, Nova Scotia, where he made his candidacy official?

MacKay’s three-word, three-blunder sentence in French, “J’ai sera candidat,” made the front pages of the Journal de Montréal and Journal de Québec. As one wag put it, “MacKay doesn’t know enough French to know that he cannot speak French.”

After 18 years in Ottawa, the length of MacKay’s tenure in the bilingual city as an MP and cabinet minister, a dull-normal parrot could manage better French. It is worth noting that neither Derek Sloan nor Leslyn Lewis speak a word of French, which will make communicating with a quarter of Canadians challenging. Only the candidate that Kenney is supporting, O’Toole, speaks passable French.

In assessing Kenney’s endorsement of O’Toole, it can’t be overstated that Harper and Kenney have always been a team, the two most powerful Conservatives in the country. That may have been why Opposition Leader Scheer consulted Harper and Kenney before making any major decisions. He knew who the real Big Dogs were.

One Conservative/libertarian activist who thinks there is a concerted effort to undermine the candidacy of MacKay is Clinton Desveaux.

Desveaux managed the 2017 CPC leadership campaign of Maxime Bernier, who narrowly lost on the 13th ballot to Scheer. After Bernier left the CPC over irreconcilable differences with the leader (and accusing him of cheating to win the leadership), Desveaux became the executive director of Bernier’s People's Party of Canada.

Desveaux’s Conservative roots run all the way back to Preston Manning and Reform days. His experience includes time working as an organizer with Harper when he was running for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance in 2002. It was a friendly relationship. When Harper was converting his records to CDs, he gave his entire vinyl collection to Desveaux.

As someone who believes the fix was in to stop Bernier in the 2017 leadership, Desveaux thinks, to use a Yogi-ism, it’s déjà vu all over again in 2020.

“I think everything is being stacked against Peter MacKay. Erin O’Toole accused MacKay of nefarious things. In my experience in this business, when you accuse someone of wrongdoing, usually the accuser is the one carrying out the wrongdoing.”

The Post Millennial’s ties to O’Toole

There is certainly evidence that O’Toole’s team is capable of playing something beyond hard-nosed campaigning at MacKay’s expense. The Post Millennial, a digital news website, recently reported that MacKay’s support was “plummeting,” and O’Toole had taken the “lead” in the race.

The evidence? Leaked polling data from an “independent” poll. Both claims qualify for five Pinocchios.

What the article did not say was that Jeff Ballingall, the Post Millennial’s chief marketing officer, is digital director for O’Toole. He is also the founder of right-wing groups Canada Proud and Ontario Proud, both of which reposted the article.

And that independent polling firm cited in the story, DesLauriers Public Affairs?

As reported by the Globe and Mail, the polling firm is operated by Fred DeLorey. Political junkies will remember that name. DeLorey was Harper’s director of political operations for the CPC, and before that, special advisor on Atlantic issues to the PM. He is now O’Toole’s campaign manager.

Desveaux sees O’Toole as “purely opportunistic,” an ambitious political operator who is trying to create the image that he is “a fellow bible thumper” in sync with the Harper base. Given that O’Toole has never been a fiscal or social conservative, his political makeover will have to be miraculous in the biblical sense to be convincing.

As for MacKay, Desveaux says that labelling him as a progressive is a bum rap based on an ugly regional bias against Atlantic Canada.

“The western Conservatives who are attacking Peter MacKay need to be reminded that he has the exact voting record as Stephen Harper, Jason Kenney and Rona Ambrose. For these fringe Cons on the extreme right to insinuate that Peter is this Red Tory who is basically a Liberal, is insulting and denigrating. It is a form of geographic bigotry simply because he happens to be from Atlantic Canada. As a long time Reformer, I can personally attest to this built-in bias directed toward fellow travellers in the party. It’s not maybe, it’s definitive. If this goes against MacKay, the Cons won’t win the next election. Zero chance of winning. How can they, with weirdos in the leadership like Derek Sloan who want to make war on gay-marriage and who say the science isn’t clear on whether being gay is a choice? Ridiculous.”

Desveaux believes that Harper himself had his sights set on regaining the leadership, until the three-dimensional world that is politics took a dark and unexpected turn.

“I think Harper wanted to get in the race but COVID-19 and economics stopped him. No leader will be able to end the global meltdown that is happening. It makes the 2008 financial crisis look like a Sunday morning walk in the park. But Harper is still indirectly in charge of the party. He and Irving Gerstein [chairman of the Conservative Fund] remain joined at the hip. He won’t endorse anyone, but he will undermine anyone who doesn’t do his bidding.”

‘It is my opinion that Harper wants to stop MacKay’

Adam Richardson also believes that party forces are stacking up against MacKay.

Richardson ran for the Canadian Alliance in New Brunswick when Stockwell Day was leader. When Harper defeated Day in the 2002 leadership, Richardson worked for Harper as his Atlantic organizer and advisor for nine months. Richardson’s father, George Richardson, was president of the National Council.

“It is my opinion that Harper wants to stop MacKay,” he told The Tyee.

It was Adam Richardson who told Harper that he had to explain to Atlantic Canadians what he meant when he infamously said that the region represented a “culture of defeat.” That led to a meeting in Stornoway, the official residence of the leader of the official Opposition. In attendance were Harper, aide Ray Novak, Adam Richardson, his father George Richardson, and party secretary Rod Farrell.

Harper, who told Richardson that the whole thing would “blow over,” agreed to come to Atlantic Canada and give a thoughtful explanation of his insulting remarks. Five months later, Harper delivered a speech in Halifax that never mentioned the matter. According to page 75 of Tom Flanagan’s book Harper’s Team, Harper did not apologize for his “culture of defeat” remark until the beginning of the 2006 election.

When Adam Richardson tried to run for the new CPC in 2004, he received a call from Ian Brodie in the office of the leader of the Opposition. Brodie told him that his candidacy was being “disallowed.” No explanation was ever given.

“Their public line was that they had reasons but couldn’t state them for privacy concerns, leaving the public impression I had done something wrong. All I really did was stand up to Harper for Atlantic Canada.”

Like another Maritimer who did that, Bill Casey, Richardson became persona non grata within Harper’s party.

The Tyee has seen a copy of an email from a former Harper cabinet minister, who also thinks the former PM is out to stop MacKay.

“All the players on O’Toole’s team are the old power-hungry players this party doesn’t need... don’t let them get away with doing the usual to anyone Harper doesn’t want.”

There is one former national political leader who disagrees with the assessment that Harper is out to stop MacKay. Speaking to The Tyee on background, the former leader said that Harper has ultimately been “fiercely loyal” to MacKay because by selling out the old PC party, MacKay eventually made Harper PM. That analysis is supported by the fact that Harper gave MacKay three senior cabinet portfolios; justice, defence, and foreign affairs. Why would he give such impressive political platforms to someone he disliked?

The end game to install O’Toole

The sleeper in the 2020 leadership is Leslyn Lewis. Very senior sources in the Conservative camp have confirmed that she is the first choice of social conservatives.

More importantly, the Toronto lawyer has sold what they describe as a “shit-load” of memberships. That could produce a surprise in the ranked ballot system, particularly since Derek Sloan has self-immolated and will finish last in the voting. At the very least, Lewis could easily be a kingmaker if the leadership vote goes into multiple ballots.

And there is no question where her votes would go — Erin O’Toole. Remember her clear shot over MacKay’s bow: “Peter MacKay has a message for you: if you’re pro-life, you just need to be quiet.”

As a senior government source, who has seen 23 national leaders come and go, told The Tyee on background:

“MacKay will run strong. But on the final ballot, the far-right candidates will send their pro-life, anti-immigration supporters to Erin O’Toole, thus ensuring Justin wins again. Harper is out of office, but he’s still in control.”

Whatever happens, let’s hope this time they don’t burn the ballots.  [Tyee]

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