OTTAWA — The race to find a new Conservative leader will not mean Liberals get a “free ride” when the House of Commons returns next week, Tory Leader Andrew Scheer told his caucus Friday.
Scheer’s remarks to MPs in Ottawa focused on national unity, which emerged on election night as a clear challenge for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government after the Liberals slipped to a minority and failed to win any federal seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
“Minority parliaments can end abruptly and unexpectedly. We can’t afford to waste a day,” Scheer said. “We’ve got to make the case every single day for why our country needs a Conservative government: for a stronger position on the world stage, for respect for taxpayers’ dollars, and for a united country from east to west.”
Other issues Scheer listed as Conservative priorities in the upcoming parliamentary session include Canada-China relations, and the Liberals’ pledge to strengthen gun control — which he called an attack on law-abiding firearms owners.
Though the tenor of his address was critical of Trudeau, Scheer showed bipartisan support of the government’s tact in the wake of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 tragedy.
He thanked the prime minister for keeping him “fully informed” on developments related to the deaths of 57 Canadian and 29 permanent residents on board.
All 176 passengers were killed when the passenger jet was shot down by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard shortly after takeoff in Tehran. The regime said the plane was downed by accident.
“And while tragic, it is heartwarming to see Canadians of all walks of life coming together during trying times like these,” Scheer said, stressing the need to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its actions.
Leadership race still taking shape
Heading into caucus, Calgary Nose Hill MP Michelle Rempel Garner said it’s a concern that her party’s leadership race doesn’t currently have a strong candidate who represents Western Canada. Wafts of separatist talk are real in her part of the country, she said.
“There’s a lot of people in my province and Western Canada writ large that feel very alienated and are questioning, even if we had a change of government, if there’s a place in our part of the country in Confederation long-term.”
Rempel Garner said that she is undecided if she will jump into the contest. She also shared her frustration over recent attention drawn to leadership candidate Richard Décarie.
The former Conservative staffer made headlines after he told CTV News’ PowerPlay that he believes the acronym LGBTQ is a “Liberal term” and that being gay is a choice. Rempel Garner was one of many Conservative MPs who swiftly denounced Décarie’s views.
“Catching me early and uncaffeinated, but I’ll say this,” she told reporters, “I am very, very tired, beyond tired of my party being hijacked by this type of bigotry.”
Based on Décarie’s comments, Rempel Garner said that she plans to go to the party’s leadership committee to ask for his disqualification from the race, as permitted under the official rules of the contest.
“I am very, very tired, beyond tired of my party being hijacked by this type of bigotry.”
Sherwood Park–Fort Saskatchewan MP Garnett Genuis said that it’s still early in the race and that there’s been no robust debate around ideas or vision yet.
Asked how social conservatives have been impacted the direction of the leadership race, he remained diplomatic.
“Our party has a spectrum of people with different points of views,” Genuis said. “What people are going to be looking for is across different so-called sub-tribes. What are the candidates willing to emphasize in the presence of all of those candidates, all of those perspectives within the party?”
Former leadership contender Michael Chong said that he will announce next week whether or not he’ll step into the fray again. The Wellington–Halton Hills MP said he had conversations over the past six weeks and will sit down with his wife and three boys this weekend, “and we’ll make a decision together.”
Ambrose, Poilievre say they’re not running for leader
The number of times Scheer will address his caucus as leader is limited. He announced last month that he will step down as leader as soon as a successor is chosen.
His decision to give up the reins meant he would not face a leadership review this spring. The party has postponed its next policy convention to November.
News of Scheer’s impending resignation came amid revelations the party approved funds to pay for his childrens’ private education after he became leader in 2017.
Conservative Party executive director Dustin van Vugt called the deal “normal practice” in negotiating relocation costs for the national leader’s family. “All proper procedures were followed and signed off on by the appropriate people,” he said in a statement at the time.
Van Vugt was fired a short time later.
The Conservative leadership race has so far been defined by the high-profile candidates who have ruled themselves out of the contest.
Former Quebec premier Jean Charest took his name out of the running Tuesday.
Former interim party leader Rona Ambrose announced Wednesday that she will not be seeking to replace Scheer, ending weeks of fervent speculation.
“I loved my 13 years in public service as an MP, minister and especially as leader of this great party,” she said in a video posted to Facebook. “But right now, I am focused on making a difference through the private sector.”
Carleton MP Pierre Poilievre announced Thursday that he won’t be a candidate in the race after all, citing family reasons.
Poilievre spoke to reporters Friday about some of the factors that went into his abrupt decision to cancel his plans to run for leader.
He said he got swept by other people’s excitement about the leadership race and had supporters and a campaign team assembled, but had some hesitations. “This week was really fish or cut bait because my campaign manager was about to quit his job to work full-time for me.”
The intensity of a leadership contest surprised him — he started having serious second thoughts three weeks ago.
“I’ve been a minister, I’ve been an MP, I’ve been a very high-profile critic in Parliament. And so I kind of thought I knew that it was just the same kind of creature, but it’s not,” he said. He called it an “100 per cent, all-consuming enterprise” and unlike anything he ever imagined.
“I made the decision I wasn’t prepared to do that.”
“I’ve been a minister, I’ve been an MP, I’ve been a very high-profile critic in Parliament. And so I kind of thought I knew that it was just the same kind of creature, but it’s not.”
After his decision reverberated in political circles on Thursday afternoon, Poilievre said he went to pick up his young daughter at daycare and felt a sense of calm. “We went and had a cheeseburger together and I have to say it was more tranquil and relaxed I’ve been in a very long time,” he said.
His news came as a surprise as Conservative heavyweights such as former cabinet minister John Baird and Jenni Byrne, former advisor to prime minister Stephen Harper, were reportedly on his team.
Poilievre’s exit leaves the current race wide open for former Harper-era cabinet minister Peter MacKay.
Sarnia–Lambton MP Marilyn Gladu, who is running for leader, said she was “very surprised” by Poilievre’s announcement. If the party wants a new direction, then going with MacKay would not be the right choice for leader, she said.
MacKay was the last leader of the federal Progressive Conservatives before it merged with Harper’s Canadian Alliance in 2003 to form the modern Conservative Party of Canada.
“Peter is certainly an excellent candidate, but I really think if we’re talking about growing the base, we need a fresh face and fresh perspective instead of the same old, same old,” Gladu said.
Conservative members will vote for a new leader at the party’s leadership convention in Toronto on June 27.